I can't say that I ever knew the legendary University of California, Los Angeles basketball coach. No, my interaction with him was reserved to one day a year when I would shake his hand on the last day of his camps. I would drive out to Thousand Oaks with my mother and after spending much of the day chasing Dallas Cowboys in hopes of getting their autographs, I would make my way to the old gym where we would wait for the final day of camp to end so we could take my dad back to Los Angeles.
And every time, as if it were clockwork, my dad would take me over to where the coach sat and make me wait so that I could say hello to the great man.
John Wooden was always very cordial to me. He told me my father was a nice man and other things that never held much meaning for such a young boy. Then I would shake his hand and say "thank you," or something like that, and be off to see just which Cowboys had actually signed my autograph book.
It took me a few years to actually realize that he was a more important man than the many other coaches who my father made me say hello to at those camps. I finally realized he was indeed someone special when my friend's father gave me a 7-Up bottle with the coach's picture on it. It was then that I thought I should have probably been asking him for his signature instead of all those football players, most of whom were cut by the time the team went back home to Texas. It took me a couple of more years to figure out just why he was so great.
I finally figured it out my fifth-grade year at Allen Academy in Bryan, Texas. In our English class we had to memorize a poem and recite it for the class. The verse I chose was called "A Little Fellow Follows Me." To be honest, I think I only picked it because my father goaded me in to it. But it was an easy enough poem to remember and I had little trouble memorizing it and reciting it for the class.
Now you are probably wondering what this has to do with the former coach of the UCLA Bruins. Well, if you wonder you don't know, so I'll let you in on the secret. It seems before he was ever the greatest basketball coach ever, John Wooden had simply been an encyclopedia salesman in Indiana. I guess he probably was still a basketball coach, but somehow, through his encyclopedia dealing, he had found this poem and embraced it.
This was, of course, the reason my father wanted me to memorize it and the reason my father told me I should write the coach a letter and tell him I had used this poem for my class.
I did exactly as my father instructed and thought nothing more of it. I had gotten an ‘A' on my presentation, which was enough for me. However, a couple weeks later, I received a letter in the mail from some exotic locale in California. In the upper right-hand corner was a sticker with a return address that said, "John R. Wooden." Inside the envelope was a handwritten letter from that man whose hand I shook each summer. It was at that moment I finally realized the man's greatness and it was not because I had any sort of revelation about college basketball.
No, it did not matter how many titles he had won or how many players he had sent to the NBA. What touched me the most was that he had taken the time to personally respond to a little boy who lived 1,500 miles away in a little town in Texas.
The letter still remains in the old cedar box that I put it in that day. As for the memory of my brush with greatness, well it stays in the back of my mind. I take it out every now and then, just as a reminder.