Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Coach Wooden and the Pre-Game Meal

Coach Wooden and the Pre-Game Meal


It was Saturday, December 5, 1970 and UCLA was playing its second game of the season, a preseason game against Rice University. The day before, they had beaten Baylor 108-77. Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe, the two All-American forwards, had demonstrated not only why they were national champions the year before, but that UCLA was in shape to win it again.


But when the starting team was announced, Sidney and Curtis were not included. In fact, Coach Wooden didn’t put them in the game until ten minutes were used first half. Why? These were the two best players in the country and Coach Wooden always started his best team.


On the day of every game, home and away, UCLA coaches and players ate pre-game meal together about five hours before game time. The menu never changed: a 16 oz New York steak, baked potato with one TBS butter, peas, fruit cup, Melba toast, and hot tea.  


On that particular day, pre-game meal was at 3:00. It was very unusual for anyone to be late to anything, especially this great dinner, but Wicks and Rowe casually strolled in at 3:10, not apologizing but rather greeting everyone as if nothing was wrong. Coach Wooden didn’t say anything.


Fast forward to about twenty minutes before game time when Coach Wooden was addressing the team before it went out to the floor for warmups. As always, he provided the matchups, which means, who was guarding who. Wicks and Rowe were not mentioned.


Twenty one minutes before game time, Coach Wooden told everyone to get into the hallway and prepare to go out to the floor for warmups. Everyone went out except for Sidney and Curtis. Coach asked, “Why are you not going?” I think it was Wicks who arrogantly demanded, “Why are we not starting?” Coach said, “You were ten minutes late for pre-game meal, so you’ll not play the first ten minutes of the game.”


Wicks said, “Well when you call us to send us into the game, we may not go at all.” Coach Wooden replied, “If you don’t go in the game when I call you, you’ll not play another minute for UCLA.”


When ten minutes were gone, Coach looked down the bench and yelled, “Curtis and Sidney: Get in the game!” They sprinted to the scorer’s table. UCLA won the game 124-78 and Coach didn’t have a problem with the two forwards the rest of the season. UCLA repeated as Champion.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Coach Wooden and Grandchildren

Coach Wooden and Grandchildren


Like many, I have talked with Coach Wooden about the Xs and Os of basketball. He liked explaining how things work. Like many, I have talked with Coach Wooden about life. He really liked talking about life. Like many, I have talked with Coach Wooden about the ins and outs of creating a united team. He would sit up in his chair to talk about that. I have talked with John Wooden about grandchildren. That’s when he would sit up in his chair and lean forward. I think he loved that subject more than anything else. Stories and stories he would tell filled with very funny and heart-warming moments. Once Coach said, “My granddaughter looked at me eye to eye, moved in a little closer almost nose to nose, and softly said, ‘Papa. You’re really sumpin.’”  


Like many, I didn’t understand his joy until I received my first grandson, Chase Maxwell. I wanted Coach to know I had learned the lesson so I wrote this poem and sent it to him.  



Grandpa’s Little Boy

Swen Nater


I hold my infant grandson tenderly.

His eyes meet mine and I hear angels sing.

His trusting stare gives more than worth to me.

Oh, I am rich, yes richer than a king.


And when I think of all the waiting rhymes,

Created for those virgin, tender ears,

The circus clowns and puppet shows and mimes,

I beg my God to live a few more years.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

John Wooden on Golf

John Wooden on Golf


About 1990, five years after retiring from the NBA, I took an interest in golf. Many ex-NBA players do because it’s a very challenging sport to conquer. And most of us sadly discover, it’s too late to master it. Nevertheless, we spend countless hours a day practicing bunker shots, chip shots, pitch shots, and longer shots at the driving range. I got my handicap down to fifteen which I think is respectable.


One eighteen hole round, I shot a 55. I had two hole in ones but had some trouble with the Clown’s Mouth and Windmill holes.


But seriously, in a visit to Coach Wooden’s condo in Encino, California, I discovered, he was quite the golfer during the years he taught at UCLA. He told me, “Swen, once I got a double eagle and hole in one in the same round.”


I asked, “Which was the most fun? I bet it was that double eagle.”


With some excitement, he replied, “Not at all. It was the hole in one. You see, I never saw the ball go in the hole when I made the double eagle. On a par five, I hit a 260 yard drive right down the middle of the fairway. About to hit my second shot, I calculated I was about 275 yards away. The group in front of us were on the green putting. With my three wood, I knew I couldn’t reach the green so I hit the ball with the plan of laying up perhaps 50-70 yards from the green. I hit the ball solidly with some draw from right to left. It landed about 50 yards from the green and rolled forward and onto the green. A firm believer in practicing golf etiquette, I knew I had done a terrible thing, hitting into the group in front of me. I waved as if to say, “Sorry.” They waved back, all of them, and enthusiastically pointed down to the hole. The ball had gone in. Later, I was able to apologize but they would not accept.”


