Wooden draws crowd of wide-eyed fans

John Wooden visits Athens and Charles Odum was there to cover it.

ATHENS, Ga. — Given that John Wooden was in the building, the request would have been less surprising coming from almost anyone else.

But as if offering evidence that Wooden could turn anyone in Athens into a wide-eyed, autograph-seeker, Vince Dooley approached a group of people Friday night and rather anxiously blurted out, to no one in particular, "Does anyone have a blank sheet of paper?''

Knowing that Wooden, the 91-year-old legend of college basketball, was about to enter the room, Dooley was on a mission. Offered a program entitled "An Evening With John Wooden,'' a smiling Dooley turned and began to walk away. Then, returning, he said with another smile "Give me a couple of those.''

No matter whether the audience was Dooley, members of the Georgia basketball team, a crowd of about 350 who paid $100 each to attend a reception for Wooden, or a crowd of more than 1,000 who paid $25 each to hear a speech later in the night, the former UCLA coach commanded complete attention. Dooley confided that the autograph he was seeking was for his son, Daniel, and a grandson, Patrick.

"I already have his autograph; he signed his Pyramid of Success and I have it on a wall in my office,'' Dooley noted.

With five foundations — industriousness, friendship, loyalty, cooperation and enthusiasm — leading up to competitive greatness at the top, Wooden's Pyramid of Success is almost as popular as his high-post offense.Wooden said he doesn't travel much but said "I came to Athens primarily because of my friendship with Coach (Jim) Harrick.''

Harrick, the Georgia basketball coach, guided Wooden around the Classic Center and beamed as his new home town made such a fuss over the guiding force in his career.

As a high school coach in California, Harrick worked at Wooden's summer camps almost 40 years ago. Harrick adopted Wooden's high-post offense and has used those lessons to enjoy 16 NCAA tournament seasons and win more than 450 games as a college head coach, including one NCAA championship at UCLA in 1995 — with Wooden sometimes in the stands.

"I get cold chills thinking about it,'' said Harrick when asked what it was like to have Wooden in Athens. "It gives me a great thrill to share him with my friends at the University of Georgia.''

Neither Harrick nor any other active coach has approached Wooden's record 10 NCAA titles.

"It happened in a different era in a different time, but you can't lessen the impact; you can minimize that whatsoever,'' Harrick said.

Born in Martinsville, Ind., in 1910, Wooden was the National Player of the Year at Purdue in 1932, but he said Friday he was more proud to win an academic medal the same year.

Wooden coached at Indiana State for two years and at UCLA for 27 years — 1948-75. From 1967-73, UCLA won 38 straight NCAA tournament games and overall won 88 straight games from the 1971-74 seasons.

"I think I must have had a lot of outstanding players that came my way, and I did,'' Wooden said. "I think winning breeds winning. ... You have to have good players and good luck.''

Wooden said there is a much higher level of athleticism in today's game.

"If the team play had improved as much as the athleticism, it would be out of this world,'' Wooden said. "I love to see good team play and not one-on-one business.''

Later, with a long line of fans waiting to shake Wooden's hand or have a picture made with the coach, Georgia star Jarvis Hayes watched from a few feet away.

"I can't believe I'm standing this close to him,'' Hayes said.

From Dooley on down, that seemed to be the opinion of everyone on this night.

Charles can be reached here: CEOdum@aol.com

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