Wooden Was a Friend to Boucek

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Kevin Pelton, stormbasketball.com | June 8, 2010

Famed UCLA coach John Wooden, who passed away last Friday at the age of 99, influenced countless WNBA players and coaches with his success on the floor and the wisdom he imparted off of it. Before Sunday's game, Seattle Storm Head Coach Brian Agler recalled watching Wooden's championship teams while growing up in Ohio as well as what he had subsequently learned about Wooden's competitive nature. Guard Sue Bird told of receiving Wooden's axioms second-hand from her own coaches.

For one member of the Storm coaching staff, however, Wooden was more than a distant figure. Director of Player Development and Scouting Jenny Boucek struck up a friendship with Wooden over the last several years, leaning on him as a mentor.

"A mutual friend introduced us five or six years ago," said Boucek. "We had some things in common. A lot of it was our faith and coaching. We kept in communication and then just started spending more and more time together. It became closer and we began to spend more time just hanging out - not going to visit him as a famous person, but on a more personal level. He became a good friend.

"In human being form, he is my role model, and he always will be."
Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images

"In human being form, he is my role model, and he always will be. The way that he coached, the reasons that he coached, his motivations in life are what I strive for mine to be. He was motivated by his love for God and his love for people. It wasn't just talk for him. He really cared about people."

As men's basketball evolved from the game he coached at UCLA, Wooden increasingly saw women's basketball as closer to what he taught, and enjoyed watching women play.

"He thought that women's basketball was played the way that it should be played," Boucek said. "He really enjoyed the passion, the unity, the teamwork. Those are things that are obviously why he loved sports. He was a teacher. He was old school in what sports should be. I think he enjoyed the fact that the women's game was still retaining a lot of that."

In particular, Boucek thought she saw many of those characteristics in her 2008 Sacramento Monarchs team, which battled through injuries to win seven consecutive games at one point and make the playoffs without a single player among the WNBA's top 20 scorers.

"That team was clicking in a way I thought would make him pleased," she said. "I used to send him some DVDs of our team and articles. Our team was really embodying a lot of the things he valued in team sports, so I was proud to share my team with him. He would watch those DVDs and read the articles and give me a little feedback."

For the most part, though, the conversations between Boucek and Wooden had little to do with Xs & Os. To the extent they touched on basketball, it was in the same way as so much of Wooden's teaching - basketball as a window onto life as a whole.

"Basketball, to him - and to me - is a microcosm of life," explained Boucek. "Every life principle can be taught and learned through sports, through the team environment. That's one of the reasons why I love sports. It's made me who I am today. You can't separate the two in his mind; you can't separate the two in my mind.

"We talked about life and more personal things. I wasn't interested in getting autographs and all that. I just wanted to be a friend to him and learn from him. I think as much as anything he said to me, his presence and the way that he cares about people - and it's so deep - it's something that impacts you."

In Wooden's final years, he was generous with his time to many young coaches and players - famously, he made himself available to current UCLA players years after he retired from the school. As one of the recipients of that time and attention, Boucek was enormously grateful.

"I'm sure he made thousands of people feel the way I felt, which was special and known and cared about, loved and appreciated," she said. "What felt like it was special to me, I'm sure he made many people feel that way. It was not an act. He really cared about people. He really understood that everything is given is to give away, and he gave himself away until his final breath, I'm sure of it - continually giving himself away and trying to leave the world a better place and leave what he could to people.

"I can't explain the presence he had that made you feel comfortable and like you're a better person when you left him. Even if there wasn't a lot said, you just felt like you'd been in the presence of what's right. You felt better and refreshed and inspired to be more like that."

Boucek will miss those chances to catch up, whether in person or over the phone. Still, she didn't consider his passing away a sad event because Wooden was ready to be reunited with his wife, Nellie, who died in 1985 yet remained constantly in his thoughts.

"I'm happy for him because I know he's in a better place," Boucek said. "He's home. He has not died; he's moved to heaven. He's moved back to be with his wife, whom he talked about non-stop. Still wrote love letters to her. Such a romantic, loyal guy. They're together again. I'm happy for him, but it's a significant void left in the rest of the world and a loss in many people's lives. You realize how much you're going to miss him."

As the remembrances and tributes to Wooden over the past week have made clear, however, he will live on in his teachings and especially the influence he had on people inside the basketball community.

"I don't know if anybody could ever be like him," said Boucek, "but maybe collectively what he left in each of us, we can pass on. If I can make one person feel the way he made thousands feel, that makes life purposeful."