Coach Wooden continued, “I have one word of advice for you, Swen. Don’t take golf too seriously.” Going forward, I remembered those words whenever I hit the ball in the pond, popped it up off the tee, and putted ten feet past the hole on a five foot putt.


Coach and I talked about various ways to improve a golf game. I mentioned one item I had purchased, the “Medicus,” a practice iron with a hinge in the shaft. If you made a downswing with a jerk, the hinge releases and you are left with a floppy club head. I told Coach, “Practicing with this club is supposed to take four or five strokes off your game.”


To that he replied with a smirk, “Swen, I’ve probably seen all the commercials and ads for gimmicks they promise, will take strokes off your game. I did the math and, if I bought all of them, I wouldn’t have any strokes.”  I never bought another video or practice tool again.


My handicap is much higher now and I play golf about two times a year. Nevertheless, whenever I play, I bring an extra pair of pants. You know why? Well, in case I get a hole in one. Coach liked that joke.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Coach Wooden and Fromin's Delicatessen

Coach Wooden and Fromin’s Delicatessen


I’ve worked for Costco Wholesale in the Seattle area corporate office for almost twenty-four years now. About twelve years ago, work took me down to LA so I decided to pay Coach Wooden a visit. He lived in Encino, California. My Costco boss, Rick DeLie, who was also there on business, asked if he could meet Coach Wooden. I arranged for the three of us to have lunch at Coach’s favorite delicatessen, Fromin’s, not far from Coach’s condo. As it turned out, my community college coach, Don Johnson and his wife were also visiting coach, and Coach’s daughter, Nan, wanted to go too. So I made reservations for six.  


The food was great and the conversation was even better. Rick, being a huge sports fan, asked Coach a lot of questions about the great UCLA teams and the glory days. Don Johnson, a UCLA All-American under Coach Wooden in the 1950’s, talked about “back in the day” stuff. Nan pretty much listened.


I have always looked for the humor in things so when the opportunity came, I told a joke. Everyone laughed, thank goodness. Coach then turned to me and asked, “Where do you come up with all these jokes, Swen?” This was my opportunity and I took full advantage.


As many of you know, I played about two minutes per game at UCLA because the starter was the great Bill Walton. In other words, I was a “benchwarmer.” I answered Coach, “Coach, you know I spent a lot of time on the bench.” He blushed a little. “I had plenty of time on my hands. People behind me, in the stands, used to tell me jokes. That’s how I learned them.”


Coach smiled and said, “You know, Swen, that’s interesting. There were a couple of times I was going to put you in the game and looked over toward you, but you were looking behind you so I didn’t bother.”


I blushed a lot while Coach patted me on the shoulder.

Coach Wooden and The Game of Life


Adults often make the mistake of prematurely-judging young people as to what profession it looks like they will eventually be involved in. Little Amy struggles in math but becomes a scientist. Little Johnny repeatedly fails his Friday spelling tests and morphs into a successful non-fiction novel author. I was getting C’s in math until the eighth grade when my teacher helped me make sense of it all and finished two years of college calculus. Born in The Netherlands, I struggled with English writing. I have six published books to date and I’m writing blogs.


Experienced adults have learned not to judge a book by its cover when it comes to youth. There may be some occasional “indicators,” but they know young people will surprise you and often prove you wrong.


Coach Wooden was no exception. Bill Walton was one of UCLA’s all-time most valuable players and it was relatively safe for Coach Wooden to predict he would become one of the NBA’s greats. But when, after the NBA, Walton decided to become a television basketball commentator, it surprised many he became one of the best, considering throughout college and well into the pros, Bill had a stuttering issue. But Coach Wooden was not surprised at all.


During a UCLA player reunion, when Coach was asked by the MC, “Are you surprised Bill Walton became a commentator?, he responded, “As many of us know, Bill stuttered quite a bit when at UCLA, so much so, he refused to get in front of a camera for interviews. I am not surprised, knowing Bill, he overcame this difficulty. But now we can’t shut him up.”


The Game of Life

Swen Nater


The Little League game was about to begin,

On a perfectly, wonderful day.

One team sprinted out

With a spirited shout,

For the boys were excited to play.  


As their coach saw the field, with his players in place,

A vision took over his sight.

Each Little League lad

Grew the age of a dad,

Complete with the beard and the height.


His pitcher, an artist, composed to create

On a canvas awaiting and bare.

His stroke on the ball

Made it spin and then fall

When it curved and it carved through the air. 


His catcher, a general, positioned in place,

Was leading the rest of the pack.

On his signal and sign,

They joined to combine,

With a quick and successful attack.


His shortstop, a surgeon, whose quickness and skill,

When it seemed as though death cast its fate,

On the double, he caught,

What the grave almost got,

And threw lifelessness out at the plate. 


His outfield consisted of no lesser men:

Three statesmen with not one reproach.

