99 Years of John Wooden

R.I.P., Wizard.

1910, Age 0: African American boxer Jack Johnson’s victory over James J. Jeffries in “The Fight of the Century” sparks race riots across the United States… Albanians revolt against the Ottoman Empire, setting off a chain of events that later ignites the Balkan War… The Ford Motor Company sells 10,000 automobiles…

John Robert Wooden is born the third of six children to Joshua and Roxie on Oct. 14 in Hall, Ind. John’s father carries mail through rural towns for a living. The family farm has no running water or electricity… Basketball turns 19 years old.

1918, Age 8: Germany signs an armistice with the Allies on the “11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month,” formally ending The Great War… The Boston Red Sox capture their third championship in four years by defeating the Chicago Cubs in the fifteenth World Series… The United States Postal Service initiates the world’s first regular airmail service between New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C….

The Wooden family moves to a small farm in Centerton, Ind. John’s father instills in him a seven-point creed: 1) Be true to yourself 2) Make each day your masterpiece 3) Help others 4)Drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible 5) Make friendship a fine art 6) Build a shelter against a rainy day 7)Pray for guidance, count and give thanks for your blessings every day.

1924, Age 14:  Gottlieb Daimler Daimler and Karl Benz merge their respective companies to form Mercedes-Benz… Adolf Hitler serves nine months in jail for inciting the Beer Hall Putsch, the first Nazi coup attempt on Germany… Fascists win election in Italy… American author Truman Capote and President Jimmy Carter are born; communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin and President Woodrow Wilson die…

The Woodens lose their farm to bankruptcy after a cholera outbreak kills the family’s livestock. They move to Martinsville where John’s father finds work as a masseuse at Homelawn Sanitarium. John idolizes Fuzzy Vandivier, an Indiana high school basketball star who lead the “Franklin Wonder Five” to state titles in 1920, 1921 and 1922. Fuzzy is the first three-time all-state player. He wears Chuck Taylor All-Stars, invented in 1917.

1927, Age 17: The Department of the Treasury founds the Bureau of Prohibition… Bell Telephone Co. transmits a picture of Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover as the first long-distance demonstration of television… An 8.6 magnitude earthquake in Xining, China kills 200,000… Italian immigrants Ferdinando Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti are sentenced to death for double murder… The New York Yankees win the A.L. Pennant by 19 games before sweeping the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig finish the regular season with a combined 107 home runs and 339 RBI. After his team is outscored 21-1 in a game in July, the Senators Joe Judge says, “Those fellows not only beat you, but they tear your heart out. I wish the season was over.”

Wooden leads his Martinsville High team to the second of three straight state championship finals. This year Martinsville wins the title, but John would remember most the following season’s loss to rival Muncie Central. He becomes the second three-time all-state player in his senior year, joining his childhood hero Vandivier. Oscar Robertson becomes the third man to achieve the feat 29 years later. 

1928, Age 18: Charles Lindbergh receives the Medal of Honor for his first trans-Atlantic flight… Disney Studios in Los Angeles releases “Plane Crazy,” an animated short film that introduces characters Mickey and Minnie Mouse… The first iron lung is used at Boston’s Children’s Hospital; The Boston Garden opens nearby… 

Wooden forgoes a professional baseball offer to enroll at Purdue University. There he is coached by Piggy Lambert, innovator of the press and fast-break offense. Wooden earns the nickname “The Indiana Rubber Man” for his kamikaze-like dives to the floor. He learns from Lambert that the team who makes the most mistakes is both the most active and the one which controls the game. 1932, Age 22: A consulate of Italian fascists led by Benito Mussolini meets Pope Pius XI in Vatican City… At 34, Amelia Earhart flies solo from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland to Derry, Ireland in 14 hours, 56 minutes… The Dow Jones Industrial Average bottoms out at 41.22, its lowest level of the Great Depression… Radio City Music Hall opens in New York City…

Wooden leads the Purdue Boilermakers to the national championship, becoming the first three-time consensus All-American in the process. He later graduates with an English degree and marries high school sweetheart Nellie Riley. He calls her “Nell.” They wed in a small ceremony in Indianapolis, before attending a Mills Brothers concert later that night to celebrate. 

