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T.J. SIMERS

The games go on, but nothing's the same without Coach Wooden

A day after John Wooden's death, it's still very difficult to adjust to his absence -- not to mention the idea of writing about, say, Manny Ramirez.

June 05, 2010|T.J. Simers

Life goes on and all that stuff, but I feel so ridiculous trying to write a Manny Ramirez column planned for Sunday about his post-drug slump and boorish behavior at a time when we're still celebrating the inspiring life of John Wooden.

It doesn't seem fair to mention the two in the same sentence, but if fair was always the case, Jim Murray would have been here to give Wooden the proper send-off.

When someone is 99, and I'm not referring to Manny's number or his batting average these days, it's really odd to say you were surprised when he dies.

We knew this was coming as soon as Wooden stopped eating last week and went into the hospital, but once he died, emotionally it just kind of snuck up on me. And lingers.

My mother passed before she was 50, my dad before 60, and so when anyone dies who is 60 or older, I usually find myself thinking, "Good for them and their family that they could have so much time together.''

But my wife was the first to notice, the byproduct I guess of 37 years spent together, and then the best friend anyone could have, Steve Caulk, e-mailed from Denver to say: "I suspect John Wooden became more to you than just a source of columns."

Sure did, and I guess I had no idea what kind of grip he had on me, although it probably explains now why I found so many excuses to interview him over the years.

I would say I've never met a better man, but if I didn't mention my own dad, I'd get a scowl and a scolding from Coach.

Last year's three-hour breakfast might go down as the best three hours in sports that I have ever experienced. He was no longer allowed to drive, so he didn't have much choice.

The great thing about our meetings, I could always count on him to say the same thing when we got together: "Oh no."

I'm going to miss that.

BEFORE THE start of Friday's seventh inning, Vin Scully came on the big screen in left field in Dodger Stadium, "only the second time he's ever broken into a game,'' he said, the other baseball's return after 9-11.

He told the crowd that Wooden had passed and what he meant to people, fans in the stadium coming to their feet, the applause becoming so loud it drowned out Scully, as if anyone other than Wooden could make such a thing happen.

It was one Los Angeles treasure speaking of another, and as if anyone could say it better than Scully, he quoted Shakespeare while paying tribute: "His life was gentle and the elements so mixed in him that nature might stand up and say to all the world, this was a man."

TWO YEARS ago almost this week, Scully & Wooden For the Kids aired live on FS West -- a 90-minute, one-time-only presentation.

But when we lost Wooden, Scully's wife, Sandy, suggested to her husband they show the event again so people might enjoy a few more minutes with Wooden.

FS West agreed, and has now scheduled an encore of Scully & Wooden for Monday night following the Dodgers-Cardinals postgame show.

In addition, "The Life and Times of John Wooden," a fascinating look into how Wooden handled his players during a turbulent time in U.S. history, featuring the talent of Dick Enberg, will follow Scully & Wooden.

TWO WEEKS before the Scully & Wooden event in the Nokia Theatre, the two icons appeared together at the Coliseum, a plaque dedicated in Wooden's honor.

Wooden was late for the ceremony, and sinking into his wheelchair he appeared dazed, worn out and his voice weak.

You can just imagine what was going through Scully's mind knowing he was going to be on stage in front of 7,000 people, a live TV audience, sitting beside a 97-year-old man who sounded as if he was whispering, with a rank amateur as host, and who might very well get booed.

"I wasn't sure it was going to work," Scully admitted.

The show began with Wooden sitting on his microphone.

TAKE AWAY the host, as some suggested, and Scully & Wooden could not have been better, Scully stepping back on a number of occasions so the spotlight might just settle on Wooden.

One more reminder of Scully's greatness, but please, don't let him know I said so.

WOODEN ADORED Joe Torre and Mike Scioscia, Torre visiting him two days before Wooden died. Wooden was asleep, but knowing how much he wanted to see Torre, caretaker Tony Spino woke him.

"Joe,'' Wooden said, his eyes popping open, the goose bumps getting the best of Torre as he would say later. "I'm so glad I got that chance.''

Wooden, admitting a year ago he had Derek Jeter's cap and autograph, asked Torre as he was about to leave to pass along his regards to Jeter.

Torre, shaking his head with admiration, said, "Just who you would think . . . would be his kind of player."

Wooden not only loved baseball, but once was offered the chance to manage the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Wooden managing Ramirez — now that would have been a hoot, not to mention a haircut for Ramirez.

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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