We talked about death; he actually brought the subject up, insisting that he had no fear of it, for Nell would be waiting there and then—"out yonder," he called it, or "the inevitable hour," quoting one of his favorite poems, Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. Death had given him a wide berth: During the war, after being assigned to serve on the USS Franklin in the Pacific, he ruptured his appendix and had his orders canceled; the Purdue fraternity brother who replaced him was killed in a kamikaze attack. Years later, delayed en route to a speaking engagement in North Carolina, he had just missed his connecting flight, which crashed. In 2006, despite blood in his urine, he vowed to fly to Indianapolis to fulfill a commitment to speak at the Final Four on the afternoon of a title game that featured UCLA. "You can go," his doctor told him, "but if you go, there's a good chance that you'll die. And if you die, no one will care about the game. All they'll care about is you." He did not go.
It's hard for anyone, even a skulking sportswriter, to visit the home of a nonagenarian who lives alone and not ask if there's a chore to do or an errand to run. It turned out that Wooden needed a lift to the post office. It was deep in his small-town Hoosier English-teacher bones: If you wrote John Wooden, he wrote back. Some people had figured out how to take advantage of this. They'd pluck stuff off eBay, old Purdue yearbooks and UCLA memorabilia, and send them for his autograph, often with no return postage, surely sometimes (Wooden suspected) with an eye to turning around and selling them.
But if you're a person who writes back when written to, even into the final decades of your life you'll gamely lug several bulky envelopes to the post office a few times a week. The errand we ran stands as a fitting final memory of the old coach and the values that sustained him during a long life and an extraordinary career.
Former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins, who practices the art Wooden so revered, once wrote that "experience holds its graduation at the grave." When John Wooden is finally laid to rest, at long last alongside his beloved Nell, may there be a band graveside to play Pomp and Circumstance.