FOXSports.com NBA analyst Marques Johnson played on John Wooden’s final NCAA championship team in 1975. Johnson was also the first player to receive the Wooden Award as the nation’s top player in 1977. He spoke to FOXSports.com Deputy Managing Editor Todd Behrendt about his former coach.
FOXSports.com: There have been so many stories about Coach, are there any that haven’t been heard a million times that come to mind now?
Marques Johnson: The one that always stands out as my all-time favorite was when I was a sophomore at UCLA in the pool hall at lunchtime shooting pool, and Coach Wooden comes walking by from the cafeteria, toothpick in his mouth, blue sweater, gray slacks, his daily attire. So he kind of walks by, glances in the window and sees me shooting pool. I’m like, “Oh, man. I’m going to get a thorough lecture, a tongue-lashing now for not being in class, for being in the pool hall.” And so he proceeds to come into the pool hall, walks up to me, doesn’t say a word, sticks his hand out and asks me for the pool cue. I hand it to him, then he bends over the table, toothpick still in his mouth, and runs off about seven or eight balls, hands me the pool cue and just walks out.
FOXSports.com: Do you remember when you first met Coach, when he was first recruiting you? What were your first memories of him?
Johnson: I don’t remember the exact chronology of events, but the thing that stands out was they called me from the locker room right after they had just beat Memphis State (for the 1973 title) that time down in St. Louis, and Bill (Walton) had that great game. Coach Wooden called me and asked if I was watching the game. I told him I was. He was like, “Well, we want you to be a part of this next year.” I still remember, my pop was like, “Phone’s for you.” And I was like, “Who is it?” He said, “Just answer it.” And it was Coach Wooden.
FOXSports.com: What do you remember about when he told the team he was going to be walking away?
Johnson: He’d had some heart issues within the last couple years before that season. I just remember him quieting us down — we were all ecstatic because we’d just beat Louisville in overtime in an emotional, gut-wrenching type of game — and telling us he was done, his next game would be his last. I remember our point guard, Andre McCarter, our leader, our spiritual leader on the court, gathering us all together … and saying, “Look, there’s no way in the world we’re not letting Coach go out a champion. The man deserves to be a champion. We’re getting him a championship Monday night.” It was no rah-rah. But it was all, “Yeah, we’re going to get a championship Monday night.”
FOXSports.com: Coach has been around so long, people feel like they know him. But as one of his players, was there a side to him that would be revealed only to you?
Johnson: He had one of the funniest senses of humor. He used to mimic Andre McCarter. Andre had this crazy warm-up routine to Miles Davis or The Weather Report or Jimi Hendrix, real spacey music. He’d go through all this stuff. One game, Coach Wooden got behind and was mimicking everything Andre was doing. We’d bust up laughing and Andre would look behind him and Coach would be back in his stance, pretending he wasn’t doing anything. The quips, things he would say. He was much funnier than anyone would imagine.
FOXSports.com: His former players always have made a point of impressing how much Coach Wooden stayed in their lives, even after their playing days were over. Can you talk about what he’s meant to you in that capacity?
Johnson: What you realize is that the impact that he’s had on our lives doesn’t really come into fruition until it’s 15, 20, 25, 30 years down the road. When you’re raising kids of your own and you’re going through obstacles and hardships and the trauma that life deals out. And that’s kind of when, for me, the things he would keep stressing and talking about come back. The mind-boggling thing for me is he never really talked about winning or losing. It was always about effort, giving the best effort you could give. Success was becoming the best you could become. It sounds trite today, but that’s a blueprint for living life: Do what you can do and when you get done, you can hold your head up high and feel good about yourself.
FOXSports.com: What other advice has he given you in your post-playing career?
Johnson: I’m looking at getting into some coaching. I asked him, "Coach what are the most important things to remember as a coach?" He said, "When you’re eating dinner with your players, always have patience, always have love." That’s how I want to remember him.
FOXSports.com: When it all comes down to it, when you do remember him, how much will it even have anything to do with basketball?
Johnson: No. Just the warm smile, the generosity, just being — in today’s vernacular, my vernacular — one of the coolest people I’ve ever had the privilege or the pleasure of being associated with.