I would reminisce about Wooden's championship teams at UCLA but his last championship came six years before my birth. All I know of him is what I've read about him through the years. I still have three lasting memories of him.
The first came when I was falling in love with college basketball during the early 90's. At the time, Coach K was in the process of leading Duke to back-to-back championships. I thought he was the greatest coach to ever live. I then discovered that some guy named John Wooden had won ten championships in twelve years at UCLA. I was dumbfounded.
The next was when I was in college and studying cello and pedagogy. My teacher was a monster, but also a brilliant teacher and recruiter. Somehow, he managed to assemble the greatest cello studio in the country in the middle of dank, gray Cleveland.
We talked once in a lesson about a documentary that we'd both watched about John Wooden. My teacher noted his successes and compared himself favorably to John Wooden. He was no John Wooden, because John Wooden was a far greater man than coach. I told myself at that moment that if I became a cello teacher some day, I would model myself after Wooden, not my cello teacher.
The last came when I flipped to the back of Sports Illustrated and read a column by Rick Reilly. It was about Wooden and his love of his wife Nell, who had passed away fifteen years before. The column noted that a month after she passed, Wooden wrote a love letter to her and slipped it under her pillow.
I remember crying when I read Reilly's column. I felt sick thinking about how much he must have missed her to want to write her a letter and to leave her pillow where it was when she died. That column was written ten years ago. Wooden wrote those letters every month until he passed yesterday.
For twenty-five years, Wooden wrote love letters to a woman he fell in love with over eighty years ago. That, my friends, is commitment. That is devotion. That is love.
I admire Coach Wooden for a lot of reasons, but it is his life of passion that I find most inspiring. I hope that in death, his love finds new life. I hope that all of us can find something we feel equally passionate about.
R.I.P., Coach. Gone, but certainly not forgotten.