Rural America did not share in the prosperity enjoyed by large cities in the 1920s. In 1924, the Woodens, like many farm families, went bankrupt and lost their farm. The family moved to Martinsville, a small town which, like so many in Indiana, took great pride in the performance of its high school basketball teams. Wooden, who had shown a gift for the game from grade school days, soon became a star player on his high school team. The team went to the state championship three years running, and won it twice. While still in high school, John met Nellie Riley. By his own account, it was love at first sight, and the two teenagers decided to marry as soon as John finished college.
John Wooden entered Purdue University in Indiana to study civil engineering, but became an English major instead. In college basketball, he earned a reputation as a fearless player of dazzling speed. He made All-American three years running and won a place in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
The following year, John and Nellie settled in South Bend, Indiana, where he taught English and coached the basketball team of South Bend Central High School. In eleven years of coaching high school basketball Wooden's teams won 218 games, losing only 42. The young coach served as a physical education instructor in the United States Navy during World War II. Appendicitis kept him from shipping off for the South Pacific. A Japanese kamikaze plane struck the ship Wooden was to travel on, killing the officer who had taken his place.
After military service, Wooden, like many other teachers he knew, was not re-hired at his old job. He quickly found work however, at Indiana State Teachers' College, later known as Indiana State University. He coached basketball at the school, resuming his string of winning seasons.
Wooden's Bruins astonished the skeptics by winning 22 out of 29 games in his first season as coach. The following year, they took 24 out of 31 and won their conference championship. Under Wooden's tutelage, the Bruins maintained their high win-loss ratio, and won the Pacific conference titles again in 1952, 1956, 1962 and 1963.
The seven-foot center Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) dominated the Bruins' game for the first three seasons of their seven-year streak. Bill Walton was the dominant star of the 1973 and '74 seasons, when UCLA set the all-time record for an unbroken winning streak: 88 consecutive games. In 1974, UCLA again won the Pacific conference title, but lost to North Carolina State in the NCAA semi-finals.
In all his years as coach, John Wooden prohibited his players from any use of profanity, and consistently avoided it himself. Still, in his first 12 years at UCLA, the coach developed a fearsome reputation among opposing teams for the fanciful harangues he directed at officials and opposing players from the bench. This habit was virtually the only aspect of his career for which the coach expressed any regret. In the championship years, fans and players alike noticed a distinct mellowing of Wooden's behavior on the bench.
One of Coach Wooden's proudest moments, he later recalled, came when he overheard one of his players, an African-American, reply to a reporter's question about racial tensions on the team: "You don't know our coach. He doesn't see color. He just sees ballplayers." Wooden remained close to many of his former players in his long years of retirement. He died peacefully in Los Angeles at the age of 99. His record of accomplishment remains unmatched.