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Checking in on John Wooden

ENCINO, Calif. -- When I last visited John Wooden three years ago, he needed a cane to help him walk, but he moved so briskly I had to hurry to keep up. He told me he still drove once in a while, and throughout our conversation he was energetic and sharp. He was happy, he was funny, and his memory was so good, it was easy to forget he was 96 years old.

When I visited John Wooden a couple weeks ago, he needed help from his son, Jim, to get out of the car. He needed a wheelchair to get into VIP's restaurant, his favorite breakfast spot, and he needed more help to get out of the wheelchair and into a booth. He spoke very slowly in a gravelly voice I could barely hear from across the table. His speech was marked by long pauses and his memory failed him several times. I would not describe him as anywhere near senile, but there is no doubt that the years have at long last caught up with him.

No one is more aware of this than Wooden himself. When the waitress came over to pour coffee, she asked how he was doing.

"Well," he said, "I'm here."

Though his mental and physical faculties have slipped considerably, Wooden is still in incredible shape for a man his age. He also hasn't lost his trademark wit and sunny disposition. "My eyesight is not nearly as good. My hearing is probably going away. My memory is slipping too. But I'm still around." He is due to turn 99 on Oct. 14. "Hope to make it," he said pleasantly. "But if I don't, I've had a long run."

Death is a constant topic of conversation for Wooden, but he does not discuss it with the same maudlin air he carried for so long after he lost his beloved wife, Nell, in 1985. When I half-jokingly suggested that the city of Los Angeles hold a parade for him when he turns 100, Wooden simply shrugged and laughed. Jim interjected by saying, "In either case, we'll celebrate it with or without you? Is that what you're saying?"

"You'll celebrate the death," Wooden cracked.

"Well," Jim said, "the good thing about that is you'll be with who? Your Nellie." Wooden nodded.

Even with that kind of talk, visiting Wooden remains a remarkably uplifting experience. A bout with pneumonia put him in the hospital for a month last February, but aside from that his most serious setback came 18 months ago, when he took a bad fall in his apartment, breaking his arm, his collarbone and his wrist. Because he was by himself, Wooden lay on the floor from seven at night until seven in the morning. What did he do while he was supine on the floor? "Sometimes I'm crying, sometimes I'm laughing," he said. "It was frustration more than anything else. I can honestly say, though, with all the problems I don't have a lot of pain."

As a result of that episode, Wooden now must have someone with him at all times. A granddaughter spends her days with him during the week, a UCLA trainer sleeps at his apartment at night, and Jim stays with him on the weekends. "The thing that bothers me more than anything else is being so dependent, like needing help to get out of a chair," he said. Then, as always, he hastened to add, "But I've been blessed so profoundly."

Wooden told me, not for the first time, that the thing he missed most after retiring from coaching was practice. He said he had seen practices run by Lute Olson and Mike Krzyzewski, and he was pleased when each man let him take over the workout for a little while. "One I'd like to see but never made is Bobby Knight," Wooden said. "People think I don't like him. I don't think there's ever been a better coach than Bobby Knight. Do I like the way he teaches? No, I don't. I never cared for it, but nevertheless."

I asked Wooden whether he would still want to go into college coaching if he were currently in his twenties. In his day, Wooden disdained recruiting --- he claims to have made only a dozen home visits during his entire career --- but I told him that in today's era the head coach must be active in the recruiting process. Often times, that means sucking up to unsavory characters who have undue influence over the decisions made by youngsters.

"If I were a young coach today, I would be extremely careful in selecting assistants," Wooden said. "I'd be satisfied just coaching in high school. I turned down a number of colleges when I was teaching in South Bend, Ind., before I went into the service. I honestly believe that if I hadn't enlisted in the service, I would never have left high school teaching. I'm sure I would have never left."

