One of the early thrills of my career, more than 25 years ago, still ranks as one of the all-time highlights.
That was the day I got to work with the legendary Wizard of Westwood, John Wooden — without question, the greatest basketball coach ever. (There’s also a good argument to be made that Coach Wooden was the most successful coach of any sport in American history.)
As the most casual fan can tell you, Coach Wooden, who died Friday at 99, won an unprecedented 10 championships in 12 years for UCLA. Since his retirement in 1975, only two universities have even won consecutive titles, making it a virtual certainty this feat will never be duplicated.
As a graduate of crosstown archrival USC, I had never set foot in Pauley Pavilion — Coach Wooden’s stomping ground — until that day in April 1984 when the public relations agency I worked for assigned me to oversee a photo shoot featuring Coach Wooden himself.
The occasion was the McDonald’s High School All-American Basketball Game, a fundraiser for Ronald McDonald Children’s Charities of Southern California. Although Coach Wooden had steadfastly stayed away from the game after his retirement, Wooden was by then a great grandfather and the local charity appealed to him. His beloved wife of 53 years, Nell, was battling cancer, and he did not like to leave her side, but he agreed to serve as the game’s spokesman.
As Media Day approached, our client, the Southern California Owner Operators Association and my agency, Bob Thomas & Associates, knew that having Wooden on board would ensure tremendous media attendance. But we all felt we still needed another news hook to elevate attention on a high school basketball game in Los Angeles, a city that was — and still is — crazy about its two biggest sporting draws, the Dodgers and the Lakers.
We came up with what I believe to be the first slam dunk contest in the High School All-Star Game’s history. And it was a hit.
The day’s only hitch — we neglected to mention the slam dunk contest to Coach Wooden. He hated showboating of any kind and did not hide his disdain of the slam dunk, calling it an unnecessary distraction from team play.
The media in attendance of course pounced on this, and if Coach Wooden was annoyed that day, he didn’t show a hint of it.
This past weekend, the many reverential stories about Coach Wooden I read all have two things in common — his peerless success on the basketball court and his stature as a gentleman off of it. Can I call it courtliness?
That’s what it was to me, his gentlemanly manner — his courtliness — that I remember best from that morning at Pauley Pavilion. He smiled constantly, he gracefully and thoughtfully answered every media question, and patiently posed for every picture.
When I nervously asked the great man to please pose with the High School All-American team and a photo prop — a basketball clipboard with the McDonald’s logo emblazoned across the top of it — Coach Wooden not only politely complied, he drew up an actual play.
It is today preserved in plastic wrap and safely locked away in my storage locker as one of my most prized possessions.
I saw that NFL superstar Peyton Manning counts among his prized possessions a copy of Coach Wooden’s infamous “Pyramid of Success.” The Pyramid is a chart Coach Wooden created that simply outlines his personal code for life. According to a piece in SI.com, “Industriousness and Enthusiasm were its cornerstones; Faith, Patience, Loyalty and Self-control were some of its building blocks. At the top of the pyramid was Competitive Greatness.”
Over the years, there have been countless quotes attributed to Coach Wooden, but in today’s era of hyperconnectedness, fleeting fame and the enduring value of authenticity, this is one of my favorites:
“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are. Your reputation is merely what others think you are.”