On third was a preacher,

And on second, a teacher,

On first was a Little League coach. 


As the vision grew fainter, the coach stopped and thought.

The epiphany cut like a knife.

Baseball was more

Than a game and a score;

It was practice for the game of life.   

Monday, June 25, 2018

Through Coach's Eyes

Through Coach’s Eyes


My eight-year-old grandson, Chase Maxwell, started his very first basketball camp this morning. I was there. Camp started twenty minutes late due to registration, during which time Chase ran up to me and said, “I’ve already shot a hundred shots. I’m bored. When does all the fun stuff start, Papa?” He’s a little impatient due to his excitement for this week. As the camp director addressed the campers for orientation, Chase was glued to every word the man said. That’s when I remembered I wrote this poem.


I don’t believe anyone has put Chase down but I do believe, he’s not sure how good he is compared to the other boys. You see, in spite of his grandpa being seven feet tall, Chase is not tall for his age. And since this is a third-fourth grade camp and he is a third-grader, Chase is one of the smallest boys there.


I’m confident he is depending on the coach to believe in him, to encourage him, and to praise him. Chase watches everything I do and he talks to me about everything. He trusts me. He knows, no matter what the outcome, if he is doing his best, my smile tells him it’s OK.


I idolized Coach Wooden. He was everything I wanted to be. I wanted to see basketball and life through his eyes, and he was careful to make that happen.




Swen Nater


Hi, Coach. It’s me. I’m on the team.

Been looking forward to this day.

Got my glove and got my ball.

Couldn’t sleep last night at all,

But here I am, prepared to play.


They say you really love this game,

Not for the glory or the prize.

I want to love it just like you.

So teach me how to love it too.

I want to see it through your eyes.


My other coaches put me down,

And each time something in me dies.

I saved some faith I think is strong,

‘Cause I knew you would come along.

I want to see things through your eyes.


I don’t believe in me so much.

I’m just a kid inside my shell.

If you believe in me, I could,

See through your eyes, and know I’m good.

Then I’ll believe in me as well.


And through your eyes, I hope I see,

That if we’ve lost, or if we’ve won,

You won’t compare me to the rest.

You’ll see that I have done my best,

And smile at me and say, “Well done.”


Then someday when I’m all grown up,

Like you, I’ll be astute and wise.

I’ll face the choices, without pause.

I’ll make the righteous ones because,

I learned to see through Coach’s eyes.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Coach Wooden's "Two Sets of Threes"

Coach Wooden’s “Two Sets of Threes “


Never lie. Never cheat. Never steal.

Never whine. Never complain. Never make excuses.


They say, “Never say never,” but Coach Wooden didn’t agree with that. There are certain things you should never do. Try being true to the “Two Sets of Threes” for one day; it’s nearly impossible. As far as I could tell, Coach did.


I never caught him in a lie. There may have been one exception. He told us, “You are the best-conditioned team in the country.” He didn’t know if that were true but he did know, if we believed it, we would continue to put the pressure on the other team, knowing those players would wear down before we did. But that’s not really a lie, is it?


I never saw Coach cheat. Well, there was this issue about the net. When we played in the opponents’ arenas, when the basketball was shot and went through the net, it went through the net. Our nets were quite a bit stiffer for some reason. The ball seemed to take it’s time falling through, perhaps even one or two seconds longer. We full-court pressed after every made basket. That extra time to get in position but I’m sure that was just a coincidence.


Coach never stole a thing in his life but he taught us to steal. Whenever possible, take the ball away from the other team. We liked stealing and did a lot of it.  


But seriously, he did teach us never to whine, complain, or make excuses. For example, the last thing he told us in the locker room, before we went out to warm up for a game was, “If you know you have prepared to the best of your ability, I want your heads up at the end, no matter what the score.” In other words, no whining, complaining, or making excuses.


We didn’t lose one game while I was on the team but when I was redshirting (practicing but not on the roster to save a year of eligibility), we lost to Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. I saw the game on TV. Austin Carr played brilliantly for the Irish and I have to say, the refs played brilliantly for them also.


When Coach conducted the next practice on Monday, he didn’t mention one word about the game. It was practice as usual. It would have been easy to make excuses, and there were some valid ones, but Coach practiced what he preached. As a result, we had one of the best practices of the year and we didn’t lose a game the rest of the season.  



Swen Nater


On the road to the top of the mountain,

At the base of the very last hill,

There’s a pleasing and well-traveled exit,

For the faint with a weakening will. 


For the last stretch is steep and is daunting,

And for most, it’s just too much to bear.

And those with the best of intentions, 

Turn right and then settle down there.


And together they built a calm city.

And they talk of such things as, “could have.”

And they find consolation in “but” and in “if,”

And of course the most popular, “would have.”


There’s a sign up ahead by the highway,

“Excuseville: A Sweet-Dreaming Town.”

You’ve done well; you can stop.

It’s too far to the top.

Take the exit and just settle down.