Breakfast with Coach Wooden
Former UCLA coach John Wooden turned 98 earlier this month
He celebrated at a diner that he eats at daily, with cake and family
John Wooden sits in the same booth, at the same coffee shop at the same time every morning. The only thing that might change from time to time is his order.
"I like the No. 1 which is two eggs, two hotcakes and two slices of bacon or sausage," he says. "They also have the No. 2 which is two eggs, two slices of bacon or sausage with a choice of toast or biscuit and gravy. I usually get one of those two."
There isn't a menu within Wooden's reach as he recites the breakfast specials at this quaint diner near his home in Encino, Calif., which has been his home away from home for the past decade.
Earlier this month, Wooden celebrated his 98th birthday with friends and family the same way he has for the past dozen years -- over breakfast at the diner. It's one of the rare times that Wooden moves from his regular seat in the middle booth near the kitchen to the tables in the back of the restaurant to accommodate all his guests. Most mornings he's only joined by Tony Spino, a UCLA trainer who takes care of Wooden and has been checking in on him every morning for some time. He was actually the one who found Wooden lying on the floor of his condominium after he had been there for several hours. Wooden broke his collarbone and wrist and was hospitalized for two weeks.
While Wooden is in better health these days, despite another minor fall last week, he needs to be helped in and out of his wheelchair by Spino every morning. Still, he comes to the diner for breakfast and the familiar faces around the counter.
"It's great. Some of the people I've known for about a dozen years and I see them everyday," he says. "It's the only place I see them. We've become very friendly and close to each other and it's just like home. It has a homey atmosphere and I like that. I've been going there for a dozen years, seven days a week."
Wooden knows the names of all the regulars at the Cheers-like diner, shaking each one's hand after they sing "Happy Birthday" and the waitresses pass out pieces of his birthday cake. "It's nothing special," says Wooden with a smile. "It's just another year."
While Wooden looks at his birthday as nothing special, the same can not be said for those that travel from all over to have breakfast with him. Even Spino, who has breakfast with Wooden almost every morning, says he learns something new from him all the time. Wooden's wit is still as sharp as ever and his memory is better than most, regardless of age.
"The years have left their imprint -- on my hands and on my face -- erect no longer is my walk and slower is my pace," he says. "But there is no fear within my heart because I am growing old; I only wish I had more time to better serve my Lord. When I've gone to him in prayer he has brought me inner peace, and soon my cares and worries and other problems cease. He's helped me in so many ways, he's never let me down, why should I fear the future when soon I could be near his ground. Though I know down here my time is short, there is endless time up there and he will forgive and keep me forever in his love and care."
The words roll of Wooden's tongue as effortlessly over breakfast as they do in his mind when he recites the prayer each night before he falls asleep.
"He truly is an American treasure," says former LSU coach Dale Brown, who has breakfast with Wooden whenever he is in town. "I've known him for years and the best way that I could sum him up simply for you is this. They were talking to Einstein about Gandhi and he said, 'Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this Earth.' He is so real. We've become so counterfeit in society with everyone trying to impress everybody that our vanity gets carried away but he has none whatsoever."
Wooden lives in a modest condo that is covered in books, pictures, artifacts and copies of his Pyramid of Success, which he still signs for fans. Up until last year he drove a 1989 Ford Taurus, which was sold last week on eBay for $5,000. And he has never owned a cell phone, fax machine or computer, although getting a hold of him isn't difficult; his number is listed.
"Here's the greatest coach who ever lived and the most money he ever made at UCLA was $32,500," says Brown. "I recently asked how he was doing and he said, 'I'm 98 and I've made a decision. I'm going to live to be a 100.' So I asked, 'How did you make that coach?' He said, 'I looked at my driver's license and I have two years left, I'm not going to let that money go to waste."
While Brown and Wooden have more than 1,000 wins between them, they rarely chat about basketball when they get together for breakfast. It's a common theme for most every person that comes to meet at the diner in the morning.
"I talk to him about really personal things now that I didn't talk to him about as a young man," says Mike Warren, a former player (1967-68) and actor who has breakfast with Wooden at least twice a week. "I get his advice on everything. I talk to him about religion. I talk to him about family. I talk to him about raising children. For the last 20-30 years my relationship with the coach has crystallized into one that has so much profundity that it's almost indescribable."
Wooden still gets emotional when he hears the kind words of his players whose lives he's affected. He usually tries to deflect it by making a witty remark or a joke. But he knows the impact he has made, especially whenever there is a report that he is in the hospital, which has sadly become an annual occurrence in recent years.
"We all as former players, we live and die with information when he gets sick," says Warren, who has the rights to Wooden's life story and is planning on doing a movie about the coach in the near future. "We are so concerned about him so to go there and laugh and talk with him and see him is great. It's just great to be with him because his time on Earth isn't going to be that much longer and there will be great, great sadness when he leaves, but there will also be some joy because he will be with his wife and that's a blessing."
Wooden still writes a letter to his wife, Nellie, on the 21st of every month to mark the monthly anniversary of her death more than 30 years ago. He still keeps each one of his love letters to her on her side of the bed. And he still misses her a lot.
"She's the only girl I ever went with," he says. "I still talk to her everyday."
Outside of his home, the closest he comes to her is when he goes to Pauley Pavilion and watches UCLA play on "The Nell and John Wooden Court," where Nellie watched Wooden coach the Bruins to 10 national championships, giving him a wink and an okay sign before every game. It's a place Wooden hopes he will be visiting more regularly in the future.
"I missed more games last season than the total of all the years since I retired," says Wooden. "I hope to go to games for as long as I possibly can."
Much like the diner Wooden goes to every morning, where the glass double doors always open up to a counter full of smiles and an almost unison greeting of, "Good morning coach," that still bring a smile to his face.
"The fact that people enjoy you being there," says Wooden. "Makes you feel good."