Loss of a National Treasure

The lowly author pictured with Coach John Wooden in December 2003.

Last weekend, America lost one of its greatest treasures, John Wooden, who died of natural causes at UCLA Medical Center. He was 99.

Famous for a 27-year basketball coaching career at UCLA where he led the Bruins to 10 national NCAA championships (including 7 in a row), Coach Wooden was revered for his wisdom and integrity. For me, he was a voice of reason when the world became difficult to navigate off the basketball court; I consider his famous “Pyramid of Success,” which he began in the 1930s, as a practical road-map to leadership, be it in medicine, basketball,  or any other area of life.

To cognitive psychologist Alan Castel, Ph.D. of UCLA, who interviewed Wooden shortly after his 98th birthday and wrote about his experience in the Association for Psychological Science Observer, Coach was a shining example of successful aging.

“Coach’s memory was by no means astounding, and by his own assessment it has changed considerably over the years,” Dr. Castel wrote. “However, many other factors influence his memory and cognitive function: His personality, positivity, wisdom and attitude towards aging play important roles in his cognitive vitality—often things that are overlooked when studying specific memory mechanisms.”

Wooden’s penchant for creating and memorizing poetry, as well as the busy schedule he kept, seemed to help him maintain vim and vigor, according to Dr. Castel. “He took pleasure in showing me the handwritten appointment calendar that he maintains, which keeps him busy with lunch and dinner outings, physical therapy visits, family events, keynote addresses at major events, and more casual meetings with former UCLA players, who frequently stop by to say hello.”

Perhaps his famous former player, Bill Walton, said it best in the introduction he wrote to Wooden’s book, “They Call Me Coach.” John Wooden, he wrote, “represents the conquest of sacrifice, hard work, and commitment to achievement over the pipe dream that someone will just give you something or that you can take a pill or turn a key to get what you want…He regularly tells us what he learned from his two favorite teachers, Abraham Lincoln and Mother Teresa, is that a life not lived for others is not a life.”

— Doug Brunk (on Twitter@dougbrunk)

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Filed under Geriatric Medicine, IMNG

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