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No One Can Win in Wooden Award Feud

The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

November 26, 2005|Bill Dwyre | Times Staff Writer

We begin the college basketball season with a new competition. Not nice, just new. Call it the Hatfields and McCoys.

Teams will play, players will excel and two of the best, one man and one woman, will be honored at season's end. They will come to Los Angeles the night of April 8 to receive trophies symbolizing their achievements. Factually presented, they should read:

The John R. Wooden Award, minus John R. Wooden.

The story has been out there for several months. After three decades of the Hathaway family's Los Angeles Athletic Club putting on the Wooden Award dinner to honor the college basketball players of the year in the name of the sport's most famous and revered coach, and doing so in concert with John Wooden and his children, Jim Wooden and Nan Muehlhausen, the wheels have come off.

Muehlhausen, acting with the backing of her father and brother, wanted more say in the proceedings, more control of the use of John Wooden's very famous name.

The Hathaways responded that they had received the rights to use Wooden's name from Wooden himself, 30 years ago, and that if they didn't protect that trademark, they might lose it.

So, while John Wooden himself has stayed gracefully above the fray, as is his tendency and right at 95, the Hathaways and the rest of the Woodens are not saying many nice things about one another.

Now, while the families burn, the award fizzles.

Two years ago, the Wooden Award became coed and Ann Meyers Drysdale, former UCLA All-American and current network broadcaster, became the spokeswoman and leading advocate for the women's version. Recently, she wrote to the Hathaways, withdrawing her association with the award.

"My relationship with Coach Wooden and the Wooden family is just that -- family," she said.

One of the main sponsors, Applied Materials of San Jose, has withdrawn and has not been replaced, and the telecast spot on the CBS network that the venerable chairman of the award, Duke Llewellyn, worked so hard to win is now in jeopardy. Mike Solum, executive director of the event, said he was hopeful CBS would still do a telecast, but that "no contracts have been signed."

Tough story line for CBS to dance around: Nice trophies. Absent namesake.

Wooden himself, although acknowledging that he signed over to the LAAC the right to use his name in the award, will not be there. He remains close to Llewellyn and cordial to the Hathaways, but blood runs thicker than water. McCoys don't attend parties thrown by Hatfields.

The chances for reconciliation and restoration of the award as it has been for three decades are slim. And the chances for the Hathaways to emerge unscathed are slimmer. Even if they were 100% right, they'd be the losers.

They are taking on John Wooden, and they might as well be throwing rocks at Mother Teresa. At 95, Wooden has passed all the requisite tests of dignity, character and public service.

Los Angeles has been blessed with several of his stature in the world of sports. And like Vin Scully, Bill Sharman, Jack Kramer -- plus Chick Hearn and Jim Murray when they were alive -- Wooden gets a pass on almost everything.

The public is not going to dwell on Wooden's allowing the award to go on in his name. It will mostly remember that he wasn't there.

When the coaches who worship him and the players who have been told of the value of meeting him realize he won't be there, the bloom will be off the rose. The LAAC got into this for public-relations reasons. A no-brainer and an incredible coup! John Wooden gives you his name, for no cost, and you are joined at the hip for 30 years. The ultimate win-win.

Now, as the LAAC faces the ultimate lose-lose, it seems able to dwell only on how it thinks it has been wronged and misunderstood. In a recent column in her company newsletter, CEO Karen Hathaway wrote, "Unfortunately, complex issues and civility do not sell newspapers."

Nor do trophies with absentee namesakes sell dinner tickets.

There are five months before this April 8 train wreck, five months to stop sulking, figure it out, call in Henry Kissinger. Do something.

Is there no way to stop the fussin' and feudin'?

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