The Legend Lives On: John Wooden
UCLA gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field remembers the day in 1995 she went to her husband, then-assistant UCLA football coach Bobby Field, and made a suggestion.
"Why don't we invite Coach Wooden over for dinner?"
Kondos Field had never met John Wooden. But she figured he might like a nice home-cooked meal.
Bobby Field, now an associate athletic director at UCLA, wasn't sold on the idea. He told his wife that Coach got many invitations. He probably would politely decline.
"I nagged him for a week, kept telling him 'Just ask him,'" Kondos Field said. "My incentive wasn't to get close to him. I just thought he might like a home-cooked meal. And of course he said 'I'd love to.'"
And that, as they say, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Wooden arrived and promptly told Kondos Field that he knew who she was, that he enjoyed watching her gymnastics team compete.
Kondos Field remembers what she made that night. Steak, potatoes and green beans. She figured it was just the kind of meal that a farm boy from Indiana would appreciate.
"We became very close friends," Kondos Field said. "He always told me he appreciated the discipline that gymnastics required, that he appreciated that the personalities hadn't overshadowed the sport."
Wooden, who has been honored throughout this year's Pac-10 basketball season, appreciated so many sports beyond the one that made him a legend.
He was an avid baseball fan after his own baseball career was cut short by a shoulder injury. He admired the UCLA women's softball team and struck up a friendship with coach Sue Enquist, who retired as the Bruins head coach in 1996.
He considered women's basketball "a beautiful game," and his complimentary words about women's basketball provided the game a treasured boost of support.
"For Papa it was all about people," said Ann Meyers-Drysdale, the UCLA basketball legend, who regarded Wooden as a father figure. "He wasn't just about sports, but he had such a special relationship with so many people."
After his dinner that night with the Fields, Wooden began showing up at almost every UCLA women's gymnastics meet. Kondos Field started roping off a small VIP section, because if she didn't, everyone would want to come and sit next to Coach Wooden. Kondos Field, like many other coaches, brought her athletes to talk to Wooden at his home, to ask him questions.
"He told me he always respected the fact that as young adults, they had the poise and composure to go out and perform individually, but that after they were through with that performance, they were able to come back and assimilate into the team," Kondos Field said. "When things started to go awry, there was no one to pass the ball to."
Meyers-Drysdale said Wooden always had a "special relationship" with her UCLA team, which was coached by Billie Moore. Meyers-Drysdale's brother David had played for Wooden on the men's basketball team.
"He really did appreciate our game," Meyers-Drysale said. "And he was invested in our team. He had a great relationship with all of the women's coaches. But I know he loved the gymnasts. I think he liked them so much because they were smaller than him."
Wooden's respect for women's basketball was well-known. His longtime caretaker Tony Spino said that Wooden expressed his admiration for coaches like Tennessee's Pat Summitt and Connecticut's Geno Auriemma, who once said that meeting Wooden was like meeting Babe Ruth.
"He talked about Stanford and how he was really fond of the way they ran their program and their discipline," Spino said. "He thought it was the purest game."
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said Wooden's respect for the women's game brought respect from others.
"Anytime you have arguably the best college coach in history saying positive things, people are going to listen," VanDerveer said. "I always thought it was great that he had such respect for the women's game and an appreciation for the way it's played."
Spino was Wooden's caretaker for many years. He knew all about the coach's passion for other sports, but none more than baseball.
"It was his first love and I think he loved it even more than basketball," Spino said. "He was a great baseball player in high school, a great shortstop. It was his dream really to play Major League Baseball."
But his shoulder injury left him unable to throw the ball.
"It sent him off to basketball," Spino said.
Spino was with Wooden at the 2002 World Series when he threw out the first pitch in Anaheim before the Angels-Giants game.
The pair then retired to the stands to sit with Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, Spino said.
"Bud Selig turned and said to me 'Does coach like baseball?' and I said 'He could name you the greatest players ever to play at every position,'" Spino said.
The commissioner replied that he was impressed that Wooden used to be able to do that. Wooden turned to him and said, "I could do it right now, if you'd like me to."
"The commissioner was floored and they talked and talked," Spino said.
Wooden built strong relationships with former Yankees and Dodgers manager Joe Torre and Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, who he once called "the smartest player he'd ever seen." Wooden would become a rabid Yankees fan, a tough turn in Dodger Country.
Spino said he knew he needed to be prepared every morning during baseball season to tell Coach the Yankees score and what Jeter had done at the plate the night before.
Angels manager Mike Scoscia would invite Wooden to take part in coaches meetings. Troy Tulowitski, the young star shortstop of the Colorado Rockies, wrote Wooden a letter a couple of years ago. Wooden ended up inviting Tulowitski and his wife to his home.
"I've never seen anyone, anyone who was more respected," Spino said. "He always found the good in everyone. He followed all the local teams. He always wanted to know how the local teams did and I had to tell him. He followed everything."
Spino said Wooden enjoyed watching tennis and admired athletes "who knew how to conduct themselves."
"Everybody sought him out and he was incredible," Spino said. "Coaches have sought him out from all over the country, especially the successful ones. They wanted to know how to maintain success. People came to realize that he was teaching them life lessons. He just wanted to teach."
And to watch.
Kondos Field didn't just make dinner for Wooden that one night.
He would come back to their home many more nights. Sometimes he would stay and talk so late into the evening that she would have to chase him out, reminding him that she had to go to work the next morning.
"He'd come at 5:30 and it would be 10:30 or 11 and I would go get his walker and tell him it was time to get home," Kondos Field remembered with obvious fondness.
"He would always tell me 'You're so subtle,'" Field said. "It was hysterical.
"People always thought he came to our meets because of our friendship. And I know that was part of it. But I also know he really appreciated our athletes."
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