In the simplistic analogy, Gilbert is the hoodlum on the fringe of the school yard, and Wooden is the teacher who can only tell his pupils to Just Say No. "I warned them, but I couldn't pick their friends," says Wooden. Today Wooden owns up to breaking NCAA rules himself. He invited players to have meals with him and Nell during in-season school vacations so they would not be alone in dormitories on campus. He helped pay the rent of a player with a child and a sick wife. He bailed out of jail another player who had been picked up for delinquent parking violations. These transgressions all conformed to Wooden's higher rules.
"I honestly feel Sam meant well," says Wooden. "He felt whatever he did was right, even if it was against the rules." As different as he and Gilbert were. Wooden felt much the same way.
"I never had a smarter player than Mike Warren," Wooden frequently says. He also says. "I never had a bet' ter athlete than Keith Erickson." This is a salutary lesson about race, from a man who grew up in Indiana, then a hotbed of the Ku Klux Klan. Warren, who later starred in Hill Street Blues, is black; Erickson, white. In a sport infected with racial code phrases like "heady ballplayer" and "great athlete," Wooden's comments are March on Washington stuff. But he says he isn't the slightest bit aware of their stereotype-busting implications. Wisdom subdues bigotry. With the experience to judge, one need not prejudge.
By her husband's count. Nell was twice at death's door before she finally succumbed. A heart attack, which she suffered while undergoing a hip-replacement operation in 1982, put her in a coma. Friends and family took turns visiting St. Vincent's Hospital in downtown Los Angeles, not to see Nell in her quiet as much as to succor her husband. He spent 10-and 12-hour days at her bedside, and he might not have found time to eat were it not for their solicitude.
"The doctors told me to talk to her," says Wooden. "They said that I might not see any signs, but in her subconscious she might be hearing me." Three months after Nell entered the coma, as her body lay suctioned and plugged with intravenous tubing, he took her hand and squeezed it, and he felt a squeeze back. There are no nets to cut down when something like that happens.
But shortly thereafter Nell had to go back into the hospital to have her gallbladder removed, and that, the doctors said, was a no-hoper. No way she could weather the trauma. Yet she survived the surgery, recovering enough to live life rather than just muddle through it. She even made one last Final Four—Seattle, in fact, in 1984. She was in a wheelchair but was still alert and vivacious, still matching the names with the faces. "It was," the coach says, "the last enjoyable thing she did."
That is why this weekend in Seattle would have been so difficult. Early on Christmas morning in 1984. Nell had to be rushed to the hospital. By then a number of ailments, including cancer and emphysema, had gotten ornery. At 73 she just wasn't going to pull off any more miracles. Nell fought on through the rest of the winter, playing out the season. She died on the first day of spring.
Before every tip-off back at Martinsville High, Wooden had looked up from his guard position and caught her eye in the stands, where she played the cornet in the band. She would give him the O.K. sign and he would wave back. They kept up that ritual even as Johnny Wooden (Hall of Fame, inducted as a player in 1960) became John R. Wooden (Hall of Fame, inducted as a coach in 1972). He's the only person with the old one-two combo. Few knew that he clutched a cross in his hand. Fewer knew that she clutched an identical one in hers. She took it with her to the grave.
The reclusiveness that ruled Wooden's first year as a widower alarmed doctors, family and friends alike. Former players and assistant coaches conspired to telephone regularly until Wooden's granddaughter, Caryn, gave birth to a girl, Cori, and he brightened somewhat. "I try to be thankful for the time Nellie and I had together," says Wooden. "But sometimes you wonder what you could have done. There's a certain amount of second-guessing that goes on."
He never went off to scout opponents, never brought the practices home and didn't make more than a dozen recruiting trips in his entire career. What could so faithful and doting a husband possibly regret? "We did things because I wanted to, not because she did," he says. "We never went to Ireland. Nellie always wanted to go to Ireland. We had planned to, too. But something would always come up. And Nellie loved to dance. I was not a dancer, you know."