The legacy of John Wooden, UCLA’s legendary basketball coach who died June 4, 2010 at 99, will live on in Newport-Mesa Unified School District schools.
And it’s not that the district’s coaches will adopt his basketball strategies, though they could do worse. It’s much more significant than that. Several elementary schools in Newport Beach and Costa Mesa have embraced his philosophy of life – as expressed in his Pyramid of Success – as the cornerstone of a character development program that will start its sixth year in September.
The close relationship between Wooden and Newport-Mesa students began on basically a whim in 2003. Pat McLaughlin, a UCLA graduate and longtime third-grade teacher at Mariners Elementary in Newport Beach, had read Wooden’s children’s book, Inch and Miles: The Journey to Success, and thought it would be a perfect teaching tool to better develop her students’ character.
So she poked around Wooden’s website, found a general e-mail address and sent him a letter. She saw he already had 85 e-mails in his inbox that day, so figured nothing would come of it.
Several days later, she received a response from Steve Jamison, co-author of Inch and Miles, asking if she would be willing to drive to Wooden’s Encino apartment to talk about the potential program. “I was definitely excited,” says McLaughlin with a laugh. Stunned would also be an apt description.
Not long afterward, sitting in Wooden’s living room, she laid out her plan for a character development program based on his life principles and children’s book. Wooden and Jamison said they loved the idea, would like to help develop the program more fully and offered to provide graphics from Inch and Miles illustrator Peanut Louis Harper. All for free. They had one condition: The program couldn’t be copyrighted and it couldn’t be sold.
Before McLaughlin left, Wooden – who started his career as a teacher—recited for her from memory a poem titled That Is Why I Teach by Glennice L. Harmon: It was the start of a beautiful relationship.
The program was adopted by every classroom at Mariners Elementary and soon spread throughout the school district. Children learned in depth about traits of Wooden’s Pyramid of Success, including industriousness, self-control, friendship, poise, loyalty, and enthusiasm.
McLaughlin said parents reported back to her that when they asked their children to settle down, the kids responded that they were merely showing “enthusiasm,” a trait endorsed by Coach Wooden.
At the end of the first year, Wooden traveled to Mariners to give a talk to the 700 graduates of the character development program. And he returned in 2009, this time in a wheelchair, to be embraced once again by the children.
When asked if he wanted to talk, he said gently, “At 98, I don’t have many words left.”
McLaughlin drove him back to his Encino apartment. “He sat in the front seat and said, ‘This is an honor sitting next to you.’ And I was like, ‘Wow, are you kidding me?’”
During the drive, they talked about many subjects, including, of course, basketball. She said “Coach” – the only way McLaughlin refers to him – constructed for her what would be his favorite all-time basketball team, but she maddeningly won’t reveal any details except to say that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar made the squad, and that Wooden had high admiration for Phil Jackson, the Lakers’ coach, and Hall of Fame center Bill Walton.
At the end of the trip, Coach invited her up for a snack, and took her into his study, where she got what turned out to be a final photo with him. “He just kept talking,” McLaughlin says, adding that he took delight in showing her how his wife, Nell, who has since passed away, had arranged UCLA’s 10 NCAA Basketball Championship plaques into a pyramid.
On the news of his passing, McLaughlin said her sadness was tempered by the Coach’s strong belief that he would be finally reunited in heaven with Nell – plus, he wouldn’t have wanted to live a life being incapacitated.
McLaughlin says: “He was a firm believer in the quality of everything and making each day a masterpiece.”