Published November 20, 2014
Every time I dialed Coach Wooden's number I would get nervous. He retired from coaching when I was getting out of high school so I never covered his teams, but this was John Wooden.
The first time I called him at home I was kind of hoping he wouldn't answer and I would have a few extra minutes to make sure I had a smooth voice and sounded like a veteran member of the media.
In the middle of the answering machine's message, I heard the phone pick up and his unmistakable voice said, "Hello."
I explained who I was and that I was doing a story on dunking and that he would be a great source of information since he was an All-America player at Purdue and then the most successful of college coaches with 10 national championships at UCLA.
He started talking about how not dunking helped Kareem Abdul-Jabbar when he played for Wooden as Lew Alcindor.
"Lewis was a player who wanted to learn, and that is so important in a coach-player relationship," Wooden told me.
I asked him if he could remember the first time he saw a player dunk.
"That's a great question," he said as I did a quick cartwheel since he called my question a great one. "We just didn't do it in my time. We had a player at Purdue named Francis Murphy and we called him Slats. Francis could jump up and place the ball above the rim and let it fall through but he never dunked it. We just didn't do it. I used to jump up from the under the basket and grab the rim with two hands."
I chuckled a little and he asked why.
"It's kind of hard to imagine you jumping up with a suit on and your program folded in your hands," I said.
"Now don't be a wisenheimer, Jim," he answered quickly and I felt like one of my teachers was quietly making a point.
He gave me so much material for that story and there were many times when I would call to ask his perspective on any subject, especially basketball. The conversations would last 30 to 45 minutes some days but they were never too long. Talking to John Wooden on the phone was as good as it gets.
On the way to cover Jerry Tarkanian's last home game at UNLV in March 1992, I stopped to see Duke play UCLA at Pauley Pavilion. I had never been to Pauley before. It's one of those places, like the Boston Garden or the Dean Smith Center, where you look up and stare at the banners.
I was doing just that hours before the game was to start. I looked down toward the court and I couldn't believe it. There was Coach Wooden sitting alone in the bleachers behind what would become the UCLA bench.
I approached cautiously and finally said, "Excuse me, Coach. I'm Jim O'Connell, the pain in the neck who calls you all the time."
"Oh please," he said. "It's so good to meet you in person. Sit down and let's have one of our talks."
After five minutes I was hoping somebody I knew would walk in and see me. After 10 minutes I was hoping for a stranger with a camera. Another five minutes and I would have taken a guy with a sketch pad and charcoal.
Nobody came until a production assistant told Coach that they were ready to shoot the public service announcement.
I had 15 minutes alone in Pauley Pavilion with John Wooden. I'll never be nervous about making a phone call again.
Jim O'Connell has been the AP's national college basketball writer since 1987 and received the Curt Gowdy Award from the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 2002