Wooden was always defined by his poetry (cont.)
Wooden's affection for the written verse also helped sustain him through the darkest period of life, when he fell into a deep depression following the death of his wife, Nellie, in 1985. He told me of the time he penned a few lines of doggerel after receiving an encouraging call from a close friend:
At times I'm feeling a little low, I hear from a friend and then
My worries start to go away and I am on the mend
No matter what the doctors say, and their studies have no end
The best cure of all when spirits fall is a kind word from a friend
I asked Wooden where his love of poetry came from. "I'd say from my father reading to us when I was on the farm," he said. "We lost the farm when I was a sophomore in high school, but my dad would read to us. We had no electricity, no running water, a few oil lamps. He would read to us from the Scriptures practically every night. He read a lot of the early American poems."
Wooden narrowed his eyes slightly and smiled. "I can just see my dad as I see you, if I close my eyes," he continued. "I studied poetry when I was in college. I wrote a paper on it as I worked towards my thesis. I've just enjoyed it. It paints a picture. A lot of people don't like it. I can't understand that."
In 2003, Wooden combined his love of poetry with his Pyramid of Success to write a children's book called Inch and Miles: The Journey To Success. The title refers to two characters -- a worm and a mouse -- who discover the Pyramid's tenets in search of the proper definition of success. (Success isn't having trophies or toys/It isn't a medal or friends of your choice/What is success? That's easy to see/It's trying to be the best you can be) The book brought Wooden great joy, not least because it enabled him to visit local elementary schools and meet with children who read it.
I can't say I knew John Wooden well, and I have no recollection of his tenure as the coach at UCLA. (I was not quite five years old when he won his last championship.) But I will always treasure the memory of those two visits to his apartment. You didn't have to be a professional sportswriter to gain an audience with him. You just needed a phone book and some time; his number was listed and he was fond of receiving visits from strangers who simply looked him up and dialed. Or, on any given morning you could just pop into Vip's, where he knew all the waitresses and busboys, as well as most of the customers. This, to say the least, was a man of habit. His son, Jim, liked to refer to Vip's as "Cheers without beer."
I visited Wooden ostensibly to interview him, but when you're in his presence you can't help but talk about yourself, in hopes that he will drop you a bit of his wisdom. So when I told him I was the father of two young boys, Wooden counseled that the most important part of parenthood was to provide a good example. That nugget was followed, naturally, with a poem written by a reverend, called "A Little Fellow Follows Me." Wooden spoke it by rote:
A careful man I want to be, a little fellow follows me
I do not dare to go astray, for fear he'll go the self-same way
I cannot once escape his eyes, whate'er he sees me do he tries
Like me, he says he's going to be, the little chap who follows me
He thinks that I am good and fine, believes in every word of mine
The base in me, he must not see, that little fellow who follows me
I must remember as I go, through summer's sun and winter's snow
I am building for the years to be, in the little chap who follows me
At the end of our visit, Wooden told me he wanted to give me something. He ambled over to his small desk, opened a drawer and pulled out an 8x11 slab of cardboard. The poem was printed on that board alongside a photograph of a man walking on a beach wearing a navy blazer, slacks and a white sailor's hat. A small boy walks a few paces behind him.
I asked Wooden to autograph the photo and poem to my sons. He turned on the lamp and in his meticulous, cursive handwriting he wrote, "To Zachary and Noah. Love, John Wooden." Today, the poem hangs framed on a wall in Noah's room. I like to think of it as Wooden's voice from the grave, speaking in rhyme.
Seth Davis is currently writing a biography of John Wooden, which will be published by Times Books.