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A Man of Dignity

COVER STORY

Put Aside the 10 NCAA Basketball Crowns and the 'Wizard of Westwood' Moniker. John Wooden Is Best Remembered for an Honorable Life.

March 29, 1998|BILL DWYRE | Bill Dwyre is sports editor of The Times

He has two children, James Hugh Wooden and Nancy Ann Muehlhausen, seven grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

"I am blessed," he says. "They are all right here in Southern California, right here around me."

They are all a daily reminder of Nell, who lived for the first 10 years of his retirement and who inspired yet another of Wooden's maxims: The best thing that a father can do for his children is to love their mother.

*

Wooden never played favorites with his basketball team, and he won't with his grandchildren or great-grandchildren. But there is a special corner in his heart for a great-grandchild named Cameron.

Cameron Trapani is 41/2. He had a stroke in the womb about five months into his mother's pregnancy. Doctors didn't think he'd live, and he had to survive heart surgery at age 11/2. Today, his disabilities remain severe.

Cameron's mother is Cathleen Amy Trapani, one of Muehlhausen's three daughters. "I am so proud of Cathleen Amy," Wooden says. "When she found out how severely disabled Cameron would be, she went very quickly from 'Why me?' to 'Why not me?' "

Wooden carries copies of a poem he found and gave to Cathleen Amy, something she can pick up and read as needed. Wooden sits down and reads it just about every time he comes home from visiting Cameron. It was written by Lou Franchini and is called "Heaven's Special Child."

*

A meeting was held quite far from earth:

"It's time again for another birth,"

Said the angels to the Lord above.

"This special child will need much love.

"His progress may seem very slow,

"Accomplishments he may not show,

"And he'll require extra care

"From the folks he meets way down there.

"He may not run or laugh or play,

"His thoughts may seem quite far away.

"In many ways he won't adapt,

"And he'll be known as handicapped.

"So let's be careful where he's sent.

"We want his life to be content.

"Please, Lord, find the parents who

"Will do a special job for you.

"They will not realize right away.

"The leading role they're asked to play.

"But with this child sent from above,

"Come stronger faith and richer love.

"And soon they'll know the privilege given

"In caring for this gift from Heaven.

"Their previous charge, so meek and mild,

"Is Heaven's very special child."

*

I am finished now. we have spent hours together, him talking and me taping. I have no more questions, no more tape, no more pretense to stay here and soak up more of the gospel of life according to John Wooden.

My real world awaits my return. There are hockey players with fire extinguishers and basketball coaches with chairs to throw. I have just spent some of the best hours of my life with a man of little means and so much left to give, and I return to reporting on millionaires with so much left to take.

And so we leave his condo.

On Oct. 14, 2000, he will be 90 years old. Yet he walks me out, shuffling alongside and making sure the gate is open and that I can find my way comfortably. My comfort is his.

As I drive away, I remember something he told me weeks ago, a quote from Mother Teresa that he found meaningful: "A life not lived for others is not a life."

And I find myself wondering if there really is another one like him out there, or if this really is as good as it gets.

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