Posted by Sekou Smith
LOS ANGELES – As expected, the passing of famed UCLA coach and basketball icon John Wooden has produced a wide range of emotions amongst the natives here in Southern California.
Lakers star Kobe Bryant is no different, having spent all of his adult life in this town being reminded of Wooden and his legacy by so many inside and outside of the Lakers organization.
Bryant spoke briefly about Wooden and their unique relationship after the Lakers wrapped up practice Saturday at their facility in El Segundo.
“Well, I mean, to say he was a great coach I think doesn’t do it any justice,” Bryant said. “I think his legacy speaks for itself. The personal experience that I’ve had with him was the first time ‑‑ I saw him once at a UCLA basketball game when I was really young and we spoke briefly, and then we spoke at length at Chick Hearn‘s funeral. We spoke for about 25, 30 minutes.
“I think if you talk to any of his players, players that played for him, I think the thing that’s consistent is that he made them better people, you know. I think that would be a true mark of his legacy. The winning and all that stuff, that’s stuff that we all know about.”
Celtics coach Doc Rivers has a framed picture of Wooden on his desk back in Boston. It’s his own tribute to a coaching legend that he holds in the highest regard.
“He was the best coach ever, him and Red Auerbach are the two guys that we talk about, the gods, and there are two of them,” Rivers said. “So the fact that I got to meet him and he actually knew my name, to me blew me away on its own right. I don’t ask for a lot of autographs, and he was one that I wanted, and he was as gracious as we thought he would be. You know, to have those two on your desk, I don’t think you need to further your collection. You know, those are the two best.
“Tough, sad loss, really, for all of us. But with Wooden, I think he’s one of the rare superstars that stood out more about him as a person than he did as a coach or anything. And that’s rare, when you say that about any star in any business.”
Bryant and Rivers weren’t the only ones asked about and prepared to speak about Wooden. Lakers coach Phil Jackson also shared his thoughts:
You know, I guess of the 150,000 people that are reciting John’s legendary fame, I just stand in awe of the guy. I think as a young basketball player growing up and watching the ’62 Bruins, the ’63 Bruins, the era that I came out of high school and watching this team, this pesky team of 6’5″ guys, Keith Erickson and Walt Hazzard, Gail Goodrich roll out a great record and play the incredible defense that they played with the speed that they played at, I think that that was my first awareness of John Wooden.”
“You know, obviously one of his Final Four games was against my colleague, Tex Winter. They had great a rivalry going. Tex always tells the story that his team was ahead by four points going into the last stretch of the ballgame, and there was a blizzard out in Kansas. The game’s in Kansas City which was close to Manhattan, Kansas, where he was coaching at Kansas State, and then the UCLA girls showed up and the cheerleaders led his team on, the Bruins, on to victory. He said, I think the referees got enamored with the Bruins cheerleaders, all those beautiful California girls.”
So that’s a 40‑year ago, 50‑year ago vision in a man who was eventually ‑‑ went on to win nine more championships in a number of years. He did it then with unbelievable talent, talent started coming in his direction with obviously Lew Alcindor ‑ Kareem Abdul‑Jabbar ‑ and a myriad of other players that came in there. But that first initial group won has always kind of a special place as to his activity, how he prepared his teams, their defensive mindset, and the things that he really believed in basketball as a coach.
You can expect the testimonials and reflections to continue to flow about Wooden, one of the greatest teachers, coaches and men to grace us all with his presence.
R.I.P John Wooden!