SI 60 Q&A: Alexander Wolff on the life and love of John Wooden

In this SI 60 Q&A, Alexander Wolff discusses "The Coach And His Champion," his touching tale of legendary UCLA Bruins basketball coach John Wooden, who was struggling to deal with his wife's death.
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Alexander Wolff joined Sports Illustrated in September 1980, a few months after graduating from Princeton. That spring, UCLA had reached the Final Four for the 14th time in the previous 19 seasons, but it would be a quarter-century before the Bruins returned to the weekend they had once owned when John Wooden was coaching them to 10 national championships in 12 years, from his first in 1964 to his last in the final game of his coaching career in 1975. 

By 1988, Wolff had advanced up the masthead at SI to become a senior writer, but UCLA’s glory days were a thing of the past. That year the Bruins turned to Jim Harrick as their fifth coach of the post-Wooden era to try and restore the glory to Westwood. Harrick would eventually do just that, winning the national title in 1995, but as he prepared for his first season wearing Wooden’s whistle, he may have been as interested in getting one old man to the Final Four as he was in taking his young team there. That’s where the story of “The Coach And His Champion,” Wolff’s often heartbreaking account of Wooden’s life after the death of the woman he referred to as “my wife of 53 years but my sweetheart of 60 years, before I lost her,” began. It ran in the April 3, 1989 issue and is now one of the SI 60.

WOLFF: So often you go out on story 'A' and you finish reporting and you write up story 'A' but along the way the germ of story 'B' presents itself. Before that season started, I was talking to Jim Harrick about the things you talk to Jim Harrick about for the college basketball preview and so forth. We were just chitchatting and he started talking about John Wooden and about how he was in this trough that was kind of a depression. He said everybody was trying to get him out of it and he won’t go to the Final Four, which had always been his annual victory lap. Wooden would go with his wife, Nell, who was outgoing in a way he wasn’t and would be the social lubricant that got him out, but then she died and he hadn’t been back since.

Harrick filled it in with details that make any reporter stop in his tracks. Among them was that since Nell died Wooden hadn’t gotten under the covers of the bed they shared, and every week he’d writer her a letter and put it on her pillow. Really gut-wrenching, intimate details.

At the magazine we’d often go back and visit great sports personalities in their dotage, and the more I thought about it the more I realized that what Wooden was doing flew in the face of his greatest teaching as a coach, which was that you never get too high in the highs or too low in the lows.

Armed with that, I approached him.

The Coach And His Champion: John Wooden struggles after losing his wife

SI: How much time did you get with him?

WOLFF: I had three sessions with him, one in Encino, Calif., one in Indiana and one in Connecticut. I saw him in Encino at that condo he lived in. I was able to tag along with him back to Martinsville, Ind., where he had grown up and went to do a speaking engagement, and then on a high-profile visit to Greenwich, Conn., where he talked to a financial services group.

Greenwich was our last time together. After he'd made that appearance I repeated the detail about not getting into the covers -- I think he had shared with me the anecdote about writing the letters – and in classic John Wooden style he confirmed it and then asked me not to use it. I can tell you about it now because it’s since been in print so it’s no great secret. Even though I honored his request, knowing that it was true gave me the confidence to go ahead and tell the story at a particular level.

[Longtime SI writer] Dan Jenkins used to say about a bonus that you only use 50 percent about what’s in your notes. For Gary Smith that ratio becomes even greater. You just have so much detail that you can write with that level of confidence.

I had sold the piece in-house by sharing that detail with the editors. They got excited about what I had and then I came back and said, "I can’t use that detail." But after I wrote it I remember Rob Fleder, who was my editor on the piece, said, “You don’t miss that detail. The story stands on its own merit.” So at least the editors were still satisfied that the story packed a punch.

At the same time I remember asking myself at a couple junctions in that piece, “Are you not a little out of line here, upbraiding this man for not being more public?” I remember thinking to myself, “Who the hell do you think you are saying that to John Wooden in print?”

Peter Read Miller, the photographer on the story, took pictures of Wooden at Nell’s grave, and he told me afterward it was one of the most difficult things he’d ever done. He said every time the flash went off it was an intrusion.

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SI: Was Wooden reluctant to discuss those intimate details with someone he’d never met? Did you have to pull him out of his shell a little?

WOLFF: He wanted to talk about her. He wanted to share with the world how much he loved her and what a wonderful person she was. She was a real advocate for him.

I didn’t have to do that because he wanted talk about her. He was very comfortable talking about her. I got the sense that I was performing the role of a therapist to some degree. I didn’t have to go in and say, “Look I want to ask you about these painful things.” It was just a series of conversations, and we kind of moved around the country in different venues to have them. He lived alone and I hope I don’t unduly flatter myself to say I was good company.

