Los Angeles Times
Home Edition, Sports, Page D-1
By J.A. Adande,
It turns out we were wrong about John Wooden.
We always thought about him in terms of Xs and O's and Ws, saw his mark in the "UCLA cuts" still utilized by coaches today, the 10 championship banners he brought to Pauley Pavilion, the three basketball Hall of Famers he tutored.
The real legacy of John Wooden can be found in items as mundane as a pair of socks and players such as John Vallely, whose NBA career consisted of 100 games and 359 points.
Vallely's playing days ended more than 30 years ago, yet he still follows Wooden's advice as closely as ever. The same principles apply whether the opponent is Oregon State or non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
"The interesting thing about playing for Coach was not necessarily the championships, but what he taught us about living life was far more important," Vallely said. "I just recall the importance of the Pyramid of Success and the characteristics. What he taught us were lifelong lessons. So much of what he was teaching really had a parable of how you live your life."
In 1968, Vallely transferred from Orange Coast College to UCLA for his junior year. On the first day of practice, he looked around the locker room filled with teammates such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor), Lynn Shackelford, Curtis Rowe and Sidney Wicks. Wooden came in, unfolded a pair of socks and told his players how to put them on, making sure there were no creases or folds that could cause blisters.
This was during UCLA's run of seven consecutive championships, and Wooden took pains to eliminate even the slightest threat to the Bruins' dominance. Vallely wasn't just along for the ride. He started in both of his seasons, averaged 13.8 points and even outscored Abdul-Jabbar, 29-25, in a Final Four game.
"John was a great player for us," Abdul-Jabbar said.
"He delivered, consistently, in the crunch. I remember that. I was real happy to play with someone like that, that was versatile and wasn't going to shy away from taking the ball and doing something righteous with it when we needed it."
It wasn't long after Vallely finished his college career in 1970 that Wooden started influencing his personal life. When Vallely was wavering on whether to propose to his girlfriend, Karen, Wooden jabbed a finger in his chest and said, "You marry that girl."
"He still takes credit for it," Vallely says.
Vallely was drafted in the first round by the Atlanta Hawks but lasted only a couple of seasons before heading to Europe to play. He returned to Orange County for his post-basketball life, starting a ski clothing store and investing in real estate. Wooden grew from his coach to his mentor and friend, and his teachings became increasingly relevant.
"So many of the things he said that had to do with basketball really had a lot to do with life," Vallely said. "Success was more important than winning or losing the game."
Similarly, as Abdul-Jabbar had his children, he discovered himself applying the same approach he received from Wooden. Now he's proud of the four college graduates he raised.
"The idea of challenging them to be at their best and pushing them at the times when they needed to be pushed, but not taking away their individuality, really started with how I was treated by John Wooden," Abdul-Jabbar said. "He's an amazing man that way."
Wooden always defined success as "peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best that you are capable of becoming."
To Vallely, that meant, "Being able to say, 'I have no conflict in my heart over my effort.' Carry that into your business life and family life, marital life. It puts a spring in your life and makes you want to do the best you can in those areas."
It enables him to triumph even through adversity. Vallely's 12-year-old daughter, Erin, died in 1991 after a three-year battle with pediatric cancer; since 1989 he has made children's cancer research funding his philanthropic mission.
Treating kids with cancer is particularly difficult because "they react differently to chemotherapy, they're fast-growing and changing differently than adults," Vallely said. "My daughter's legacy is her mommy and daddy are trying to do something about that."
For assistance, he recruited a key player: his old coach.
For the last decade Vallely has been the host of exclusive private dinners with Wooden and moderated Q&A sessions with him as part of the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation's annual "Bid for the Kids" fundraising event. (This year the event, which included a live auction of sports memorabilia, netted $220,000.)
Even at 95, Wooden keeps lending his name and showing up for free.
And Vallely keeps learning. When someone asked Wooden the two most important words in his vocabulary, Wooden chose "love" and "balance."
"His faith in God, love of family, love for the things you're involved in," Vallely said. "Balance: not being too high, too low."
The way those lessons have taken root is evident in Vallely's response to the challenges life throws at him. He recently was diagnosed with a recurrence of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system.
What struck me was how the tone of his voice sounded similar in a series of phone calls: on the evening before he went to Houston for more testing; the next day, when a test showed he might not have the disease after all; this week, when further tests indicated he did have it.
As always, he followed Wooden's advice.
"He said, 'This is a bump in the road,' " Vallely said. "He encouraged me to go forward. The way I treated it was to be the best patient I could be. Same old deal: Have peace of mind about that, give the doctor the best chance he could to heal me."
It worked once, and it's his best shot to beat it again.
"I wish it hadn't happened, but stuff happens to people," Vallely said. "I look at what those kids go through, it's a mind-blower. There's always someone who has more difficult circumstances than you. My life has been good. I'm pleased with that. I'm hoping to carry on. But it is what it is."
It is a life enriched, still, by the man who taught him how to put on his socks 37 years ago.