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Getting Wooden to change his ways is no slam dunk

July 01, 2008|T.J. SIMERS

The granddaughter has been talking lately to Sissy and Fada, her two imaginary friends.

The other day she was playing hide-and-seek, and asked her father to hide with her until Sissy found them.

I wouldn't be surprised to learn the Grocery Store Bagger is still hiding, any reason to avoid going to work.

Tough to know, though, because the former daughter took the 7-Eleven Kid to Arizona a few months back because she thought the child's father was more important than the baby's grandparents.

But as good luck would have it, the kid was back in town for the Scully & Wooden get-together, and before the event she had a chat with Wooden -- listening to the man as if her playing time depended on it.

I had a hunch all along they'd hit it off -- knowing the fantasy world Wooden lives in. I wouldn't be surprised to learn Wooden invited Sissy and Fada to join him at his condo, so long as they agree to dress properly and behave.

As you know, he's still a stickler for such things. For example, when owner Jeff Herdman called from HAX (haxla.com) to ask Wooden to attach his name to a basketball academy and upcoming camp, Wooden agreed so long as instructors emphasized fundamentals and promised no showmanship would be tolerated.

"Why didn't you tell him to just take all the fun out of the game?" I suggested.

"I think it's fun to do things the proper way," Wooden said. "Basketball is a beautiful game and should be a game of finesse. Today everyone travels, uses their hands on defense and backs into the basket. That's not the game. It's a game of movement."

I wonder if he still owns a black-and-white TV.

"It's probably time you changed," I said, because as you know, it's never too late.

Wooden smiled, and when he does that, it's like the UCLA press of old, the trap set and a lesson about to be taught.

"I like 1-0 baseball games and you like 10-9 baseball games. You like home runs," Wooden said, while raising two fingers, making some kind of clucking sound, and then running his two fingers in a slow circle like someone going into a home run trot. "Yeah, that's exciting."

Wooden's son, Jim, sitting a few feet away, shook his head. He obviously knew how this discussion was going to end.

"Instead of dunking, Alcindor and Walton would just drop the ball over the rim," Wooden said. "It was so pretty."

"I disagree."

"That pleases me," Wooden said.

Wooden then took a break, moving to a bedroom so a doctor could work on his feet, and if you were lucky enough to hear Bill Walton describe Wooden's feet in graphic, gross terms as part of the Scully & Wooden evening, you can understand why he took his fungus into the other room.

While he was gone, Jim told the story about one of his sons who had gone to a Wooden basketball camp, Grandpa Wooden calling Jim after the first night to say they had a problem with Jim's son.

"Daddy, they want me to play basketball and I don't like basketball," the kid told Jim. "I want to be a swimmer."

And so the next day Jim picked up his son, young John Wooden, who lasted one day in the John Wooden basketball camp, going on later to play water polo at Irvine High.

But here's guessing Grandpa Wooden still wouldn't let the kid dunk when given the opportunity.

HIS FEET treated, the argument began again.

"I don't like fancy stuff," Wooden said. "A player twists and slams, and it's fun for him, but not for his teammates."

Keep in mind this is a guy who grew up in Indiana spending many a day with Jack and Kate, the family's two mules, so he knows a thing or two about stubbornness.

"You sound like an old fogey," I suggested, forgetting for a moment that I had seen him give the granddaughter a high-five when they had parted, and what's with that?

"I am an old fogey," he said, "but is it being an old fogey to appreciate a good bunt, a runner going from first to third, or a well-pitched game? Take soccer. . . . "

"No way."

"I love it," Wooden said, and keep in mind he also likes women's basketball. "But I'm liking it less now -- too much showmanship this past week with two dunks."

That's why I'll never go to another Sparks game.

"People are spending a lot of money to escape and be entertained," I said. "They now have sheets falling from the scoreboard at Lakers games, highlights of great plays, music, lights out and anything it takes to put on a show."

"That's all right," Wooden said. "The game hasn't started yet. Now I know you have to do certain things to get people there, but that doesn't make me like it."

"You'd have to change if coaching again?"

Wooden smiled. "I'd have a tough time with tattoos."

"A lot of kids have tattoos -- are you saying you wouldn't let them play basketball?"

"They could play basketball," he said. "Just not for me."

I said he wouldn't be successful if he didn't allow his players to show some flair and keep fans entertained, and he gave me his philosophy on being successful, which doesn't necessarily include winning -- and lost me.

"If one of my players made a fancy dunk today, I'd put him on the bench," Wooden said.

And then a second later, he added, "I didn't say how long he'd be on the bench."

The conversation turned to people Wooden had met and whom he'd still like to meet, because any chance to talk to him is time to be extended as long as possible.

UCLA ought to be paying him to talk to a class every single day. Make it a class where debating is emphasized, and he'd love it, and those kids would be mesmerized.

"I wish I could've met Will Rogers," he said, his day beginning at breakfast with actor Elliott Gould, then taking a call from Giants and winning Super Bowl Coach Tom Coughlin.

He's still disappointed, he said, that he never met Mother Teresa, but he did meet Angelina Jolie.

"She's covered in tattoos," I said. "Was that acceptable to you?"

"Yes," Wooden said, and he looked 10 years younger when he said it.

Then he grinned. "But she wouldn't play for me."

--

T.J. Simers can be reached at t.j.simers@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Simers, go to latimes.com/simers.

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