I once was asked if I’d be interested in writing a movie about John Wooden. I flew to L.A., had a few meetings, but I already knew my answer. Of course. Who wouldn’t want to be connected -in any way – to Wooden’s story? The greatest coach ever? The Wizard of Westwood? I only wondered if you could capture his life on film and 1) not make it corny and 2) have people believe it.
The project got tabled, as often happens with these things. And it remains today one of my two big regrets about John Wooden. I still can’t help wondering how that movie would unfold.
Certainly you’d begin in the spacious Hoosier country of the 1910s, where a kid shoots baskets on his family’s hog farm. Maybe contrast the bouncing ball with the sound of wind and the distant noise of animals.
When the Woodens lose the family farm, you have to show that, and the hardscrabble times that helped mold the kid’s values.
You follow his path to Martinsville High, where, shooting two-hand set shots, he leads his team to three state title games with a haircut straight out of a Brylcreem commercial.
And of course, there’s a scene at a carnival where he meets a girl named Nelli. One look and the audience knows: She’s the love of his life and always will be.
Then it’s off to college, Purdue, where he becomes a star. You go heavy on the action scenes here – the tightly muscled Wooden diving for every loose ball – because it’s the last time we’ll see him actually playing. Today, a three-time All America is a no-brainer for an NBA contract. But in the 1930s, if you wanted a long career in the sport, you more likely did what Wooden did:
You found a whistle. The big names and the lesser names
We show his high school coaching stops – interrupted by the Navy during World War II – and a few years coaching at Indiana State, where he refused a tournament invitation because it didn’t permit black players.
Oh, and we can make a memorable scene about a storm that knocked out the phone lines just as Minnesota was about to call to offer Wooden its coaching spot. Instead, a call came through from a school way out west. UCLA. Wooden accepted.
And there’s your second act.
He becomes a legend with the Bruins, but not until 16 years in. We might have a hard time getting today’s audience to believe a school would let a man coach 16 years without winning it all.
But when our hero finally wins, man, how he wins. Ten national championships. Four perfect seasons. An 88-game winning streak. And innovations like the 2-2-1 zone press that leave other coaches slack-jawed.
Of course, movies are about relationships, and the ones he has with his kids, from no-names all the way to the Lew Alcindors and Bill Waltons, well, they’re the backbone of the film. The time he quotes the black poet Langston Hughes to Alcindor. The time Walton shows up with a beard, saying it’s his right to grow one, and Wooden says “You’re right, Bill. And we will miss you.” Great moment there.
Same goes for quiet scenes. Wooden going to church wearing string ties, holding his wife’s hand, maintaining the lowest profile of any high-profile coach.
And then Act III. Longing for a lot more talent
Here, as he ages, we see how his legend affected so many people. How he didn’t just coach, he taught. How he didn’t yell or curse, he inspired.
As the world gets meaner and uglier, Wooden, the gentleman, stands out for what he does with a simple phrase. We see how his “Woodenisms,” like “never mistake activity for achievement,” ring truer and truer.
We show the way the players come back to him. We show his retirement. We have to show, sadly, the day he loses his beloved Nelli, and how every month for the rest of his life, he visits her grave and writes a note that he leaves on her pillow.
At the end of all bio pics like this, there is the farewell. Maybe a huge tribute at UCLA, mourners crying and smiling. I don’t know. I never considered that part.
Until today. John Wooden died Friday night, at age 99. And when they say “we’ll never see his likes again,” they mean it for him.
I mentioned two regrets. The movie was one. The second was – and I’ve never said this about anyone – I wished I had been good enough to have been coached by him. We are graced by the teachers in our lives, and those who were graced by John Wooden are today remembering what truly lucky young men they were, even as his amazing story reaches The End.
Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).