Sunday, June 6, 2010

Personal Reflections on John Wooden

I was a freshman in college at Indiana University in 1973. It was March and the NCAA tournament had reached the Final Four. I wasn't much of a basketball fan at that point in my life. My high school basketball team never advanced past the first round of the Indiana tournament, back when all schools played in the same tournament (think "Hoosiers").

I was doing my laundry in the dorm and wandered into the adjacent student lounge and over to the television, which had been left on. The lounge area was completely empty at the time. A basketball game was on and as I watched I realized that IU was playing UCLA in the Final Four semi-finals. Wow! I had no idea that my school's team was that good! UCLA went on to win the tournament with John Wooden as coach and Bill Walton as his star center.

I bought season tickets for basketball the next year and attended every home game at IU. During my junior year, IU went undefeated until the Regional finals, losing to Kentucky. My senior year, they went undefeated and won the NCAA tournament. That team is the last team in the NCAA to complete a perfect season and win the tournament.

Prior to IU completing their perfect season, there was only UCLA. I didn't think any team would ever match their success and so far, no team has. UCLA seemed to be on a different plane of existence. What sports fan can forget their dominance? UCLA began to fade into the background after John Wooden retired, although his teams became the gold-standard that would forever go unmatched. It left an impression on me that I have never forgotten, especially in light of the fact that IU came close for only one year.

I have a funny anecdote to tell you about John Wooden.

When I was growing up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, we lived next door to an older couple that spent many, many summer days at our pool. Jim Zeiler was an engineer for the Indiana-Michigan Electric Company, having graduated from Purdue University, IU's arch-enemy in all things sports-related. His wife, Dort, was an avid Indy 500 fan, which I've written about before, here.

For a little background, when I was a pre-teen, Jim Zeiler was already planning for his retirement. He was building an A-frame house on Lake Tahoe, at Incline Village. He was going to need a Jeep to navigate the snowy winters and promised to let me drive it to Lake Tahoe for him. When I graduated from high school, he kept his promise. Although he didn't buy a Jeep (they were cheaper to buy out West), he bought one of his company's fleet vehicles to trade in on a Jeep in Nevada. My buddy and I drove the car out West after we graduated, traveling via Phoenix, LA, San Francisco, Reno and finally on to Lake Tahoe and his A-frame house.

When we arrived at their house in Incline Village, we were treated to hamburgers on the grill from the deck of the house, looking out through the Ponderosa Pines to Lake Tahoe. While we ate, Jim Zeiler shared some memories from his time at Purdue University, because both my buddy and I were planning on attending IU in the fall, as roommates. He told us about his roommate, who was a jock and played on the basketball team. As a prank, my neighbor sprinkled Cayenne pepper into his jock. Needless to say, the Cayenne pepper had the intended effect and his roommate was jumping up and down in pain, as my neighbor and others in the dorm howled with laughter.

His roommate's name was John Wooden.

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