Olson “sad” about Wooden’s passingby Steve Rivera on Jun. 04, 2010, under Sports
For Lute Olson it’s a “very sad day.’’
His mentor and his friend — basketball legend John R. Wooden — is gone. Wooden, 99, passed away on Friday night in Los Angeles. Olson called Wooden’s home earlier in the day to let the Wooden family he was thinking of him and praying for him after hearing he had been ill.
“He was one of a kind,’’ said Olson via phone. “He was willing talk about basketball and talk about philosophy anytime. A lot of people called on him and he never knew a stranger.’’
Olson, 75, and Wooden became fast friends back in the early 1970s after Olson became a high school coach and then junior college coach in Southern California in the 1960s. Back in 1971, Olson had just led his team to the California State junior college state title and Wooden invited Olson to speak at his basketball clinic.
“That evening Coach Wooden, Bobbi (Olson’s late wife), Nell (Wooden’s late wife) and I went to dinner and that’s when I really got to know him,’’ Olson said. “Up ‘til then I had watched practices and things like that. But that was a special night. Bobbi and Nell became good friends, as well.’’
Olson recently received word that Wooden had become ill and “it’s still a shock’’ that he is gone.
“(But) you just knew he couldn’t go on forever,’’ Olson said.
In the mid-2000s, Olson surpassed Wooden for most victories in Pac-10 history with a 327-104 record. Olson’s winning percentage (76.4) is second only to Wooden’s 304-74 (81.0).
In 2005, Wooden made a trip to McKale Center to visit with Olson and watch UA practice. Wooden had asked if he could make the visit. Who was Olson to say no? Wooden was picked up in a private jet.
“I was shocked that he’d want to come out and do that,’’ Olson said.
“He watched practice, but prior to practice I asked if he could speak to the team and he did. He spoke for about 20-30 minutes and never talked about basketball. It was about philosophy of life. Our players were sitting on the edge of their stools, listening to him speak.’’