Thursday, June 10, 2010

In Memoriam of Coach John R. Wooden: Death and Commencement

Standing outside of the John R. Wooden Recreation and Sports Center located at the heart of the UCLA campus I heard a young female voice call out “Coach Stricherz! Coach Stricherz!” I stop, smile and stand in disbelief for two reasons:
  1. 35,000 students attend this great university I had the good fortune of meeting a former runner.
  2. I thought this athlete just completed her sophomore year. She tells me she is graduating later this week—how quickly time flies.
The vibe on campus confirmed that finals are nearly (if not entirely) complete. Graduation season is underway and even as a teacher, I love everything about it: the pomp and circumstance, the academic regalia, the inspiring words of the valedictorian, commencement speakers and more.

I am continually amazed at who various colleges and universities invite to give their commencement address and why. Notre Dame’s invitation to President Barrack Obama last year was incredibly divisive among Catholics and those loyal to ND. It sparked debate, controversy and larger questions about the role of a Catholic university. As I watched from my living room 2,000 miles away, it was obvious to me that anticipation, excitement and tension filled the air as the President entered the Joyce Athletic and Convocation Center. It lingered—two forces competing with one another—until Obama said:
I also want to congratulate the class of 2009 for all your accomplishments. And since this is Notre Dame, I mean both in the classroom and in the competitive arena. We all know about this university's proud and storied football team, but I also hear that Notre Dame holds the largest outdoor 5-on-5 basketball tournament in the world - Bookstore Basketball.

Now this excites me. I want to congratulate the winners of this year's tournament, a team by the name of "Hallelujah Holla Back." Well done. Though I have to say, I am personally disappointed that the "Barack O'Ballers" didn't pull it out. Next year, if you need a 6'2" forward with a decent jumper, you know where I live.

I leaned back into my couch and smiled as I realized, the hardwood served as neutral ground. Perhaps some folks were more open to hearing the heart of his message because of his appeal to sports and knowledge of a time-honored athletic tradition on campus; maybe they were not.

For John Wooden, the legendary UCLA men’s basketball coach who died on Friday June 4, the hardwood was seldom if ever neutral ground. More often than not, it was sacred ground. In thinking about his accolades, awards and manifold achievements—I wondered how many commencement addresses he gave in his 99 years of life. Although I did not find an answer to my question, the world of sports so riddled with stats and record keeping, I am certain someone knows. And, what might be equally impressive would be to know just how many commencement speakers have referenced the words and ideas of Coach Wooden in their speeches. As a man of tremendous integrity, he would undoubtedly be a welcome guest as well an uncontroversial choice, for any college minus USC.
Commencement serves as the door to a new beginning, a new chapter and let’s be honest—summer break. As part of my own summer travels, I ventured to southern California and decided to visit UCLA because I wanted to pay my own respects to the life and legacy of John Wooden who died three days prior. I was also curious to know how the campus community would too. 

For one, Coach Wooden retired before any of the current students were born. And, as a secular university, I was unsure what I would find. I was not disappointed. At the helm of Bruin Plaza, I encountered a two-ton bruin statue covered with flowers, handwritten letters, photographs and more. I was heartened to learn a colorful Bruins tribute will be made at the UCLA College of Letters and Science commencement ceremony, when student-athletes and scholars representing the entire class bear 99 blue-and-gold flags into the ceremony. I don’t even know if Wooden ever gave a commencement address at UCLA. Regardless, I can’t think of a better way to bid farewell to today’s UCLA students than to remember and celebrate the life of one of their greatest spokesmen—the Wizard of Westwood.
Coach Wooden, we remember your life and legacy.
Coach Wooden we celebrate what you have taught us by your worth ethic, leadership and your values.
Coach Wooden we believe.

I just wish you had made it to 100 years of age.

Photo Credits

Controversy at ND
The J-Shot of POTUS
All others--taken by Anne Stricherz

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