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It's the Coach's Day

As Wooden turns 93, UCLA's incoming and outgoing basketball coaches talk about the sport's icon.

October 14, 2003|Bill Dwyre | Times Staff Writer

It is becoming an annual rite of fall, like the World Series or Notre Dame-USC. Oct. 14, is John Wooden's birthday. Today, he turns 93.

To not celebrate, to fail to take notice, would be unthinkable.

It has been 28 years since he stopped coaching UCLA's basketball team, 28 years since the last of those magical 10 national championships.

And it has been 28 years of his growing on us, the sports community of Southern California. Of his teaching us perspective, showing us how character counts, patting us on the hand to assure us that, whatever it is we are all hyped up about, the sun will come up tomorrow.

For 28 years, long since the basketball buzz has gone away, he has remained our elder statesman about life.

*

Since that spring night in San Diego in 1975, when Wooden decided it was time to retire, refused to yield to the pleas of Athletic Director J.D. Morgan to reconsider and won his 10th NCAA title two days later in his last game, there have been eight coaches following in his footsteps.

Gene Bartow, Gary Cunningham and Larry Brown each coached two seasons. Larry Farmer and Walt Hazzard followed with three and four, respectively, before Jim Harrick took over for eight seasons and won an 11th NCAA title for UCLA in 1995.

Most recently, there has been Steve Lavin, 12 years in the UCLA program and seven as head coach. And now, Ben Howland, newly hired from Pittsburgh.

When Howland and his team take the floor at Pauley Pavilion this season, they will be playing on the newly named John Wooden Court. Wooden will be there, of course, a few rows up and off to the side, behind the Bruin bench. No front row-center for him. That's not his style.

Soon, Howland will get used to it, as Lavin did. There will be the little nods before the games, quick smiles that say support rather than second-guess.

Friends and acquaintances will stop by to pay their respects. He will smile and chat, trying with all his might not to get in the way, not to detract from what he considers most important -- UCLA's basketball team.

He will be what he's been for 28 years -- an institution, a legend, trying to be just a fan.

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Lavin, as the most recent, and Howland as the incoming successor, were given assignments for this 93rd birthday story. They were to think about what Wooden is and what he means, and then talk about it.

At one point during their interviews, done separately, both used the same phrase:

"Goose bumps."

"The day after the press conference, when they announced I had the job at UCLA, I went to see him at the Final Four in New Orleans," Howland said. "I went up to his room and took my son, Adam, who is 16. Adam was in awe. We talked for a while. Nothing all that formal. But I remember getting goose bumps."

Lavin said his occurred more than once.

"I just know I am incredibly fortunate," Lavin said. "I got to go out to his condo, to talk to him there. I'd get goose bumps. Then I'd listen when he'd talk to the team once in a while. I'd get goose bumps."

*

About six weeks after Lavin had been fired last spring, he joined Wooden for lunch at Fromin's on Ventura Boulevard, Wooden's favorite lunch spot.

"We talked the usual stuff," Lavin said. "He wanted to know how I was doing, and I just wanted to listen to him, like I always do. Pretty soon, he leans forward and says, 'Steve, I want to tell you something, and I think it is important that you take this the right way, and that it is something that only a former UCLA coach could understand. And I hope this doesn't offend you.'

"Then he gets that twinkle in his eye and continues:

" 'You're much better off.' "

It was, of course, meant to make Lavin feel better in the aftermath of a season and UCLA coaching career beset with alumni, fan and media disenchantment. In that way, Wooden is the sports world's version of Mother Teresa. He always tries to make people feel better.

Any bitterness Lavin might have over his UCLA departure is more than tempered by his connection to Wooden. Not only did he have 12 years in the Bruin program, including his years on Harrick's staff, but he also coached and taught at Purdue, where Wooden was an All-American in the early '30s.

"I taught classes in Lambert Field House, where he played," Lavin said.

Lavin, who admits to clinging to anything connected to Wooden, to the point of even having him sign Lavin's baseball mitt, said that the kind of advice he got from the coach included a heavy dose of perspective.

"When I got the job, he stressed to me to stay in the moment," Lavin said.

"I'll never forget that. So much was going on. Jim Harrick, my boss, had just lost his job, and things were swirling all around, and he told me, 'Do not have one foot in yesterday and one foot in tomorrow. Keep both feet in today, because that's how you get to tomorrow.' "

Lavin said that when he took over at UCLA, and Wooden was right there to help, he looked upon it as a young politician getting elected and getting on the phone with Lincoln or Washington.

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