‘He loved people and he loved the competition’: Former Badgers basketball coach and renowned tennis player John Powless dies at 88

MADISON, Wis. – John Powless was a “larger-than-life” character to those who knew him, and leaves behind an equal-sized legacy.

Powless, a renowned tennis player and former head coach of the University of Wisconsin Badgers men’s basketball team, died Thursday at age 88.

The namesake of the John Powless Tennis Center, he coached tennis, as well. He’s also been the No. 1 senior player in the world in his age group.

Powless has been on News 3 Now following historic flooding that threatened his center, when his community rose up above the waters to support him.

“That’s who John Powless is,” said Susan McDonald, who set up a GoFundMe following the flood damage. “He’s had a lifetime of treating people with such respect and dignity and kindness.”

Throughout that lifetime, he’s gained plenty of awards and titles.

“He was named the senior player of the 20th century,” said Dan Smith, who produced Badger basketball telecasts when Powless was a color commentator. “That’s pretty good.”

He’s also amassed enough memories to fill a book – so Smith did just that, writing “John Powless: A Life Well Played.”

“The one story after another was just better than the one before,” Smith said. “Playing Santa Claus to Princess Di’s Ms. Claus. Playing tennis with then Vice President George Bush.”

But even with the accolades, Powless carried something else proudly. When asked in a 2015 News 3 Now interview what about tennis touches him, he said the friendships.

“He could’ve also been named the gentleman of the 20th and 21st century,” Smith said. “What was most important to him was hitting balls with his son and his friends.”

Paul Fanlund, Capital Times editor and publisher, started his friendship with Powless as a rookie reporter writing a story about tennis. They became tennis partners.

“He was more skilled than any of the rest of course, but he didn’t mind playing down, as they say in tennis, to have fun with the rest of us,” Fanlund said. “The rest of us were doing arithmetic and he was doing calculus.

Fanlund and Powless only grew closer over the four decades.

“He lived life joyfully and with an optimism and resilience that even showed through the last months as he struggled with an illness,” Fanlund said.

“Here’s a guy dying of cancer, and he wants to know how you’re doing,” Smith said. “Is that the mark of a gentleman? Is that the mark of a great person?”

Life’s not a competition, though Powless certainly enjoyed that.

“He loved people and he loved the competition,” Fanlund said.

But looking back on his full life, it’s a fair call to say he won.

“He’s an inspiration to those close to him for how to live a life,” Fanlund said. “He lived a long, full life on his terms with optimism, joy, wonderful children and grandchildren, and that’s how I’ll think about him.”

Powless is survived by two children and a number of grandchildren.

“John Powless lived a long and fascinating life and UW Athletics was fortunate to have been a part of his journey,” said a statement from UW Athletics. “He will be remembered for his friendly nature and his presence in our community. Our thoughts are with John’s family and friends. He will be missed.”