When I made this appointment with Wooden, I was told he might not want to continue our visit at his apartment like we have in the past. But he said he was feeling up to it, so after breakfast I followed him and Jim back to his place. When they pulled into the garage, Wooden opened the door and asked, "Did you hear that [Michael] Vick signed?" I told him I had. He said, "As Mother Teresa said, forgiveness sets you free."

Once inside the apartment, I helped Jim lift his dad out of his wheelchair and lower him into the easy chair in his small den. Wooden then invited me to make myself comfortable. I pulled up a chair just a few feet away from him and turned on my tape recorder. For the next two hours, we talked all about his life. He slurred his words and lost his train of thought a couple of times, but for the most part he was lucid and engaged. He seemed happy for the chance to bask in a few memories.

I asked Wooden if he was sympathetic to Bill Walton's opposition to the Vietnam War. "I'm not going to say I was opposed to the Vietnam War. I'm going to say I'm opposed to war," he said. "But I'm also opposed to protests that deny other people their rights ... Taking over the administration building when there's people who have jobs in there to do, I think that's not right."

Not wanting to be presumptuous, I asked if I could delve further into his politics. "Go right ahead," he said. He told me he considers himself a liberal and is a registered Democrat, but he has voted often for Republicans, including twice each for Nixon and Reagan. He also said he voted for Barack Obama. "I didn't vote for him because I thought he was outstanding," he said. "I just liked him better than the others, that's all."

I asked whether he thought it was unfair that he never made more than $32,500 at a time when some of his coaching peers were pulling in six-figure salaries. "I think I was able to keep away from jealousy. If someone else made more, fine. I couldn't quite say the same for Nellie."

It's not a matter of money, I offered, but appreciation. Shouldn't UCLA have taken better care of you? "That's all right," he said. "We had a good life."

Nor did he blanch when I broached the subject of Sam Gilbert, the notorious booster who allegedly provided some of his players with gifts in violation of NCAA rules. "It's not upsetting because I know what the truth of it is. I had never tried to use Sam Gilbert in any way. I never sent a player to him," he said. "I tried to keep players away from him. I talked to him and so did [athletic director] J.D. [Morgan], but we're not going to be able to tell him what to do. He's going to do what he wants."

You don't have to talk to Wooden long before he starts reciting poetry. "Poetry paints a picture. Poetry is beautiful," he said. After reciting a poem he wrote many years ago, he confessed he had meant to give me a different poem. "I have trouble starting 'em, but I started the wrong one," he said with a laugh.

I was fortunate that Wooden felt well enough to visit for so long, because for the last month he had been fighting a lingering cough. His family almost put him back in the hospital before he made a turn for the better. "The doctor that I like, every time you get near the hospital, he puts you in," he said. One of the many reasons Wooden doesn't like being in the hospital is that he needs a nurse to bathe him. I suggested that didn't sound so bad.

"I get very embarrassed," he said. "One of the nurses who was bathing me saw I was embarrassed. She said, 'Mr. Wooden, don't be embarrassed. I've been working in this hospital for 30 years. I've seen every kind of penis there is."

Wooden also asked questions about my life. I told him I would be turning 40 next year. "I had my 40th in October -- some time ago," he quipped. When he inquired about my family, I told him I had two young sons, and that my wife was pregnant with our third boy, who is due in December. "Nellie wanted three, which was fine with me," Wooden said. "The third one miscarried. We had problems and the doctor said she should never try again. I disagreed."

As we wrapped up our visit, I told Wooden that while many people his age tended to be depressed and regretful, he seemed quite happy. He agreed but added, "I'm ready to go."

"Where are you ready to go?" Jim teased.

"With you."

"You want to go somewhere?"

I stood up to leave and thanked Wooden for his hospitality. "Good luck with the coming one," he said. As I shook his hand and looked into his smiling face, I thought of his impending death and my son's impending birth. It doesn't seem right to be born into a world that doesn't include John Wooden. I suppose he'll be set free soon enough, but for the time being, I'm just glad he's still here.

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