The recent unlikely “March Madness” run by UCLA evokes in me memories of John Wooden and the glory days of UCLA basketball. For those of us in Los Angeles, it gave us hope that a sense of normalcy might be returning. 

As a kid growing up in the Bay Area, I really had a disdain for UCLA basketball. During those years they always won the NCAA Men’s Basketball title. Being both a Cal grad and also a Stanford fan, I saw John Wooden as the enemy.

When I moved to Southern California, I had a change of heart. First of all, I actually got to meet Coach Wooden. Both my sons participated in his basketball camps as kids.

At his camps I got to hear him speak about his Pyramid of Success a few times. What amazed me that even in his late 80s he patiently signed autographs after his presentation and more importantly spoke to each parent and camper who was waiting in line for his autograph.

Another factor in my change of heart concerning UCLA basketball was my wife Lisa. Although a Cal grad, Lisa grew up a life-long and die-hard UCLA fan!

I still remember being with her at a game at Harmon Gym, where she ran up to Marques Johnson asking him to have a picture taken with him. (Old-school selfie.) It was kind of embarrassing since we were both sitting in the Cal rooting section. By the way, the Bruins killed us that day!

Coach Wooden was not only the greatest basketball coach of all time but I believe one of the great persons of the 20th century because of his Pyramid of Success and his view of a successful life course.

As a freshman/sophomore basketball coach at Alhambra High School, I evoked many of the teachings of Coach Wooden.

Son Colin with Coach Wooden.

One of his best lessons that you can give a young person was Coach Wooden’s definition of success: “Success comes from knowing that you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” It was not about winning or losing. I would yell at my players in practice to “be quick but don’t hurry!”

Both our boys would leave for school with Mom’s admonition to “make this day your masterpiece.”

One of my greatest memories of Coach Wooden was seeing him at a book-signing at Vroman’s in Pasadena. As we approached him to get our book signed, he recognized my son Colin from the camps. He said, “Colin, come here!” He then gave Colin a big hug. As we left the line, I told Colin he had just been hugged by the greatest basketball coach of all time. What amazed me is that he remembered Colin!

Our family relationship with UCLA continued with Steve Lavin, whom we knew through a common family friend. We went to quite a few games during the Lavin years and I even had a chance to take my AHS team to see one of his UCLA practices.

Coach Lavin agreed to be interviewed by Colin for his 7th career project, as he wanted to become a sports broadcaster. Colin now works in the industry.

During this recent “Cinderella” run during “March Madness,” Nick Cronin’s team has served as a unifying element for Los Angeles. The Bruin blue-collar approach captivated Southern California college basketball fans. The heart-breaking loss to Gonzaga is probably one of the greatest games in NCAA basketball history.

Both my wife and youngest son Colin are rabid UCLA fans. It’s great to see mother and son bonding and giving each other high-fives with each basket made.

We have other friends who live and die with Bruin basketball. During the game, my wife was texting with multiple friends. One of our friends texted that she had to close her eyes in the final minutes of Saturday’s game against Gonzaga.

In a sense, UCLA’s run is a testimony to the power of sports. I believe for a brief moment in the midst of a pandemic, it bought a sense of normalcy back into our lives. It was also a reminder for many of us of the legacy of John Wooden.


Bill Yee is a retired Alhambra High School history teacher. He can be reached at Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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