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With John Wooden, every day is a classic

T.J. SIMERS

At 99, the coach still is sharp with a sense of humor, but he doesn't like people taking care of him.

December 13, 2009|T.J. Simers
  • Former UCLA coach John Wooden.
Former UCLA coach John Wooden. (Ken Hively / Los Angeles…)

You could hardly hear him talk.

John Wooden rasped, his voice "wearing out like everything else," he says, but not enough to silence the teasing or scolding forthcoming.

"It's probably a big deal for you to reach 100 years," he's told Saturday while he sits and watches the basketball tournament named in his honor in the Honda Center.

"Ninety-nine is a long time too," he replies with authority.

Or as Bill Walton, sitting to Wooden's side, puts it: "He's a man of strong opinions," and then with a grin, adds, "although he wasn't one in the habit of listening to our opinions."

Wooden has all that experience, though, his seven grandkids and 13 great-grandchildren calling him "Papa," so I ask what advice a Papa might have for G.P., knowing the twin granddaughters will be arriving via C-section Friday.

"You going to be there?" he interrupts. "One should always put family No. 1. I don't care what the situation."

Planning on it, but Pete Carroll is in hiding and "I would still like to ask him some tough questions."

Wooden says, "I like Pete Carroll, but you should" ask him some tough questions, and I tell him, "Good, I'm going to write that down and tell Carroll you said so."

In return I get one of those Wooden "don't you dare" stares, and it's amazing how long he can lock onto someone.

Now I'm on a peacekeeping mission, and the conversation shifts to the 99-year head start on the "kids about to be born."

"Kids?" Wooden huffs, and I can't imagine what else is inside the belly of the daughter unless she's somehow managed to swallow Montana.

"Kids?" he repeats. "What are kids? Baby goats, aren't they? Try to remember they are children."

He wants to know what the children's names will be, one of them "Rylee," the same as the last name of his wife, Nell Riley, but spelled incorrectly, I would guess, because the daughter is married to a Grocery Store Bagger.

"He might be a bagger," Wooden says with an understanding pat, "but he's family."

WOODEN IS two months into his 100th year, as he likes to tell everyone, his favorite expression, "I'm here."

He spent a month in the hospital, worries about pneumonia, and upon his release instructs his family to never again take him back there.

Later he falls ill, and his daughter, Nan, a funny but crusty chip off the old Midwest John & Nell stock, has him taken to UCLA's hospital.

"Daddy says to me, 'I thought I told you to never again take me back there.' " Nan grins, the punch line coming. "I told him we didn't take him back to the hospital in Tarzana. We took him this time to UCLA."

Maybe there's a more devoted daughter out there than Nan, but until she's identified, she rules as sergeant at arms. You have to get past her to get to him, and it pains her -- as it does him -- that it has to be that way.

"I don't like it that so many people have to care for me," says Wooden, sitting in a wheelchair, every few minutes a former player or well-wisher getting the nod from Nan to wish Wooden well.

"I don't like taking these people away from their families," he says, his daughter, his son, his granddaughter, a new caretaker and the incomparable Tony Spino all sharing time at Wooden's residence so he's never left alone. "I don't like it," he says.

Funny he should say so, living a full life with an emphasis and philosophy predicated on helping others.

"Contradictory," he agrees. "There is nothing like the joy that comes with helping others, but I don't like receiving it."

No, he doesn't, and it bothers Nan too, because her father is losing his independence, and as strong and stubborn as she is, she's still a novice compared with the old man.

"It's very hard for him to accept," she says. "He's frustrated. He's always been so strong; on the other hand, he's 99. And he's still very sharp."

Sharp enough, his son Jim says, that when friends recently asked to have a picture taken with him, Wooden suggests the picture be of only him and the pretty girl.

"No more Clint Eastwood," Jim says with a laugh. "The other night he's talking Angelina Jolie."

He not only continues to have a sharp eye for talent, but if he has lost anything, it's not his sense of humor.

As Nan tells it, she has a dentist's appointment and instructs her dad not to dawdle over breakfast.

They go to the restaurant together and Wooden, who never looks at a menu, asks for one. He starts studying it, breakfast and lunch fare, a father pushing his daughter's buttons -- as any father would tell you, humor of the highest order.

"He's still got it, all right," she says, her mother dying 24 years ago on Nan's birthday, her sign that it was now her lifelong task to help Daddy. "He says he's feeling better today than he has in a long time. That's good to hear."

She tells a story, and isn't she always. The family gets together for Thanksgiving. When the day's over, Wooden is wheeled to his car, but he stops, raises his arms and tells everyone, "this has been just wonderful -- everyone getting together."

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