I was watching a sports talk show on television the other day and the moderator asked a longtime sports reporter to recount his favorite memory of John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach who died last week at 99.
"I only regret that I never met him," the reporter said.
It reminded me that I once had an opportunity to meet the great man.
Wooden was a featured speaker at a coaches' clinic at a hotel in Rosemont and the sponsors mailed publicity releases to the media in the Chicago area, informing them that they would arrange for interviews with Wooden upon request.
I couldn't pass it up.
Upon arriving at the hotel at the specified time, the clinic's media relations director escorted me to a large banquet hall. It was the size of high school gymnasium. It was empty except for a large table and a few chairs off to one side. The media relations director said Wooden would be along directly. There was nobody else in the room.
I sat down and hastily examined my prepared list of questions and conversation topics for a few minutes.
All of a sudden, the door opened. It was John Wooden. All by himself, neatly dressed as if he was ready for the tipoff but with no rolled up game program in his hand. Just me and John Wooden. One-on-one. I kept waiting for the door to open with a hundred reporters and TV cameras rushing into the room. But it was just me and John Wooden. One-on-one. I wondered how many reporters ever found themselves in the same situation.
I was at once reminded of a few years earlier, when I was assigned to cover the Chicago Bulls/Los Angeles Lakers' NBA playoff series and found myself in the Lakers' post-game locker room with only a half-dozen reporters and interviewing Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Gail Goodrich.
It was before ESPN, the Internet and cable, before every 50-watt radio station and weekly newspaper was given access. Before the Magic Johnson/Larry Bird/Michael Jordan era. I don't think it ever mattered to Wooden. I doubt if his personality ever changed, from the time he was growing up in Martinsville, Indiana, to his glory days in Los Angeles.
Honestly, I don't recall as much about what we talked about or what he said during our hour-long conversation (he never set any limits) as I remember how he said it and how he handled himself. I thought he might be miffed that I was the only member of the media who had requested an interview but he treated me as if I was Jim Murray or Red Smith or Dave Anderson or John P. Carmichael.
One thing I'll always remember, however. I asked Wooden about a well known college basketball coach whom I was familiar with and whose teams had played against UCLA. I thought he was an honest man, someone who didn't cut corners in the recruiting process. What did Wooden think? He smiled a shook his head in a negative manner. End of subject. A few years later, I learned that Wooden was correct in his assessment.
He was as gracious and unassuming and accommodating as he always appeared on television. He loved to talk about his players and the success most of them enjoyed after playing at UCLA. Discipline was a favorite subject. "The cornerstone of coaching," he said.
He never compromised his principles. He always mentioned Bill Walton, recalling how he brought the young renegade into line. "I'm sure you'll be able to wear your hair as long as you like in somebody else's program," he told Walton. Today, Walton fondly remembers those days, admitting that Wooden helped to turn his life around.
I have one regret of that unique experience. I never kept a copy of my notes. But the memory of our one-on-one conversation will never be forgotten.