Wooden remembered simply, gracefully

LOS ANGELES -- John Wooden has been gone three weeks now and still there is more to say, about him and to him, from those he loved and all who loved him.

Saturday afternoon a crowd of about 4,000 gathered inside UCLA's Pauley Pavilion and stood on his court to celebrate his remarkable life. There were fresh tears and new sadness, old stories and well-worn lessons.

But mostly there was thanks.

"Whenever you left his [condominium in Encino], you'd go down the elevator and walk through the garage," said Keith Erickson, who played for Wooden from 1963-65. "I'd have friends with me sometimes and we'd be walking along after leaving and and have tears in our eyes.

"They'd say, 'That was one of the greatest days of my life, after hearing his stories, quote those poems, talk about Abraham Lincoln and Mother Teresa.'

"I'd say, 'It's not over yet. Often times he stands at the window on his patio and he waves to us. He says goodbye and thanks for coming.'

"Sure enough, we'd get down the driveway and look up there, and there he was, smiling and waving, saying 'Thank you for coming.' I can still see him there, saying that to us.

"So, Coach, thank you for allowing us into your life. Our coach, our teacher, our mentor, our friend. Thank you.'"

Wooden was buried in the Hollywood Hills two weeks ago in a small private ceremony attended by family and close friends. But he'd lived 99 beautiful years, sharing of himself endlessly and faithfully, to our benefit as much as his own.

So when he passed away that warm Friday night in early June, we all mourned. For him and for ourselves, for the gentle spirit we'd lost.

"All of us who knew Coach Wooden well are probably experiencing the same feelings right now," said Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who played for Wooden from 1967-69.

"We're trying to grasp the bigger lesson that accompanies the pain we all feel in losing him. We're trying to filter out the tremendous emptiness that hits you when you lose someone that meant so much to your life and focus on the silver lining of these moments. It's a very difficult thing to do.

"On the day Coach died I was with his family at the hospital ... and we were able to realize that our pain was a small price to pay for the privilege of learning from the master."

Like many of Wooden's former players, Lynn Shackelford had known the coach's death was imminent. They'd all received calls letting them know the time for goodbyes was near.
"I knew it was going to happen and yet, the day after it happened I felt very strange," said Shackelford, who played for Wooden from 1967-69. "We knew at his age that it was going to happen, but I felt lost.

"We had this guide that you could always talk to, he was always around. But he was there and available and we're used to that for the last 45 years. I e-mailed Mike Warren and said, 'I feel so strange and odd' and he says, 'Yeah, me too.' Mike's words were: 'I felt like I was a little guy out in the ocean. I was very calm and all of a sudden it's very rough and rocky.'

"Then I thought what Coach would say, 'Oh, come on, nonsense, Shack. This happens every day. It's no big deal. You can handle it, you know what to do. Goodness gracious sakes alive, move forward.'"

It took three weeks to put together Wooden's public funeral, but they were three weeks well-spent. He was remembered Saturday afternoon just as he had lived: simply and gracefully, with affection, not excessive adornment.

"The tragedy of life is what dies inside a man while he lives," Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully said in a taped message. "The triumph of life is to live hopefully, kindly, cheerful, reverent and to keep the heart unwrinkled. The coach kept his heart unwrinkled. He was truly triumphant."

Poetry was read and hymns were sung. Johnny Cash songs played over the loudspeakers. At least four people poked fun at Bill Walton. UCLA retired Wooden's seat behind the Bruins' bench. "It is his seat," athletic director Dan Guerrero said. "No one else will ever sit there."

Basketball was a topic, but not a focus.

"When I think of Coach Wooden, I think that he is one of God's best examples ever of how to live life," said UCLA basketball coach Ben Howland. "'Love' was his favorite word in all of our language. His basic nature was love."

For Abdul-Jabbar, Wooden's love meant acceptance and respect. He'd come to UCLA in the mid-1960s as a teenager from New York named Lew Alcindor.

"I first became interested in Islam when I was here and it could've been a point of contention between me and Coach Wooden but it wasn't," said Abdul-Jabbar, who changed his name in 1971. "He was curious to know what it was all about and he gave me the utmost respect in giving me the ability and responsibility of making my own choices.

"We had talks about it. It was always in the spirit of him learning, because he said he always had more to learn."

When it was all over Saturday, everyone who had come to Pauley Pavilion stood and applauded for the man and a life well-lived.

Wooden's family walked out first as Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's beautiful version of "Somewhere over the Rainbow" played over the loudspeaker.

Former players John Vallely and Warren walked out together, a bit unsteady in the finality of the moment.

Three weeks have passed since Wooden left us. A lot was said Saturday, and still there is more to say.

Prose feels inadequate in such a moment. A few lines from one of Wooden's favorite poems, "Lincoln, Man of the People," feels more apt. It was written by Edwin Markham to celebrate the life of Abraham Lincoln. Wooden could recite it from memory.

His words were oaks in acorns; and his thoughts
Were roots that firmly gripped the granite truth.
He held his place --
Held the long purpose like a growing tree --
Held on through blame and faltered not at praise.

And when he fell in whirlwind, he went down
As when a lordly cedar, green with boughs,
Goes down with a great shout upon the hills,
And leaves a lonesome place against the sky.

Ramona Shelburne is a writer and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.