1934, Age 24: Bill Russell is born to Charles and Katie Russell in West Monroe, Louisiana… German President Paul von Hindenburg dies in August; Adolf Hitler appoints himself fuhrer and chancellor days later… Persia becomes Iran… FBI agents shoot “Public Enemy #1” John Dillinger outside of Chicago’s Biograph Theater roughly four months after he escapes from an Indiana prison using a wooden gun…

Wooden accepts a coaching job at South Bend Central High School after two years at Dayton High in Kentucky. At Dayton, he makes $1,800 a year as athletic director, head baseball, basketball, football and track coach, and English teacher. John asks to be relieved of football duties, which he insists he knows nothing about. He plays in the National Basketball League on the side for $50 a game, at one point making 138 consecutive free throws. When he hits 100, officials stop the game and present him with the first $100 bill he’s ever seen.

1942, Age 32: Over 1,200 AA shells are fired at unidentified, slow-moving aircraft over Souther California. Six people die and no planes are downed in what comes to be known as “The Battle of Los Angeles”… The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra performs Aaron Copeland’s new war-inspired work, “Lincoln Portrait”… The U.S. Navy accepts its first African American seamen…

Wooden leaves his job, his wife, his son John and daughter Nancy to join the Navy. He’d compile a 218-42 record over 11 years at Dayton and Central. His first year at Central (6-11) would be the only losing season of his coaching career. John serves three years in World War II, climbing the ranks to lieutenant. However, he misses his tour of duty on the USS Franklin because of an emergency appendectomy. The ship leaves without him. It is destroyed by kamikazes on March 19, 1945.

1946, Age 36: North Vietnam elects president Ho Chi Mihn; Charles De Gaulle resigns as French head of state… Bikinis go on sale in Paris… The New York Knicks defeat the Toronto Huskies 68-66 in the first game of the Basketball Association of America’s inaugural season… Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life” screens in New York five days before Christmas… 

Wooden accepts the head coaching job at Indiana Teacher’s College (Indiana State) in Terre Haute. He leads the team to the ’47 Indiana Collegiate Conference title, but refuses a bid to the NAIB Tournament, citing its ban on black athletes. He coaches Clarence Walker. Wooden also coaches the baseball team and completes his master’s in education. Indiana State reaches the NAIB final in ’48 after the invitational drops the ban. Walker becomes the first African American to play in an inter-collegiate postseason. Wooden never loses another title game. 

1948, Age 38: Members of the Pissed Off Bastards of Bloomington and three other motorcycle gangs found Hell’s Angels in Fontana, CA… Israel declares its independence; Egypt, Transjordan, Iraq and Syria invade the day after… London holds the Summer Olympics, the first in 12 years… Robert Plant, Ozzy Osbourne, Brian Eno and Lester Bangs are born… The Alcindor family celebrates baby Lew’s first birthday… The Chicago Tribune runs the Nov. 3 headline, “Dewey Defeats Truman”…

Wooden whittles down a flurry of coaching offers to Minnesota and UCLA. He is set to speak with Minnesota AD Frank McCormick at 6 p.m. one evening. McCormick gets stuck in a snowstorm. UCLA calls at 7. Wooden accepts, unaware of the mitigating circumstances. He posts a first-year mark of 22-7. This is the school’s fourth winning record in 18 seasons and the most wins in school history. After 14 years, Wooden also completes his definition of success – a values pyramid built on “industriousness,” “friendship,” “loyalty,” “cooperation,” and “enthusiasm.” He will distribute copies to players and coaches for five decades. 

Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming. ~ John Wooden

1950, Age 40: President Truman commissions the development of the hydrogen bomb in response to the Soviet Union’s first nuclear detonation a year earlier… Disney releases its 12th animated film, “Cinderella”… North Korean troops cross the 38th Parallel… An earthquake and subsequent flooding in Assam, India leave 5 million homeless… 

Wooden leads the Bruins to their third straight Southern Division Championship and first NCAA Tournament appearance. UCLA had won a combined two division titles in 30 years before Wooden’s arrival. After the season, Purdue head coach Mel Taube steps down, creating an opening for John to return to his alma mater. He’d promised UCLA 3 years. He keeps his word. Nellie Wooden still hates Los Angeles. 

Wooden was called for one technical foul in his career.

1956, Age 46: In February, Elvis Presley enters the Billboard charts for the first time with “Heartbreak Hotel”; He plays the “Ed Sullivan Show” seven months later… Heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano retires with a 49-0 record… General Electric introduces the Model 7H241, the first ever “snooze” alarm clock… Marilyn Monroe marries playwright Arthur Miller… Don Larsen pitches the only World Series perfect game… Bob Barker makes his TV debut as host of the game show “Truth or Consequences”…

UCLA completes the first of eight perfect conference seasons under Wooden. The team wins 17 straight en route to the PCC title, but falls to Bill Russell’s USF Dons in the NCAA regionals. San Francisco repeats as champion. In April, the Boston Celtics select Russell second in the NBA draft, a pick after Sihugo Green. Fifty years later, Russell pulls Wooden aside at a Hall of Fame event, telling the coach, “You know, the last game I lost in college was to you. Forty-seven to 40. You kicked our ass.” Wooden laughs. “No, no. We just edged you out.”

