By Mike White | Wednesday, June 9, 2010, 10:15 a.m.
John Wooden touched many lives during his days as a UCLA coach and for many years afterward. A former WPIAL coach in baseball and soccer passed along a Wooden story to me earlier this week and one word can describe the story. Amazing.
Dave Fortun coached soccer at Deer Lakes and was an assistant at Fox Chapel. He won two WPIAL championships as a player at Springdale many moons ago. He also was an assistant baseball coach at Shaler under legendary coach Jerry Matulevic and was an assistant on the 1980 Shaler team that many consider one of the best in WPIAL history. Fortun also was a longtime teacher at Shaler Area High School and is in that school district's sports hall of fame.
Anyway, I figured it best that Fortun himself tell his John Wooden story. It is a wonderful story.
The account below was written by Dave Fortun:
"Guys," I said to our sons, "we're having breakfast with John Wooden."
"THE John Wooden?"
"THE John Wooden."
And have breakfast with THE John Wooden we did, one memorable Christmas vacation 15 years ago when our family, wife Charlene and sons Justin and Ben, traveled to Los Angeles for a meeting with the greatest man any of us has ever known.
John Wooden had been a role model for me for years. We were both English teachers, both coaches, and though the similarities ended there, I strove to emulate his liefstyle, his values, his demeanor.
I also wanted our sons to emulate this great man, so I wrote to him, through the UCLA athletic department, informing him that we would be in Los Angeles at Christmas, asking if we could meet on campus, hoping that just a short meeting would inspire Justin and Ben.
Imagine, if you will, the thrill of retrieving from the mailbox on December 24 a letter in John Wooden's own handwriting, inviting us, total strangers, to meet him at Pauley Pavilion on the UCLA campus, where he would be taking physical therapy following hip surgery. Also included: his home phone number (imagine that happening now), in case we needed to contact him if there were any problems.
On the morning scheduled, we did indeed meet Coach Wooden. Thrilling enough. But he then invited us to join him for breakfast at Polly's Pie Shop, a favorite restaurant of his, operated, of course, by one of his former players.
It got better. He invited Justin and Ben to ride with him, while my wife and I followed.
And better. We spent three hours at the restaurant with the most successful college basketball coach of all time, conversing as you would with a family member you have known your whole life.
Coach Wooden shared stories of his famous players: how he had recruited Lewis Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul Jabbar); how he had informed Bill Walton, college player of the year, that if Walton would not shave his beard before the team picture, it had been nice knowing him, but he would no longer be a member of the Bruin team; how he knew, before his last NCAA championship game, that it was time to retire.
But he also shared stories of his undying love for his deceased wife Nellie and his admiration for his father's wisdom. He shared stories of the poetry he wrote for each of his grandchildren. He shared stories of his teaching years in Indiana, his love for his players, his love for all human beings.
And he shared all of this with four people he had never met before, four people he would never seee again.
We left Polly's Pie Shope, posed for a picture with John Wooden, thanked him for his time and kindness. He thanked us as well. It's the kind of man he was.
Coach Wooden and I exchanged books, reading lists, and letters over the years. Each year, Coach Wooden would receive a birthday card and a Christmas card from the Fortuns.
Each year, our admiration for this man grew. We incorporated one of his favorite maxims into our family philosophy of life: "You cannot live a perfect day unless you have done something for someone who has no way of repaying you."
One of the last letters we received closed with these words from Coach Wooden: "May this new year be good to all of you and bring all nations in this troubled world nearer enduring peace and all people closer to true love for each other."
When John Wooden joined his wife Nellie last week, millions of people were saddened.
Our family, for perhaps more personal reasons, was among them.