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John Wooden celebrates his 99th birthday today

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“A tribute to the man who helped make basketball great in Philadelphia and beyond.”

October 14, 2009 is the 99th birthday of the great John Wooden and while college basketball fans across our nation tip their hat to the man who did so much for the great game of basketball, we in the Philadelphia area hold a special spot in our hearts for this great man.

When you think of great college basketball in the area, one team comes to mind.  That team of course is the 1985 Villanova Wildcats.  The Cats’ truly overachieved during that glorious season when their coach Rollie Massimino snuck into the craze we know as March Madness and stunned the number 1 ranked Georgetown Hoyas led by their historic coach John Thompson and future Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing.  In the Philadelphia area, we still can envision Ed Pinckney going up for a rebound and we wonder if Harold Jansen has made yet another shot?  That is our story and we will behold it forever because that year put Villanova on the NCAA Basketball Map for life and for a moment, we also loved Rollie Massimino but as most great love affairs, sometimes the fire fades away and it certainly did with the controversial Massimino when he helped destroy the “Big Five” and all those memories of the Philadelphia teams at war in the renowned “Palestra” were stripped away from us for reasons we can never truly explain.  That’s our story but fans don't forget, we never would’ve had a story had it not been for the greatest basketball mind the world has ever seen and this love affair will never end.  His name is John Wooden.

Long before the Rollie Massimino’s or the late-great Jim Valvano were taking March Madness to new levels, there was a man in Westwood, California who changed the face of basketball.  John Wooden, the man who celebrates his 99th birthday today, was an innovator who we all owe a debt of gratitude too.

Wooden was the first man ever enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach.  (Lenny Wilkins and Bill Sharman would eventually follow).  During a 12 year span, Wooden led the UCLA Bruins to 10 National Championships, 4 perfect seasons and 88 wins in a row.  While that is impressive, the story of John Wooden is even more incredible.

Born in Indiana and a high school basketball legend, Wooden stressed education to his family and players and continued to earn his Masters Degree in Education while teaching, coaching and serving as the Athletic Director of Indiana State University from 1946 to 1948.  And while his teams were successful at Indiana State University, Wooden would leave his mark on the Civil Rights cause long before it was fashionable to do so.

In 1947, Wooden’s Indiana State team won the Indiana Collegiate Conference title and received an invitation to the NAIB National Tournament in Kansas City, Missouri.  Wooden refused the invitation because the BAIB policy banned African-American players from participating and one of Wooden’s payers, Clarence Walker would be ineligible.   Standing behind his player and principles worked because the next year the policy was changed and this paved the way for black players to be accorded the respect they earned on the basketball court.

“Accidents will Happen”

After a successful run at Indiana State, Wooden was a sought after coach and he narrowed his choices down to the University of Minnesota and UCLA.  Due to his wife wanting to stay in the Midwest, Wooden was prepared to take the Minnesota coaching position but when he was waiting to receive a call about the job, the phone never rang.  Wooden was concerned the Minnesota program had lost interest and took the UCLA position.  In actuality, there was bad weather in Minnesota and the phone lines were dead so attempts to call Wooden failed.  If the weather was decent during that time, Wooden would’ve never coached the UCLA Bruins.

“The Bruins Era”

While he hates the nickname “The Wizard of Westwood”, it is an appropriate one.  Wooden is a beloved figure in the UCLA community not only because of his success but also because of his loyalty.   During his tenure, not only did Wooden lead the Bruins to 10 titles in 12 years, he never left the school despite being offered more money.  Wooden never made more than $35,000 per year but was offered more than 10 times that amount to coach the LA Lakers by then owner Jack Kent Cooke but he remained with the school.

Wooden was beloved but was still a fierce leader.  When you went to UCLA you followed Wooden’s rules and that was understood.  Wooden paved for the ways for such talented players like Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton.  Alcindor, later known as Kareem Abdul Jabbar could’ve gone to any school but choose to be with Wooden and one of those reasons was due to the fact that Wooden fought to give black players opportunities both at his school and across the NCAA.  As for Bill Walton, that’s another story.

Walton was a superstar and also a political activist.   During Walton’s time at UCLA in the late 60’s and early 70’s, Walton wanted to keep his hair long and told Wooden he wouldn’t play if he had to cut his hair.  Walton looked the best college basketball player in the nation in the eye and said, “We’re going to miss you Bill.”  A stunned Walton cut his hair and the two have been close ever since.

Wooden was more than a basketball coach, he was and still is a leader.  Wooden paved the way for teams like the 85 Villanova Wildcats by fighting for black players’ rights and making NCAA postseason basketball a national event.  The nation should celebrate the 99th birthday of John Wooden and hope we get to see this great man make it to 100 so that he can achieve yet another milestone.