Monday, February 06, 2006

Climb Every Mountain

As I drove in to work this morning, a song from "The Sound of Music" was playing on the radio ... you know the words ... Climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every rainbow till you find your dream.

It got me thinking, what dream is so big in my life that I would climb mountains and swim across rivers to achieve?

Then I got this email about John Wooden:

On the 21st of the month, John Wooden will do what he always does on the 21st of the month. He'll sit down and pen a love letter to his best girl. He'll say how much he misses her and loves her and can't wait to see her again.

Then he'll fold it once, slide it in a little envelope and walk into his bedroom. He'll go to the stack of love letters sitting there on her pillow, untie the yellow ribbon, place the new one on top and tie the ribbon again. The stack will be 180 letters high then, because the 21st will be 15 years to the day since Nellie, his beloved wife of 53 years, died.

In her memory, he sleeps only on his half of the bed, only on his pillow, only on top of the sheets, never between; with just the old bedspread they shared to keep him warm.

There's never been a finer man in American sports than John Wooden, or a finer coach. He won 10 NCAA basketball championships at UCLA, the last in 1975. Nobody has ever come within six of him.

He won 88 straight games between January 30, 1971, and January 17, 1974. Nobody has come within 42 since.

So, sometimes, when the Basketball Madness gets to be too much -- too many players trying to make Sports Center, too few players trying to make assists, too few coaches willing to be mentors, too many freshmen with out-of-wedlock kids, too few freshmen who will stay in school long enough to become men -- I like to go see Coach Wooden.

I visit him in his little condo in Encino, 20 minutes northwest of Los Angeles, and hear him say things like "Gracious sakes alive!" and tell stories about teaching "Lewis" the hook shot. Lewis Alcindor, that is...who became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

There has never been another coach like Wooden, quiet as an April snow and square as a game of checkers; loyal to one woman, one school, one way; walking around campus in his sensible shoes and Jimmy Stewart morals.

He'd spend a half hour the first day of practice teaching his men how to put on a sock. "Wrinkles can lead to blisters," he'd warn. These huge players would sneak looks at one another and roll their eyes. Eventually, they'd do it right. "Good," he'd say. "And now for the other foot."

Of the 180 players who played for him, Wooden knows the whereabouts of 172. Of course, it's not hard when most of them call, checking on his health, secretly hoping to hear some of his simple life lessons so that they can write them on the lunch bags of their kids, who will roll their eyes.

"Discipline yourself, and others won't need to," Coach would say. "Never lie, never cheat, never steal," and "Earn the right to be proud and confident."

If you played for him, you played by his rules: Never score without acknowledging a teammate. One word of profanity and you're done for the day. Treat your opponent with respect.

He believed in hopelessly out-of-date stuff that never did anything but win championships. No dribbling behind the back or through the legs. "There's no need," he'd say.

No UCLA basketball number was retired under his watch. "What about the fellows who wore that number before? Didn't they contribute to the team?" he'd say.

No long hair, no facial hair. "They take too long to dry, and you could catch cold leaving the gym," he'd say. That one drove his players bonkers.

One day, All-America center Bill Walton showed up with a full beard. "It's my right," he insisted. Wooden asked if he believed that strongly. Walton said he did. "That's good, Bill," Coach said. "I admire people who have strong beliefs and stick by them, I really do. We're going to miss you." Walton shaved it right then and there. Now Walton calls once a week to tell Coach he loves him.

It's always too soon when you have to leave the condo and go back out into the real world, where the rules are so much grayer and the teams so much worse.

As Wooden shows you to the door, you take one last look around. The framed report cards of his great-grandkids, the boxes of jellybeans peeking out from under the favorite wooden chair, the dozens of pictures of Nellie.

He's almost 90 now. You think a little more hunched over than last time. Steps a little smaller. You hope it's not the last time you see him. He smiles. "I'm not afraid to die," he says. "Death is my only chance to be with her again."

Now that's something to dream about!


At 12:12 AM, Anonymous Lindsey said...

Wow! That is an incredible story. I had actually never heard of John Wooden until tonight. He sounds like a truly amazing person.
It is sad that people don't live like that anymore. I wish basketball would have continued to be played the way he coached it. The players now are selfish and money-hungry. Most of them don't even know what it is like to be on a team. When the NBA has to enforce a dress code for players who make millions of dollars, you know something has gone wrong.
But besides basketball, he sounds like such an enlightened person. What man today could say that they love a woman that much, in a world filled with Dr. Phil and Jerry Springer? And to have achieved so much and not be ruined by success or greatness. He is a true legend. It is awful that people like that can't live forever and teach everyone their morals.
I have enjoyed reading your post. Thank you for sharing it with everyone.

At 4:56 PM, Anonymous Monica said...

What a beautiful love story. It is truly rare that one comes across a love what John Wooden shared with his beloved wife.

It is ironic that I am reading your blog about the movie, The Sound of Music, as I just watched it two days ago. The Sound of Music was a childhood favorite of mine and I continue to love it today. Who doesn’t love singing along to the likes of Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer?

Anyways, after reading your blog I began thinking (along with you), as to what would I climb every mountain or swim across rivers to achieve? In our present culture, it is hard to imagine anything outside of money, power, or our individual career. As a soon-to-be college grad, all I hear is talk about finding a job, earning enough money, and/or ways to advance oneself professionally. The phrase “keeping up with the Jones’” rings true in almost all forms of life. As Americans we are consumed in always wanting more and never being completely satisfied. It seems rare to hear anything related to individual happiness, or better yet happiness in a life shared with someone else. In John Wooden’s case, I believe that he found eternal happiness, at least in this lifetime, with his wife. Because of his found peace, he was able to exemplify these feelings toward his job and his basketball players, which in turn allowed him to be one of UCLA’s finest coaches.

So, my answer to your question is that I would climb mountains to achieve a satisfying happiness in my lifetime, with regards to work, family, and love.

At 11:36 PM, Anonymous Jess said...

I agree with Monica and Lindsey. I think we all hope and dream for a love like that. He has fulfilled the commitment he made to his wife when they were married-to be completely faithful. It is very sweet and I hope that one day I experience that love as well.
And on the discussion of what I would climb a mountain for and swim across a river to achieve....
I must say that my family is very important to me. I have two brothers, one sister, and two wonderful parents. I would climb any mountain in the world or swim across any ocean for the assurance that my family would be safe and healthy for a nice, long life together.
I would also climb any mountain for a healthy family when I get married. And I would swim across any sea to do away with deadly disease and illness. I wish old age was all we had to worry about.
Wow, this is definitely an odd topic! I guess some people might say they would do ANYTHING for a Bentley, or to be rich, but I definitely would rather take care of my family!


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