For legendary coach Wooden, poetry was a passion, escape
A lifelong poet, John Wooden liked to recite verse to help him fall asleep
Wooden was arguably the most successful coach of any sport in American history
Wooden's affection for poetry helped sustain him through the darkest period of life
I can't be sure that John Wooden was reciting poetry at the moment he drew his last breath on June 4, 2010 at the age of 99, but I have good reason to believe he was. In September 2006, when I visited Wooden at his modest apartment in Encino, Calif., he told me that he liked to recite poetry to help him fall asleep. He had a rotation of maybe a half-dozen ditties, including a couple that he had written himself. With an easy smile and a dulcet voice, Wooden recited for me one of the self-written poems he used to hypnotize himself:
The years have left their imprint on my hands and on my face
Erect no longer is my walk and slower is my pace
But there is no fear within my heart because I'm growing old
I only wish I had more time to better serve my Lord
But I've gone to human prayer, he has brought me inner peace
And soon my cares and problems and other worries 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 crown?
Though I know down here my time is short, there's endless time up there
That he will forgive and keep me in his ever loving care
I asked him if he actually spoke out loud while completing his nightly routine. "Sometimes out loud, and sometimes I'll just recite them in my head," he replied. "But I'll never know. I may go to sleep in the second or third, or maybe the fourth. When I wake, I think, 'I wonder which one I fell asleep to?' "
So yes, I like to think Wooden was whispering rhymes when he left this world. No doubt his passing will be greeted with many tributes. By the simplest measure, he was arguably the most successful coach of any sport in American history, having won 10 NCAA championships in 12 years. Given that only two schools (Duke and Florida) have even won two titles in a row since Wooden claimed his last in 1975, it's safe to say that achievement will never be surpassed.
Many other encomiums will be affixed to Wooden in the wake of his passing, and they will all be fitting. He was a gentleman, a scholar, a teacher and a friend. He was a straight arrow, a paragon of integrity, a man of unfailing humility and open spirituality. He was an author, a lecturer, a professor emeritus of sports and society. He was the ultimate family man.
I like to remember John Wooden the poet. He loved to read poetry, write it and especially recite it. His power of recall, even in his late-90s, was astounding. On the two occasions in which I ate breakfast with him at Vip's restaurant on Ventura Boulevard -- his favorite spot -- I ended up listening to him recite poetry to me in his den. When he told me, as he told so many others, that he would have been happy remaining as an English teacher back in Martinsville, Ind., it was easy to believe him.
Wooden wrote nearly a dozen books, most of them variations on his Pyramid of Success, but for his final project he wanted to compose a book of poems. He conceived it in the same rigid, hyper-organized fashion in which he planned his practices: The book was going to contain exactly 100 poems, 20 each on family, faith, patriotism, nature and fun. During our last visit he told me he had composed about 65 or 70. He never intended to publish the compendium. He just wanted to leave it behind for his family.
The poems Wooden wrote over the years would never earn him a Nobel or a Pulitzer, but they did serve their purpose. In January 1962, Wooden received a letter in verse from one of his former players, Pete Blackman. He replied in kind with a long poem of his own lamenting the shortcomings of his current team. But he ended the letter with an upbeat stanza:
However, Pete, there's optimism
Beneath my valid criticism
I want to say -- yes, I'll foretell
Eventually this team will jell
And when they do, they will be great
A championship could be their fate
With every starter coming back
Yes, Walt and Gail and Keith and Jack
And Fred and Freddie and some more
We could be champs in sixty-four
That verse proved to be prescient. Despite not having a player taller than 6-foot-5, the 1963-64 Bruins gave Wooden the first, and most unlikely, of Wooden's 10 national titles.