Former Wooden players recall coach

LOS ANGELES -- In short time there will be a small, private funeral where John R. Wooden, who died Friday at 99, will be laid to rest.

Sometime after that, there will be a public memorial where his life and legend will be celebrated even as he is mourned.

But on Saturday, less than 24 hours after the wise man took his final breath, the men he'd meant the most to -- his former players -- came to the court where Wooden reached his greatest glory, to be together, grieve together and honor his memory.

"I know him as well or better than probably anyone other than his immediate family," said Gary Cunningham, who played for Wooden from 1960 to 1962, served as an assistant under him for 10 years, then coached the Bruins from 1977 to 1979.

"Or rather, I knew him so well. ... It's still sinking in for me that he's gone," Cunningham said.

UCLA extended an invitation to a large group of Wooden's former players to share their memories of him with the world. Many wanted to attend but still felt too raw with emotion at his passing to appear in front of cameras and microphones so soon.

The six men who did attend -- Cunningham, Keith Erickson, John Vallely, Marques Johnson, Jamaal Wilkes and Andre McCarter -- did so with heavy hearts that were lightened every time they told an old story.

The relationship between the coach and his players was a unique one only they can understand or express.

He'd made and molded them into the men they became, but their greatness and willingness to be molded had made him into the celebrated coach he became.

For Erickson, who played on Wooden's first two championship teams in 1964 and 1965, the enduring image -- or rather sound -- is of Wooden's stern voice at practices, which hummed with precision and aimed at perfection.

"He didn't swear. But what he did was, he would blow that whistle and everyone would turn, and he would say 'Goodness gracious!' and you knew you were in big trouble when he did that," Erickson said. "Instead of unloading with every four-letter word.

"When it was time to practice, there was no messing around. It was all business. He had these little 3-by-5 cards, and he had every minute down so at 3:23 we were going to be down at that basket and going over defensive rebounding drills. And then at 3:28, we'd be at this basket going over defensive stance. So it was from there to there, blow the whistle, to over here, the entire time. So when we did it with a quick pace and we did it properly, we were in and we were out in two hours. We didn't need three or three and a half hour practices like other teams."

McCarter, the point guard on Wooden's final championship team in 1975, spent the first two years of his career at UCLA clashing with Wooden but grew to love the man so much, as he grew older, that he began writing a book to help others understand what made Wooden such a great coach and teacher.

McCarter came to UCLA from Philadelphia as one of the most skilled guards in the country. He was razzle-dazzle before that even became a saying. No-look passes, crossover dribbles, behind-the-back passes, McCarter could do those in his sleep.

Wooden wasn't interested in any of it, and he let McCarter have it after a flashy move one day in practice.

"Boy, here he comes. He's coming and fussing and running at me from across the court," McCarter said. "And I'd had enough of it. So I go in the office on Monday, like we've got to get this stuff straight. This is how I play. This is what makes me who you recruited.

"So I said coach, 'I made the pass, everything came out good, why do you keep picking on me?'

"He starts digging in his drawer and I'm thinking, 'What do you have to dig for? I asked you a question? Why are you looking in your drawer?' You know, I'm hot about it," McCarter said.

"Then he pulls out these statistics he keeps and says to me, 'That play you made, we've been keeping statistics on 2-on-1s and the percentage of what you did is around 70 or 72 percent. If you make the straight, basic pass, it'll be like 98 percent.' All the steam and hot air I had ... I mean, unless I'm an idiot I'm going to go with the 98 percent right? He kind of diffused my whole go-off. I left out of the room like, 'OK coach, go ahead.'"

That attention to detail, that methodical, almost scientific approach to the game, is why McCarter stops anyone within about five seconds when they ask him about the Wizard of Westwood.

"He hated that name," McCarter said, pulling out a paper with a quote from Wooden on why he despised that nickname. "He hated it, because it made it seem like there was magic to what he did. There was no magic, there was science and discipline. That's what John Wooden was about, nothing magic or sneaky."

Around campus, there are small memorials to pay tribute to Wooden. Flowers and candles have been left at the foot of the bronze statue of the Bruin along the path outside the student union. A red, white and blue wreath has been placed near the seat at Pauley Pavilion where Wooden sat during basketball games, after he retired.

But mostly those who knew him best shared their stories and love for Wooden, hoping it might help his memory live on.

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