Carrying on John Wooden's legacy

LOS ANGELES -- The first time Cori Close was invited to meet John Wooden, she said "no."

She was always going to say "yes" one day, because everybody did. But for an entire year Close wasn't ready. It was too big. He was too much. When you're 22 a lot of things feel that way.

So she'd stammer and come up with an excuse every time Steve Lavin would pop in the women's basketball office and ask. She'd mutter something about having only sweats to wear or needing to watch tape after practice or having to call a recruit around dinner time.

Lavin understood. Going to see John Wooden had become a rite of passage for UCLA coaches, but the first time always felt overwhelming. Someone who had been there before had to invite you and hold your hand on the way in, for support and strength, not as a rule.

Lavin was a young assistant for the men's basketball program in 1994. He was destined to be a head coach, though no one expected he'd become the steward of Wooden's program as soon as he did, in 1996.

Close was an assistant for the women's basketball program then. It was her first job. She made virtually nothing. It was already a huge transition from being a college player at UC Santa Barbara and within a few months of stepping on campus Lavin was asking her to go visit the greatest coach in the history of college basketball.

"I was just too nervous the whole first year," she said. "Then one day, the beginning of my second year, Lav came by my little cubicle and said, 'We're going tonight. No questions, no excuses.'"

It was a Tuesday night, which seems like a meaningless detail until you realize that no detail about the first time you sit with John Wooden is meaningless.

Lavin drove. They took the 405 freeway to the 101 and got off at White Oak Avenue.

"I open the door," Close says, getting excited again all these years later. "And before he even introduces himself to me, he says, 'Steve, have you looked in the mirror lately? You're not exactly Robert Redford. You're not getting any younger and I heard you broke up with your girlfriend.'"

Wooden laughed first. At his own joke, but who cares? Lavin cracked up, then grabbed him for a hug. Close finally stopped thinking so much and joined in.

"It was just so easy to talk to him," she said. "From that point on, I went almost every other Tuesday with Steve."

A few years later she left UCLA for Santa Barbara but she kept coming to see Wooden. Not as often, but as often as she could. A few years after that, she became the associate head coach at Florida State. Her visits became infrequent, phone calls and letters had to suffice.

"His graciousness to even allow that to happen," Close said, shaking her head and looking inward more than down, "I can't put a price tag on it.

"Visiting him was like food for the soul. Visiting him was like, 'Oh, if I could only be about those words.

"I would bring the most complicated questions, at least what I considered complicated, and he would break it down to the most principled, centered choices. …

"If I left church as changed as sometimes I left Coach Wooden's den, I would be a better person."

He's been gone a year already. The contents of his den have been restaged, lovingly and flawlessly, in UCLA's Athletic Hall of Fame. One more gift from Wooden's family to the world.

Close was named UCLA's women's basketball coach in April. Wooden's daughter, Nan Muehlhausen, attended her introductory news conference.

But now Close has a million things to do to make the program hers. She comes here, to the Wooden Den, more often than she expected to. Hoping, or maybe just needing, to feel close to him again.

She is one of Coach's coaches now. An apostle of sorts.

One of so many coaches within the Bruins family and beyond who finally said "yes" when someone who had been there before invited them to meet Wooden and emerged forever changed by the experience.

"It's interesting," Close said. "Sometimes you have an experience and you just want to keep it to yourself, because then you can say you're the only one who experienced it.

"But you could never do that with Coach Wooden, because that would be so contradictory to what he believed. You felt this responsibility to share it."

Over the years, Close brought dozens of coaches to meet Coach. Now she can only bring them to his den.

It could never be as real as the man and his world, just as his books could never teach as well Wooden could from the gray chair in his living room.

Still, Coach's coaches feel they must try.

"I think what makes him so amazing is he has been so timeless," Close said. "His principles have stood the test over every sport and every generation. I just think when something works, when it's truth, then it lives on. That's why so many of us coaches feel so much responsibility to continue that."

For UCLA softball coach Kelly Inouye-Perez, Wooden's death will always be connected with one of her finest moments as a coach. Her first national championship as a head coach will forever be known as the championship UCLA won in the first days after Wooden died.

It would have been unerstandable if even some small part of her had resented the convergence --- her shining moment overshadowed by the death of a legend. Instead, Inouye-Perez sees it as an honor.

"Honestly, I couldn't really process it all at the time … " she said almost a year later, after a season that did not finish nearly as well. She said the moment was heartbreaking, "but it also kind of gave people a way of celebrating him."

Inouye-Perez had been introduced to Wooden by two of her closest friends and mentors: former UCLA softball coach Sue Enquist and women's gymnastics coach Valerie Kondos-Field.

Over the years both women had risen to the top of their sports, winning titles and developing champions in a way that would make Wooden proud.

In fact, in his later years, Wooden had come to admire them. He would attend games when he could. He would follow their seasons, offering to speak to their teams every couple of years.

There was never enough room in Wooden's tiny condominium for the whole softball team and staff. But somehow everyone always fit comfortably.

"I just remember all of us sitting on the floor," Inouye-Perez said, laughing as she looked over her shoulder at the Wooden den exhibit. "The last time we went to visit, I think it was my first or second year as head coach, and my assistant coach, Natasha Watley, had to sit on my leg or something.

"But honestly, it didn't really matter as long as you were there and had an opportunity to be around him."

What happened at the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City last year is still hard for Inouye-Perez to fully explain. Too many things came together, in too perfect of a way, for it all to be real or random.

So most of the time, she simply says that "we were finally hearing his words."

