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T.J. SIMERS

John Wooden is too busy to deal with death

The legendary UCLA basketball coach, 98, has dealt with recent health issues but remains as sharp as ever.

May 01, 2009|T.J. SIMERS

The phone rings in John Wooden's condo the other day and the answer machine responds.

There is a sick feeling in Marc Dellins' stomach. He begins leaving a message on the machine stressing the importance and hope for a return call.

Dellins is UCLA's sports information director, and he's calling because there is a rumor Wooden has passed.

Suddenly a familiar voice picks up, Wooden hearing Dellins out and saying, "Not yet, but well on my way," the punch line the dead giveaway, so to speak, it really is Wooden.

Dellins is so relieved, he calls back five minutes later just to hear Wooden's voice again.

It has been almost two months now since Wooden was discharged from the hospital after a 30-day tussle with pneumonia, and while there have been five more visits since then for this and that, he's now 98.

"And a half," he says, sitting in the same restaurant Thursday morning that he sits in every day, the same booth -- No. 3, ordering the same number off the menu -- No. 2.

"I would say conservatively speaking I eat here seven days a week," he jokes, always the truth for Wooden -- even in the joke, dinner at another restaurant most every night too, almost always the same senior turkey dinner.

This morning's breakfast will go on for three hours, Wooden unable to shake his visitor, the line a long one day after day for others also wanting some of his time.

New York Giants Coach Tom Coughlin was here a few weeks ago, a USC assistant football coach is the latest to call seeking a meeting.

As for Wooden, he would still like "to have dinner with both Joe Torre and Mike Scioscia," even making a concession, and saying they wouldn't have to eat turkey.

He loves his baseball, all right, and his channel turner, stopping for Perry Mason, and every Saturday parking on the westerns, which got him an invite to meet Clint Eastwood on the set of "Changeling," Eastwood directing Angelina Jolie.

"A very lovely woman," Wooden says with a smile. "Those lips are something."

Like he said, he's not dead.

A FEW years ago he admits to drinking. Once. The Reseda post office is being named in his honor, and he spills his guts, drinking at a fraternity party back in his days at Purdue. He shakes his head with devilish delight when it's mentioned later maybe they shouldn't be naming a federal building after someone who should have been busted during Prohibition.

And now more seedy details of a long life living on the edge emerge, Wooden coming clean and saying he has been known to gamble.

"Once," the former Indiana native says, explaining he knew someone who had a horse, but when he bet, he put $2 on a horse named South Bend.

"Paid $64 to win," he says, brazenly admitting now the windfall was never reported to the IRS. "I expect they are still looking for me."

The breakfast conversation takes several turns.

He says Kobe Bryant, "from a physical point of view is the best to ever play the game," but if he had a team now he'd go with LeBron James, who is younger.

He comes across like a giddy teenager talking about Derek Jeter. "I have his baseball cap and his autograph," he says.

He can't forget all the negative stories about Manny Ramirez, so he says, "you can have him except when there's a bat in his hands."

When he's extended an invite to meet Ramirez, he flashes his old school degree, furrowing his brow, squinting as if serious, and sharpening his voice. "Should I bring the scissors?" he says.

TWO MORE Octobers and he turns 100, "the same as 99," he says with dismissal, but his daughter, Nan, interrupts. And don't daughters always?

"He wanted to live to be 101," she says, "because that's what was on his driver's license."

But his car was taken away, and now parked in a wheelchair and spending most of his life committed to not putting anyone out, it bothers him.

"I do not like the loss of independence," he huffs, and he's still a very good huffer, talking with the same tone in his voice that he might while discussing tattoos.

HE DOESN'T mind a good quibble as long as he emerges on top, stubborn and as feisty as ever. He's blessed to be surrounded by adoring children in Nan and Jim, and he will note they are referred to as children here, and not kids.

"Kids are baby goats," Wooden likes to say, always ready to pounce with the correction.

They are also "trousers" and not pants, as Wooden's caretaker, Tony Spino, knows so well now.

For years Spino put in his own time separate from his UCLA athletic trainer duties to help Wooden, UCLA administrators asking him to make it his full-time job about a year ago.

Granddaughter Caryn and son Jim are also part of the Wooden team, while Nan oversees her father's schedule like a guard on duty at Fort Knox.

Spino is an unabashed Wooden admirer, nudging him to eat more and stop talking nonsense about A-Rod. It's obviously a tough job.

He has been married for 38 years -- a very understanding wife and daughter -- now that he spends five days a week with Wooden, morning, late afternoon and overnight.

"The best assignment I have ever had," Spino says.

WOODEN REMAINS full of life and surprises. He pulls a silver cross from his pocket, the metal rubbed worn, although the alpha and omega symbols remain visible.

"I don't know how many people know this, but I had this in my hand the whole time I was coaching," he says, putting his palm out to show how he wedged the cross between his index and middle fingers. "My minister gave me this when I went into the service in 1942 -- the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end."

With no end in sight, Wooden is talking with excitement about future plans.

It has been 24 years since his wife, Nell, died, but that same year Cori was born, the baby bringing "PA-PA" (pronounced "paw-paw") back to life after such a devastating loss.

Cori will be the first of Wooden's 13 great-grandchildren to be married July 5, so many more weddings, great great grandbabies to be born and the next three-hour breakfast.

--

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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