John Wooden and Johnny Carson — And The Gift of Knowing When to Leave

UCLA basketball coaching legend John Wooden died Friday at the age of 99, and as a longtime Bruin fan, I have no way to be objective about this.

But thinking about it, one of the most impressive things that Wooden did — much like Johnny Carson — was walk away from the court at the top of his game.

Wooden announced his retirement in 1975, and then won his last of 10 national championships. He was 65, and easily could have coached for several more years.

Carson announced he would leave “The Tonight Show” at the age of 65, said “a very heartfelt goodnight” a year later, and never performed again.

Everyone has seen giants in various fields hang on too long, from Willie Mays to Jack Benny (Carson was always struck by the latter’s example, which helped inspire him to make a clean break from show business). Few, however, have the character, the strength of will, to leave something they’ve been tremendously good at and not look back. And I’d argue it’s one reason — aside from their tremendous success — that both men are so revered.

People can often be silly about romanticizing celebrities, but although I met Wooden just once, I can’t help but feel like we’ve all lost something — a piece of an era that we won’t ever quite get back. Woodens’ sayings included “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail,” but even though everyone was well prepared for his passing, it still feels like we’re all at a loss for words capable of fully doing his contributions justice.

Another footnote on Wooden: He was a true teacher and molder of young men, one filled with great philosophical sayings, including his “Pyramid of Success.” Andy Hill, the former president of CBS Prods., was among his players (he was a back-up guard in the early ’70s), and after reconnecting with Wooden wrote the book “Be Quick, But Don’t Hurry: Finding Success in the Teachings of a Lifetime.”

The book, written “with John Wooden,” discussed how Wooden’s teachings could be translated into any walk of life. For those who might be inclined to seek out Wooden’s words in the wake of his passing, add that as an another possibility to the reading list.

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