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UCLA's Tyler Trapani brings the John Wooden legacy home

BILL PLASCHKE

The great-grandson of the legendary coach is a walk-on who rarely plays for the Bruins, but his attitude and actions reflect the principles that made Wooden, and his teams, so great.

December 13, 2009|Bill Plaschke
  • Former UCLA coach John Wooden with his grandson Tyler Trapani.
Former UCLA coach John Wooden with his grandson Tyler Trapani. (Carlos Chavez / Los Angeles…)

Thirty-seven seconds remaining, UCLA down by 20, the coach stares at the far end of the bench, calls for the passing of the torch.

"Tyler!" Ben Howland shouts.

And here he comes, scurrying to the scorer's table and sprinting onto the court, never mistaking activity for achievement, a little thing making a big thing happen.

Wooden's kid, playing basketball for UCLA in the Wooden Classic.

John Wooden's great-grandson, the only relative of the great coach ever to suit up for Bruins, playing for his "Pa-Pa."

"This is my heritage," says 19-year-old Tyler Trapani.

"That's my boy," whispers 99-year-old John Wooden.

It happened Saturday at the Honda Center, at the end of UCLA's 72-54 loss to Mississippi State, a brief but dazzling slant of light across a darkened afternoon.

For a second consecutive year, the Wooden Classic game ended with an appearance by Wooden's living legacy, a sophomore guard known for his -- surprise -- work ethic and wisdom.

For two years, this has been the only game in which Trapani has played.

For two years, this has been his entire season in one minute.

He is a non-scholarship player, the last guy on the bench, a 6-foot, stubbly-bearded plug of a kid from Simi Valley who shows up early and stays late and takes every hit.

"I came to college to learn, and that's what I'm doing," Trapani says.

He has learned he is not good enough to play big minutes for a big-time college basketball team, but that there's no shame in trying.

"Every day, I just try to get better," he says.

He has learned that the burden of a famous relative is not a burden at all, but an inspiration.

"All these years watching my great-grandfather's films, now maybe he'll get to watch mine," he says.

And he has learned timing is everything.

Last year he played the final minute of a blowout victory over DePaul, but Wooden was being taken downstairs for the trophy ceremony and didn't see it.

"It sounded good," Wooden recalls with a smile.

On Saturday, Coach isn't strong enough for the trophy ceremony, so he remains in his wheelchair in his midcourt suite as the margin grows and the clock ticks and the family wonders.

And then it happens, Trapani is summoned into the game, 37 seconds remaining, the arena barely half full, his energy filling the joint.

He makes a good pass. He grabs a loose ball. He starts a fastbreak. And, in the final seconds, only when he is wide open and there are no other options, he throws up a three-point attempt.

It barely catches the front of the rim, just misses, the remaining fans erupting in a giant sigh that nearly drowns out the buzzer.

Trapani doesn't wince, doesn't even frown, simply turns to jump in line to congratulate Mississippi State.

"The experience of a lifetime," he says.

Upstairs, his great-grandfather was saying its about more than just the minute.

"He is not the best athlete out there, but he is getting an education, he is growing and learning, and I'm so very proud of him for that," Wooden, his voice dulled by time, says softly.

In the locker room later, for the first time all afternoon -- all season? -- Howland smiles.

"Putting Tyler in the game there, it was the right thing to do," says the man who has nurtured Wooden's legacy as well as any UCLA coach. "The kid plays hard all year, he deserves a chance, and this is a great day to give it to him."

In the stands, his parents, Paul and Cathleen Trapani, are saying that the torch burns with more than basketball.

"He's carrying on his great-grandfather's character," Paul says. "Even when times aren't so great, he's showing that character."

Indeed, Trapani could have played more minutes for a lower-division school, maybe even received a scholarship, but he chose UCLA anyway. Instead of running from the legend, he embraced it.

"I figured this would be the best place for my education," he says. "I don't care what anybody says."

And when they do say something?

"I tell them, 'Think what you want, I'm here to learn."

Once Trapani arrived, he told only Howland about his background.

Not even the assistant coaches knew, and they initially marveled at this hustling walk-on before being informed of his heritage.

"I know I'm representing my great-grandfather," Trapani says. "But I've got to do that while being me."

As an 8-year-old, Trapani once scoffed at some backyard basketball advice from his great-grandfather, telling Wooden, "I know that already."

His father was so embarrassed, he ushered the child inside and scolded him.

"Don't you know that's the greatest coach in basketball history?" his father said.

"No, that's just Pa-Pa," the son said.

They were together again Saturday, handing off history, two lifetimes linked by one minute, the most splendid of minutes, quick but not hurried.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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