1960, Age 50: Soviet anti-aircraft fire downs an American U2 spy plane; Francis Gary Powers is captured… Senator John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) wins the Democratic presidential nomination… President Eisenhower signs the Civil Rights Act into law… The U.S.S.R. launches Sputnik 4 and 5, the latter with dogs Belka and Strelka aboard… The Beatles complete a 48-night residency at the Indra Club in Hamburg, Germany…

John Wooden is enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player. His career highlights include an NBL scoring title in 1933 and a first team selection five years later. UCLA struggles on the court, finishing 14-12 after two straight 16-win, third place finishes.

1964, Age 54: Chicago’s Vee-Jay Records releases “Introducing… the Beatles”; Capitol Records sues and issues “Meet the Beatles” 10 days later… “I Want To Hold Your Hand” climbs to #1 on the U.S. Singles Chart a week before the Beatles land at JFK International Airport… On Miami Beach, Cassius Clay stops title-holder and betting favorite Sonny Liston in six rounds; Clay is the heavyweight champion at 22… Malcolm X quits the Nation of Islam… President Johnson declares “war on poverty”…

In Wooden’s 16th season at UCLA, his Bruins top Duke 98-83 to cap their first 30-0 perfect season. UCLA guard Walt Hazzard earns Most Outstanding Player honors of the 25-team NCAAs. Gail Goodrich also stars. John is humbled when a pigeon poops on his head outside a hotel on the morning of Easter Sunday. “Well we just won the national championship, the team did, don’t let it go to your head,” he says years later. “I think the Good Lord was letting me know, ‘Don’t get carried away.'” Coach still despises his new nickname, “The Wizard of Westwood.” 

1968, Age 58: Viet Cong forces launch the Tet Offensive with a series of surprise attacks against South Vietnam… Ex-Teenagers singer Frankie Lymon overdoses on heroin in Harlem… Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” premiers in Washington, D.C…. Martin Luther King, Jr. is murdered in a hotel room in Memphis, Tenn., sparking riots in major cities across the country… Student protestors at Columbia University break into the administrators’ offices and shut down the school… The Beatles unveil their own label, Apple Records… The S&P 500 closes above 100 for the first time… Led Zeppelin make their first live performance at Surrey University in London; The Rolling Stones film “Rock and Roll Circus”… Former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy marries Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis…

Led by All-American Elvin Hayes, Houston ends UCLA’s 47-game winning streak in front of 52,693 in “The Game of the Century.” Bruins center Lew Alcindor sits out most of the game with a scratched cornea. Wooden’s team avenges the 71-69 Astrodome loss in the NCAA semis, clobbering the Cougars 101-69 with their healthy star center. UCLA tops North Carolina 78-55 in the finals to win a fourth title in five years and the second of seven in a row. The following year, Wooden defeats his alma mater Purdue in the title game. Alcindor finishes his career 88-2 (with an asterisk). 

1973, Age 63: The television audience for Elvis Presley’s Hawaii concert surpasses that of the Apollo moon landings… The Miami Dolphins defeat the Washington Redskins 14-7 in Super Bowl VII to cap off the NFL’s only perfect season… The first American POWs are released from North Vietnam… Yankees first baseman Ron Blomberg becomes Major League Baseball’s first designated hitter… Pink Floyd releases “Dark Side of the Moon”… The U.S. Senate holds televised hearings of the Watergate scandal… The New York Knicks defeat the L.A. Lakers to win the NBA championship in 5 games…

Wooden leads UCLA to its seventh straight national title, defeating Memphis State 87-66 in the NCAA final. Bill Walton scores 44 points in the game on 21-22 shooting. The Bruins are 75 games in to their record 88 consecutive wins streak. After Sport Illustrated names him “Man of the Year” 12 months prior, Wooden wins his seventh and final NCAA Coach of the Year award after completing back-to-back perfect seasons. He is also elected again to the Basketball Hall of Fame, this time as a coach.