Wooden had been among the first to congratulate her on her promotion, leaving her a phone message when she succeeded Enquist in 2006.

"He picked up the phone and said, 'Hi, Kelly. This is John Wooden, I used to coach at UCLA,'" Inouye-Perez said. "And he kind of giggled and went on to congratulate me and wish me luck."

She called him back a couple of hours later and asked him what every coach in her situation probably would have asked John Wooden if they could muster the words: "Coach Wooden, I'm taking over the winningest program in the history of our sport. What advice can you give me on what I should do to maintain it?"

"And he simply said, 'I'm going to tell you what I tell everyone else, 'Yesterday is as old as dirt, you have no control over tomorrow, focus on creating your masterpiece today.'"

It sounded perfect and wise. So she repeated the words to herself, hoping she'd figure out what to do with them.

It took four years for Inouye-Perez to figure out what Wooden meant and how to walk those words out on the softball field.

"It just all came together for us in 2010," she said. "It was like we were finally hearing his words.

"Not just in Oklahoma City, but all year. We were just focused in on, 'Yesterday is as old as dirt, the game doesn't know who is supposed to win. Tomorrow we have no control over. So let's do everything we can to make a masterpiece of this moment. Can we be at our best, in this moment?' That became our theme."

Wooden died as the softball team was playing in Oklahoma City. They had known for a few days the end was coming soon, but still the news still hurt.

In the early evening of June 4, as UCLA was playing Hawaii, Enquist sent a text message to a small group of friends: "Coach has gone to heaven."

She was devastated. They all were. So Enquist asked Inouye-Perez, once her player, now the coach she had entrusted to carry on her legacy, if she could be the public face for UCLA in those first few moments.

Inouye-Perez said she would and that she could.

"We took a moment," Inouye-Perez said. "We took a moment to almost gut-check and realize that it's not just words that he gave us, it's more than that.

"We'd been living his words all season. So in that moment, it was a very powerful feeling. If I could bottle that up, I would be a billionaire."

UCLA played on. On June 8, four days after Wooden died, Inouye-Perez won her first NCAA title as a head coach.

Al Scates isn't mushy or sentimental. He is also the only guy around UCLA old enough to have coached alongside Wooden, and the only coach who has won more championships than him.

Scates was 23 when they first met in 1962. Wooden was at the beginning of his unprecedented run of national titles. Scates was making $400 a month as the volleyball coach at night and teaching elementary school in Santa Monica during the day.

The first few years, they mostly just passed each other coming and going from the men's gym. Basketball practiced at 3 p.m., volleyball at 7.

But when Pauley Pavilion opened in 1965 and there was enough room to practice at the same time, their relationship began to blossom.

"When I started here, I was intimidated and I didn't talk to him," Scates said. "But that ended about the second time I met him and he put me [so much] at ease."

After Wooden retired in 1975, he moved into an office down the hall from Scates. They'd check in with each other to see about lunch or to chat. Scates would joke with Wooden about bringing his own stamps to the office to answer his fan mail, or Wooden's insistence on paying for his ticket to the volleyball banquet.

"I don't think he'd even take a paper clip home from the office," Scates joked.

Wooden would call him every time Scates won another national title -- he's got 21 of them -- with a joke.

" 'This is an alumnus. A very disgruntled alumnus,' " Scates said, slipping into the Wooden voice perfectly. " 'You finally got them playing well and won the championship, Al. But next year we don't expect you to lose at the beginning of the year.'

"Then you'd hear a little chuckling and he'd hang up. A few hours later, he'd call back and say, 'Did you get my message?' "

When one of Wooden's former players would show up hawking a new religion or another lifestyle change Wooden had little interest in, it was Scates who covered for him.

"He'd see the guy in the parking lot, turn the lights out in his office, walk out the front door and say to me, 'Al, just tell him I'm not here,' " Scates said. "I think that was about the closest he'd ever get to telling a fib, but even that was sort of true, because he actually wasn't around."

They were the best kind of friends.

Wooden has been gone a year now. Scates just misses his friend.

He's already announced that he'll retire after next season, his 50th at UCLA. He'll be 72 next week, and by then his new knee should be feeling better and he'll probably have re-read his old friend's book again.

Though they were always equals as friends, coaches and men, there is an obvious admiration beneath it all.

"I've read all his books," Scates said. "I re-read them, particularly 'Practical Modern Basketball.' … The first part about how to coach, I think it carries over to every sport. It's universal truths about teaching and coaching. There's about 20 pages of that, before you get into any of the basketball chapters, that's where the good stuff is, right up in front."

It feels strange to all of them to celebrate the anniversary of Wooden's death on Saturday. It would be stranger though, to forget it.

"I have to just be honest," Close said. "I'm sure he meant more to me than I meant to him. He was a major person in my life and I'm one of many in his. But the reality is I'm different because he spent time with me."

She was far from him last year at this time, too far to go to campus and connect with him there.

The only thing that felt right was to stay in her own den, turn on the television and watch every retrospective on Wooden that aired.

"I just watched, celebrated and cried," she said.

"It was a great day in that I loved that more people were being able to remember him, that he was being honored in such a way, but at the same time I was so sad that he was gone."

Like so many coaches, she had said 'yes' one day to meeting John Wooden.

The real miracle for all of them is that Wooden did, too.

The walls of his tiny condominium held a lifetime of memories. But instead of living his final years within them, Wooden made more.

Opening his door, then his heart. Waving goodbye from his balcony until you were out of sight.

"I think he never ceased to see himself as a teacher," Close said. "I think that's always who he identified himself to be. So when there was an opportunity to teach, he took it."

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.