You may have never heard the name John Wooden—I had not until this past year. But let me introduce him to you. He was born over a century ago, in 1910, in a little town in Indiana. He had three brothers and two sisters. But one of his sisters died in infancy, and the other sister, Cordelia, died at age two of diphtheria.
Beginning at the age of 14, John distinguished himself as an outstanding athlete, leading his high school basketball team to state championships. While in high school, he was named an All-State player three times. But that was only the beginning of his career.
On a personal note, John met his future wife Nellie when they were freshmen in high school. When they were both 21, they were married in a small ceremony in Indianapolis in 1932. They later had two children, a boy and a girl, and John attended Purdue University where he again distinguished himself as an outstanding athlete. While at Purdue, he led his team to numerous victories, and he was named All-American athlete three times!
But his story does not end with college. He went on to become a winning coach wherever he went, leading UCLA to 10 national championships, becoming one of the most revered coaches in the history of sports! He was named to the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and later as a coach. At the age of 64, Coach Wooden retired, allowing some years for him to spend with his wife Nellie before her death. On March 21, 1985, Nellie died of cancer at the age of 73 after fifty-plus years of marriage to John. She was buried in an outdoor community mausoleum in Los Angeles.
Following his retirement and Nellie’s death, John Wooden continued to receive many honors. Scholarships were given in his honor. UCLA dedicated a basketball court in honor of John and Nell, and a high school bears his name. He received The Sporting News “Greatest Coach of All Time” in 2009. Words that might describe Wooden as a coach are winner, inspirational, knowledgeable, competitive, and revered.
John Wooden is also remembered for a Seven Point Creed which his father gave him when he graduated from grammar school. John used the creed as a foundation for how he lived his life.
The points are:
1. Be true to yourself.
2. Make each day your masterpiece.
3. Help others.
4. Drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible.
5. Make friendship a fine art.
6. Build a shelter against a rainy day.
7. Pray for guidance and give thanks for your blessings each day.
In his later years, John Wooden wrote books and lectured about how to win at basketball and in life using the seven principles.
As a husband, John could be described as loving and devoted. He was also known as a good man, a man of integrity, a man of faith. John would live another 25 years after Nellie’s death, but he would never forget her. So here is the “rest of the story” as Paul Harvey used to say.
After her death, every month on the 21st, John made a visit to Nellie’s crypt. While there he would write her a love letter. Then he would place the letter in an envelope and take it home. When he got home, he would tuck the letter inside the pillow that Nellie had slept on while she was alive. Quite a stash of love letters accumulated in the next twenty-some years. Wooden only stopped writing the letters to Nellie in the last months of his life when his eyesight began to fail him. He died on June 4, 2010, just 10 days shy of 100 years of age!
After reading John Wooden’s story, I have wondered: Did John Wooden get stuck in the grieving process? Or was his love and devotion to Nellie so strong that he felt compelled to remember her as he did? I do not know the answer—we all grieve differently. But without a doubt, he had a great love for Nellie and for God. He once said, “I have always tried to make it clear that basketball is not the ultimate. It is of small importance in comparison to the total life we live….” He gave credit to his faith in God for getting him through the loss of his wife Nellie.
So when I think of John Wooden, I respect him as a great basketball player, coach, and philosopher. But most of all, I remember him for his great love of his wife Nellie. “If you love deeply, you grieve deeply” (author unknown). Nellie and John Wooden’s story is truly a love story.
“Things turn out best for those who make the best out of the way things turn out.” John Wooden