1975, Age 65: MITS begins selling the Altair 8800, one of the world’s first commercially available microcomputers… The U.S. moves daylight savings up two months in response to the energy crisis… College dropout Bill Gates founds Microsoft in Albuquerque, NM… South Vietnam surrenders unconditionally after Saigon falls to communist forces… Comedian George Carlin hosts the first episode of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live”…

Wooden announces his retirement in a press conference after UCLA’s NCAA semis win over Louisville. Days later, the Bruins win their 10th title. “He has been college basketball,” says AD J.D. Morgan. “He has been the game. He has compiled records nobody is going to equal.” Wooden never makes more than $35,000 – including speaking engagements – in any one year of his life. He reveals in his autobiography that Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke once offered him 10 times his UCLA salary.

1977, Age 67: Snow falls in Miami, Fla. for the first time in recorded history… Upon taking office, President Carter pardons Vietnam War dodgers… “Star Wars” becomes the highest-grossing film of all-time… A brawl erupts at Led Zeppelin’s last U.S. concert in the Oakland Coliseum; police charge drummer John Bonham with assault of promoter Bill Graham’s entourage… 75,000 fans gather in Memphis for the funeral of Elvis Presley… The New York Cosmos’ Pele plays his final professional soccer game…

UCLA senior guard Marques Johnson receives the first John R. Wooden Award, given annually to the “most outstanding college basketball player in the United States.” Of the four major player of the year honors, this is the one that most accounts for character. The awards founder, Richard “Duke” Llewellyn, will die at the age of 93 on June 4, 2010, the same day as friend of 60 years, John Wooden.

1985, Age 75: Mike Tyson wins his professional debut in Albany, NY by first-round knockout… President Ronald Regan is sworn in for a second term… The Food and Drug Administration approves the first blood test for the AIDS virus… South Africa lifts ban on interracial marriages… Coca-Cola changes its patented formula, selling the product as “New Coke”; Coca-Cola Classic returns three months later… Highway officials decommission US Route 66… John Gotti takes over the Gambino crime family after organizing a hit on bosses Paul Castellano and Thomas Billoti in front of Spark’s Steakhouse in New York…

Nellie Wooden dies of cancer on March 21 after 53 years of marriage to John. Daughter Nancy describes how the couple would acknowledge each other before every game: ““He rubbed his feet on the floor, turned around and winked at her. My mother then made a circle with her thumb and forefinger. They were sweethearts for 60 years.” John visits Nellie’s grave every month on the 21st, writing her a love letter he’d then place under the pillow she used to sleep on. John also becomes the first sports figure to receive the Bellarmine Medal of Excellence. He names Mother Teresa, a past recipient, as a person he’d most like to eat with, along with Jesus Christ and Abraham Lincoln.  

1994, Age 84: Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding’s ex-husband orders an attack on rival skater Nancy Kerrigan… Vice President Al Gore presides over the Superhighway Summit at UCLA’s Royce Hall… Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain dies in his home in Seattle from an apparent self-inflected gunshot wound… O.J. Simpson and Al Cowlings flee from police in a white Ford Bronco days after Simpson’s ex-wife Nicole Brown and friend Ronald Goldman are murdered outside of Simpson’s house… The Reagan family announces that the former president has Alzheimer’s…

UCLA beats Kentucky 82-81 in the first John Wooden Classic. UCLA goes on to win the national championship for the first time since defeating Kentucky in the ’75 NCAA final. Wooden spends his time reading and writing poetry in his home a few miles away from campus. He is constantly interrupted by a steady stream of visitors, but still finds time to hand-mail copies of his Pyramid to high school coaches throughout the country.

2003, Age 93: Over 10 million people in 600 cities gather worldwide to protest the impending U.S. invasion of Iraq… Scientists complete the sequencing of 99 percent of the human genome… Martha Stewart resigns as chairwoman and CEO of Martha Stewart Living after being federally indicted for insider trading… The Washington Post’s Robert Novak publishes the name of undercover CIA operative Valerie Blame… The U.S. Fourth Infantry Division captures Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Tikrit… Actress Katharine Hepburn dies at the age of 96…

UCLA dedicates Nell and John Wooden Court at Pauley Pavilion on Dec. 20 against Michigan State. President Bush awards Wooden the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor awarded to those who’ve made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” 

2010, Age 99: Asked to explain his old age, John Wooden says, ““I’ve practiced moderation all my life. I never drank alcohol and only smoked very lightly (before 1950). I have a relative peace with myself. My faith gives me tranquility.” The coach passes away on Friday, June 4 of natural causes. Those that believe in heaven maintain that John is already there. 

– Robbie


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4 responses to “99 Years of John Wooden

  1. This is awesome. I totally teared up at the end.

  2. qbytheU

    The ship leaves without him. It is destroyed by kamikazes on March 19, 1945.

    Wow…never heard that one. Great piece!

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