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Bill Plaschke

A Grateful Dad Passes It Along

March 21, 2002|Bill Plaschke

SAN JOSE — Fifteen years ago, the wisdom was scribbled on Luke Walton's lunch bags.

Every morning, he was sent to school with John Wooden at his side.

On one bag, his father Bill would scrawl, "Be quick, but don't hurry."

On the next day's bag, he would write, "Failing to prepare is preparing to fail."

Wednesday, the wisdom was strapped to Luke Walton's back.

Walking down a hallway at the Compaq Center here, when asked whether he still listened to the Wizard's words, Luke opened a knapsack and pulled out Wooden's latest


"Have them right here," he said.

Turns out, the Pyramid of Success is not always a pyramid. Sometimes it is a circle.

Today, that circle continues to spin, quickly, but not hurriedly.

With 91-year-old Wooden cheering from his Encino home, a 21-year-old protege will take the court for Arizona in the West Regional semifinals against Oklahoma.

Luke Walton, the third son of one of Wooden's favorite sons, playing as if he's being coached by Wooden himself.

A tattooed kid responding to the tapping of a rolled-up program.

Passing unselfishly. Defending devotedly. Hustling unconditionally.

After growing up on Wooden's preachings, Luke Walton now reminds us how they once sounded.

Twenty-seven years after he coached his last game, the old man is still coaching.

Said Wooden: "I love watching Luke play."

Said Walton: "Hearing that is like, really cool."

Yeah, it hurts.

The current college player who most embodies the style of UCLA's greatest coach is playing this week in the same Sweet 16 region as UCLA.

But for a different team.

The legacy of a much-celebrated, long-deceased UCLA system of basketball is alive and well.

And could make the jump shot that could beat UCLA in the regional finals.

"If Arizona plays UCLA, I can't lose," Wooden said.

Certainly, much has been written about Bill Walton's influence on son Luke, the most valuable player of the Pacific 10 Conference tournament and the first forward to lead the league in assists.

But despite the similarities in the deep voice and childlike smile, Walton did not raise his 6-foot-8 son in his own image.

He raised him in John Wooden's image.

Yeah, it hurts.

"My dad has called me 12 times in the last two days to recite John Wooden quotes," Luke said Wednesday. "He'll recite them for five minutes, hang up, and call 12 minutes later with some more."

Why change now?

"Our home is a shrine to Wooden's UCLA pyramid of success, and my children have been raised that way," said Walton, the Bruin center for two national championships and the 88-game winning streak.

Luke put it another way.

"My dad is, like, a real Wooden freak," he said.

When they stayed at their father's San Diego house--Bill and their mother Susie divorced in 1989--they saw Wooden on the coffee table, Wooden in the kitchen, Wooden in the bedroom.

There was even Wooden in their feet.

"I took my children to his house so Coach could teach them to put on socks and shoes the right way, so they could prevent blisters," Bill said.

And, yes, Wooden on their lunch bags.

"After a while, he'd start writing real obscure sayings, and kids at school would say, 'What is it with those lunch bags?'" recalled son Nate, a former Princeton star who now works on Wall Street. "Of course, the most amazing thing is that he made our lunches."

All four Walton boys played college basketball, including oldest son Adam at Louisiana State and College of Notre Dame in Belmont, Calif.; and youngest son Chris, currently at San Diego State.

When the kids would play two-on-two basketball in the driveway, they would play Wooden style. When they would go to the recreation center and see everyone running and gunning, they would return to the driveway.

While other kids just pretended to be Larry Bird, they would play with him.

Their father's visiting Boston Celtic teammate would score the first 10 points of 11-point games, then keep passing the ball until one of the Walton children scored the game-winner.

"Then he would spend the rest of the day trash-talking," Luke said.

It was a lesson in unselfishness they never forgot.

"I've read where Lute Olson says that Luke's playing style comes from his genes," said Nate, referring to a common quote from the Arizona coach. "Well, I'd like to see the gene that has anything to do with passing the basketball.

"It's not genetic; it's environmental."

Luke grew up learning that passing was equal to shooting, that vision was more critical than speed, that teamwork was more important than anything.

"You can see that his whole philosophy on the court is about helping others," Wooden said. "That makes me very happy."

It could have made UCLA very happy. In fact, Steve Lavin recruited Walton out of San Diego's University High, even driving down and joining the family for dinner.

Not that Walton was unimpressed, but he never even returned the visit.

"I went to Arizona because I felt it was the best school for me," Luke said. "If I had gone to UCLA, it would have been because I thought that was the best school."

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