Sports Outside the Beltway

Legendary UCLA Basketball Coach John Wooden Dies At 99

NCAA FINAL UCLA WOODENJohn Wooden, the UCLA basketball coach who led his teams to twelve NCAA Championships, died overnight at the age of 99:

John Wooden, a staid Midwesterner who migrated to U.C.L.A. and became college basketball’s most successful coach, earning the nickname the Wizard of Westwood and an enduring place in sports history, died Friday at Ronald Reagan U.C.L.A. Medical Center, where he had been hospitalized since May 26. He was 99.

His death was announced by the university.

Wooden created a sports dynasty against which all others are compared, and usually pale. His teams at U.C.L.A. won 10 national championships in a 12-season stretch from 1964 to 1975. From 1971 to 1974, U.C.L.A. won 88 consecutive games, still the N.C.A.A. record.

Four of Wooden’s teams finished with 30-0 records, including his first championship team, which featured no starters taller than 6 feet 5 inches.

Three of his other championship teams were anchored by the 7-foot-2 center Lew Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Two others were led by center Bill Walton, a three-time national player of the year.

Wooden retired after U.C.L.A.’s 1975 championship victory over Kentucky. A slight man hugely popular for his winning record and his understated approach, he ultimately became viewed as a kind of sage for both basketball and life, a symbol of both excellence and simpler times.

Even in retirement he remained a beloved figure and a constant presence at U.C.L.A., watching most games from a seat behind the home bench at Pauley Pavilion. Lines of well-wishers and autograph-seekers often snaked their way to his seat in Section 103B. Wooden always obliged his fans, until the university and his family requested that he be granted privacy in January 2008, when he was 97.

A dynasty like Wooden’s would be almost impossible now, because the best players seldom spend more than a year or two in college before turning professional. No N.C.A.A. men’s basketball coach has won more than four championships since Wooden retired. Of Wooden’s eight coaching successors at U.C.L.A., only one — Jim Harrick in 1995 — won an N.C.A.A. championship with the Bruins, who have managed to retain an air of the elite among basketball programs largely on Wooden’s legacy.

Wooden’s success fed upon itself. When he won his first two national championships, landed Alcindor and moved home games to the new Pauley Pavilion, high school stars begged to play for him. Besides Abdul-Jabbar and Walton, Wooden turned out celebrated players like Gail Goodrich, Walt Hazzard, Keith Erickson, Henry Bibby, Lucius Allen, Sidney Wicks, Jamaal Wilkes and Marques Johnson.

“He was almost a mystical figure by the time I got to U.C.L.A.,” said Johnson, a starter on Wooden’s final team. “I couldn’t really sit down and have a conversation with him about real things just because I had so much reverence for him — for who he was and what he had accomplished.”

College basketball is a much different game than it was in Wooden’s game, and it’s unlikely we’ll see the likes of him ever again.

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