When I was in junior high school I attended a UCLA vs. USC basketball game at Pauley Pavilion in Westwood with my church youth group. The atmosphere was electric!!! I'd found my calling! From that day forward I wanted to be a basketball player. I ended up playing in high school and college and still play to this day.
Fast forward about 20 years .... I planted a church in the Antelope Valley and Bill Sharman's (former Laker coach) daughter and grandkids attended my church. Bill called me one day and said he was speaking at an event in my area with John Wooden and asked if I'd like to attend and meet Coach Wooden? You bet! Bill personally introduced me to John Wooden, my hero. I brought my Bible for Coach to sign and asked, "Coach Wooden, would you please sign my Bible?" He looked straight into my eyes and said, "Oh no, Dave, I don't sign Bibles. I don't feel worthy." I was in shock. I didn't know what to say or how to respond. I just looked down for a second and then looked up at Coach. Then he said, "But in your case Dave I'm going to sign your Bible." He signed it, "Thank you, Dave, for your interest. John Wooden. 1 Cor. 13" Wow!
Five years later I was asked to preach the weekend services at Shepherd of the Hills Church in Porter Ranch, CA. In my message I shared about the importance of taking responsibility for our actions and not blaming others. I used a Wooden illustration .... When UCLA's 88 game win streak ended, the media was blaming various players for the loss. Wooden stepped up and said, "It's my fault. If you want to blame anybody - blame me!" So I walk out of the third service into the lobby and I'm greeting people and up walks Coach Wooden who says, "Nice sermon Dave." Unbelievable!
That night I attended a UCLA vs Illinois game at Pauley with the executive pastor (Tim) from SOTHC. Our seats were right behind the UCLA bench. Just prior to tip-off, Coach Wooden and his daughter made their way to their seats which were one row behind ours. I glanced over my shoulder and Coach is about 10 feet away. He waves to me, smiles and says, "Hi Dave!" I thought I had died and gone to heaven!
Two years ago I attended a fundraising dinner for the Simi High School basketball program and Coach Wooden was the speaker. At the end of his speech there was a Q&A time and I asked, "What is the hardest trial you have ever gone through?" He teared up and without hesitation said, "Losing my Nellie." Nellie Riley Wooden was John's high school sweetheart and they were married for 53 years. At the beginning of every basketball game he would look up into the stands and acknowledge his love for her. Coach Wooden still grieves for his Nellie. He will always grieve for his Nellie and I will always grieve for my Jackie.
p.s. Coach Wooden, in my humble opinion, is one of the greatest people in the 20th & 21st centuries. He is a man of values, who loves his Lord deeply and models true servant leadership.
John Wooden reciting a poem called, "Don't Look Back"