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Ken Levine Headshot

Remembering Coach Wooden

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When I think of John Wooden I think of that Joan Osbourne song -- "What If God Were One of Us?" The most impressive man I've ever met was often spotted in Du-Pars' coffee shop in the valley. Hardly a church; they filmed scenes from Boogie Nights there. I had the honor of spending a morning with him once. He lived alone in a condo complex in Encino on a busy street near noisy Ventura Blvd. Not exactly the Sistine Chapel.

When I was a student at UCLA from 68-72 and the Bruins were racking up National Championships every year, a few friends and I had a ritual after games in Pauley Pavilion. We'd go to Dolores' coffee shop on Santa Monica Blvd. This was a grungy 50s style diner, one of those 24 hour joints that catered to kids, seedy street people, and lonely souls. But ten minutes after we sat down, there would be Coach Wooden with his wife and another couple coming through the door. That's how he celebrated big wins -- eating pie at Dolores'. We always congratulated him. He was always gracious. We were always thrilled just to be ordering off the same crappy menu as him.

But that was John Wooden. Humble, accessible, without any pretense. Everywhere you turn today you will find a tribute to this extraordinary man. They're all going to make him sound too good to be true but in fact he was. No sense in just echoing them. So I'm just going to concentrate on the coffee shops and neighborhood markets and a two-bedroom condominium that looked out over a parking lot.

I accompanied a journalist friend who was doing a magazine profile on Coach Wooden. This was maybe five/six years ago. Coach let us in himself (he preferred to be called "Coach". He hated "Mr. Wooden"). He then asked if he could make us some coffee? It was a modest two-bedroom unit. But it could have been a museum. Every inch of wall space was covered with team pictures, awards, medals, proclamations, framed programs, and commendations. I don't know how he ever found the light switches.

He led us into the second bedroom, which he used as a den. And as Coach Wooden started answering questions a shiver went down my spine. Listening to him share his views on life and various other sundry topics in such an eloquent and yet casual manner I thought to myself, "I am truly in the presence of GREATNESS". It's one thing to preach a life of virtue and integrity and it's another to actually live it. And that's what he did... every day for 99 years.

On the one hand this was the Sermon on the Mount on the other a garbage truck outside the window was picking up the complex's trash.

After the interview he signed copies of his "Pyramid of Success" for me and my son and thanked US for coming. One of the great mornings of my life and he thanked me. Then he checked his watch. Would we please excuse him? He was meeting someone for lunch... at Du-Pars'.

I will always cherish him and strive to achieve the standards that he set.

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