He averts his eyes, betraying his small-town bashfulness. That's what Nell, at 13, had to crack; that's what she and her friend Mary Schnaiter would talk about when they repaired to the quarries outside town. Of course, Johnny was already smitten. "She was as cute as can be," says Mary. "Little, with a turned-up nose. She could do just about anything she wanted."
And my, the life John and Nell spent together. You can almost hear Alistair Cooke in the voice-over: Johnny, born in Hall. Ind., in 1910. one of four sons of a simple and devout couple, spent much of his youth in a farmhouse with a three-holer outhouse out back. His father forged the iron goal he learned to shoot at. John and Nell waited out his four years at Purdue, only to have their savings—$909 and a nickel—wiped out in a bank failure on the eve of their wedding.
So rock-solid a couple was grossly misplaced amid the shifting-sand values of Los Angeles. When John and Nell left Indiana State for UCLA, they found the support of two familiar Midwestern pillars. Wales Smith, the minister at the church they joined in Santa Monica, had been in Wooden's class at Martinsville High. Ralph Irwin, the doctor they chose, had performed an emergency appendectomy on Wooden in Iowa City. With a pastor and a doctor they could trust, John and Nell needed little more. "Oh, you're from back East!" people would say. Crossly, Nell would correct them.
She would speak up at times when John wouldn't. She upbraided the fans who she thought were too greedy. She threw withering looks at the caviling men along press row. She badgered J.D. Morgan. UCLA's shrewd and parsimonious athletic director, about her husband's insulting salary and the anemic retirement package awaiting them. "I know John Wooden never lies," one coach said during the early '70s, "but he can't be making twenty-nine-five." At the time he was. And he never made more than $32,500.
He had no shoe contracts or courtesy cars, either. In the early days, before all the titles, before Pauley was built, Wooden's Bruins practiced amid the gymnasts and wrestlers and shared a locker room with the other men's sports. The dust from all the gym classes would build up by practice time, and Wooden and his managers had to mop the floor themselves. The undisciplined circumstances under which he was asked to teach ate away at him, but he and Nell never really considered going elsewhere, even as offers from NBA teams and several schools in the Big Ten came his way. Their son, Jim, had fallen for surfing; their daughter. Nan, for Hollywood, where she and her girlfriends staked out the stars, autograph books clutched to their breasts. Soon enough Wooden made peace with the broken promises and his chaotic classroom. "I whipped it," he says, "by recognizing it."
Some people think Wooden was too deferential to Morgan. Certainly, the same couldn't be said of Nell. "She really thought they were taking advantage of him," says Nan. "And Daddy never wanted to complain, because he never wanted for anything. But Daddy didn't have to get mad. He could stay very serene, because his other half was getting it out. Nobody was his champion the way Mother was."
Championing a champion took its toll. During his early days as a coach, Wooden would stop smoking the day practice began and forswear cigarettes for the balance of the season. In 1955, he quit entirely. But it wasn't so easy for Nell. From the time she first acquired a taste for cigarettes, Nell had relied on smoking to help her cope with the stress. Her husband desperately wanted her to give up the habit that would hasten her departure from him. but she played games with him: stashing butts in her purse, retiring to her daughter's house to get a fix.
As the dynasty pushed into the '70s, success was spoiling what should have been glorious times and edging Wooden toward retirement. "Sometimes I'm very slow making up my mind," he says. "But once I make it up, I'm very slow to change it."
On the floor of the San Diego Sports Arena in 1975, after Wooden had won his last NCAA title, a booster sought him out and said, "Great victory, John. It makes up for your letting us down last year." The attitude implicit in that statement disgusted him. There would be no second thoughts, no regrets, about retiring. He didn't want to step down. He had to. "Daddy's job wasn't fun for us," says Nan. "It really wasn't."
Here is a lesson about learning. Back in the late '60s, when he was in the midst of winning those seven straight titles and had little reason to question himself about anything, Wooden attended a press conference at which the Los Angeles Lakers announced that they had traded for Wilt Chamberlain. A reporter asked Wilt about his reputation for being hard to handle. Would the Laker coach have problems handling him? "I am not a thing," Chamberlain said. "You handle things. You work with people."