June 6, 2010
Bill Walton arguably was John Wooden’s greatest player at UCLA, and there were several to choose from. Bill Walton inarguably was John Wooden’s greatest pain in the neck, the oil slick on the great basketball coach’s pristine seas.
While playing for Wooden at UCLA from 1971-74, the Helix High graduate became a rebel, a vehement Vietnam War protester, and the coach, who passed away Friday at the age of 99, didn’t exactly find Walton’s political leanings interesting or appropriate.
As the years passed, Walton grew closer and closer to the man who affected so many people on so many levels on and off the court. In the end there was love, and peace, between them. Pupil can quote teacher now as a vicar can the Bible.
“I really kind of wrecked coach Wooden’s life,” Walton was saying Saturday morning, sitting at a table in his home near Balboa Park. “I was his worst nightmare, his biggest challenge and biggest failure.
“The maddest I’d ever seen him was the day he came to bail me out of jail after a peace rally at UCLA. Driving me home, he was in my face. ‘How can you do this? How can you let everybody down?’ I told him, ‘Coach, I have friends coming back from Vietnam in body bags.’ He told me I was right about the war, but I was going about it the wrong way, that I should write letters.”
To whom? Walton thought about it and ended up angering his coach even more.
“I went into coach’s office and got a piece of his stationery,” Walton said. “I wrote a letter to Richard Nixon, calling for his resignation for crimes against humanity. I signed it and then took it to coach to sign it.
“He read it and was livid. ‘I can’t sign this, and you’re not sending it.’ I did send it. Nixon ended up resigning.”
John Wooden was the greatest coach, of any sport, at any level, at any time. His accomplishments at UCLA — 10 NCAA championships (seven in a row), 88-game winning streak, the incredible 38-straight Tournament wins — more than likely won’t be equaled.
But Wooden, who retired from coaching in 1975 following his final NCAA championship — a win over Kentucky here in the Sports Arena — probably affected more people after he finished coaching with his books, his “Pyramid of Success,” and motivational speaking. Simply put, John Woodenspent the greater part of his 99 years trying to make men and women better.
He had quite a case in Walton, not only a great player, but a brilliant student, and as Waltonspoke Saturday, he broke down as he recalled a trip he made with the coach to Washington, D.C., 21 years after graduation.
“We were being inducted into the Academic All-America Hall of Fame; both of us were going in together,” Walton said. “That morning, we were killing time and I suggested to coach we go to the Lincoln Memorial. Coach always said he knew Lincoln and Mother Teresa. When we got to the top of the stairs, there were a bunch of people there, and coach recited the Gettysburg Address from memory. Tears were running down everybody’s cheeks.”
At this point in our talk, Walton began to sob.
“We walked over to the Vietnam Memorial,” he went on. “It’s the saddest place on Earth. So many hopes, so much optimism, so many dreams of a better place. The greed, the waste, the senseless loss. Coach recited a poem, Grantland Rice’s ‘Two Sides of War.’?”
Walton read me the poem, and I haven’t the space to print it all here, but it ends with: “I’ve noticed nearly all the dead/Were hardly more than boys.”
With that, we have an idea how John Wooden felt about the Vietnam War.
“I’ve received so many calls and e-mails today, one from Joe Kennedy (son of Robert), whose dad was gunned down trying to make the world a better place,” Walton said. “This is what coachWooden tried to teach.
“Every pregame speech was the same. He had that famous rolled-up program — we never knew what was in it, because he never called a play, never called timeouts. He’d say: ‘Men, I’ve done my job; the rest is up to you. When the game starts, don’t look to the sidelines, because there’s nothing I can do for you.’ He had an axiom for every scenario, thousands of them.
“Question is, while we have allowed the forces of evil, selfishness and greed to take over, what are we going to do with the legacy, selflessness, caring and concern he’s left us?”
A great question that can’t be answered.
“He was happy with his choices, happy with his sacrifices and he was happy when other people were happy,” Walton said. “He never pushed anything on you. He was not your friend. His job was for you to get somewhere you couldn’t get by yourself.”
Walton, who recently went through back pain so agonizing he contemplated suicide, said he never asked Wooden for help during his crisis.
“No,” he said, “I didn’t talk to anybody about it. You can’t talk to anybody about it; even your best friends.”
But Walton, much healthier now, paid the dying coach a visit last Tuesday at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.
“He didn’t know we were there,” Walton said. “I told him I loved him and thanked him and apologized for all the consternation I caused in his life. What can you say to somebody who gave you everything?
“He always said, ‘Make each day your masterpiece.’ He had the ability to deal with a problem, adversity, suffering; he was able to make people be their best. When I left UCLA and joined the NBA, I became the highest-paid athlete in the history of sports, and my quality of life went down. That’s how special it was to play for John Wooden. The sad part is that, while we were doing it, we had no idea.
“He never used basketball as a punishment; punishment was not being able to play. He gave up his life so others’ dreams could come true.”
With that, I wondered aloud if John Wooden would have made a better president or pope. Bill Walton thought about it and smiled. Didn’t answer.