SI: Had you ever met Wooden before doing that story?

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WOLFF: That was the first time. When I finally got to speak to him there were all these questions I wanted to ask him. Having not watched his teams from press row I felt a little behind the 8-ball but I quickly realized I was there to talk to him about his late wife, which was a very specific task, and I was as qualified as anybody to ask those questions.

SI: Surely you must have been familiar with him and his teams too, right?

WOLFF: My familiarity with those teams made for great icebreakers. I came to college basketball professionally after that whole UCLA run, but my interest in the game, or certainly the tournament, was really kindled by [former N.C. State star] David Thompson. I still remember that [1974 national champion] N.C. State team and was in high school at the time and desperately wanted to see someone knock UCLA off. They were just so dominant and you wanted someone to beat them. My desire to see them lose was much more about seeing the sport open up. When N.C. State played them in the 1974 Final Four and went down seven in double overtime and just watching them come back and seeing the giant fall that really might have been my formative moment as a fan of college basketball.

Even as I hoped they’d get knocked off I was very aware that something impressive was going on out there. The Pyramid of Success was on the cover of The New York Times Magazine. I cut it out and put it on my bedroom wall. The idea that a coaches’ code would find its way onto the bedroom wall – that was where Wooden really made his impression.

SI: What did you think about Wooden at that time?

WOLFF: I read his books – well, I read They Call Me Coach, I did not read Practical Modern Basketball – and so much of what he’s written just seem like homilies. They might as well be basketball textbooks. And I was struck actually about the trinities, like Ball, You, Man. The way everything came in threes and just how simple everything was. It came from this small town, Midwestern upbringing, and somehow he held it all together during this ridiculously tumultuous time in history.

SI: Did you think he was too good to be true?

WOLFF: He’s genuine, but the great debate people have about him – and Seth Davis brought a lot to this in his book about Wooden – is the whole Sam Gilbert question. My understanding of that has always been that Gilbert [a UCLA booster] was from such a different world that he was brazen and charismatic enough to form his own relationships [with players]. This was a guy who threatened to cut [onetime UCLA coach] Larry Brown’s testicles off, and Wooden didn’t know how to deal with a guy like Sam Gilbert. I don’t believe that Wooden was colluding with Gilbert to get guys. I think what happened was, if they came to UCLA to play for Wooden there would be all that excitement and glamor so Gilbert wanted a part of that and Wooden didn’t know how to deal with it.

Is that a character flaw? Yeah, it probably is, that he couldn’t stand up to Sam Gilbert. But he was somebody you would stand up to at your whole peril. Everybody has asked about that and people want to know about that. You have to evaluate UCLA in light of Sam Gilbert. This is one of those cases where the head coach didn’t have the desire to know and probably didn’t know all the nitty gritty details.

SI: Did you ever talk to Wooden again?

WOLFF: I did, for another story a number of years later about the 1964 team, his first championship team, but we didn’t talk about this '89 story. I never heard one way or another whether he liked this story. I just know he turned up at the Final Four again. He was lovely and gracious, and he obviously remembered me from the previous story.

When I went out to Encino to talk to him for the 1964 story we went to the post office together because people would send him old yearbooks from Purdue, where he'd been an All-America player, for him to autograph and send back, and they wouldn’t include the postage. He asked me if I would drive him to the post office in Encino so he could mail these things, but he knew what they really wanted. He said to me, “They’re just going to sell them.” We get to the post office and it was named after Chick Hearn, the Lakers broadcaster. It should have been named after him.

SI: Was he about what you expected?

WOLFF: He really was the real deal. He still went into the parts of Scripture that meant a lot to him. Nobody said he was a phony when it came to that stuff. The coaches who were rolling their eyes did so because of Sam Gilbert, but his teaching methods and the things he believed in came right out of the one-room schoolhouse in Indiana.

SI: What impact do you think the story had on him returning to the world, so to speak?

WOLFF: In the end that was how he became public again. I would never claim that the piece slapped him in the face and out of his despondency but I do think that the piece represented this core of the college basketball world that was pleading with him and somehow he could see it as, yes, Nell would want me there, it’s about the game, it’s about being there for other coaches.

My suspicion was that he did come back soon after the story was published. He became more frail but there was something in the timber of his voice, that he had that kind of coach’s authority, and he had things he wanted to say.

The story was a snapshot of him without his wife and I had enough space, because it was a bonus piece, to tell the current generation what he had accomplished and tell the story of his life along with this love story. It was a very satisfying piece.