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T.J. SIMERS

No one cared for John Wooden like Tony Spino

More than a year after the death of the legendary UCLA coach, his longtime caretaker still has an empty feeling.

August 20, 2011|T.J. Simers
  • Tony Spino helps John Wooden as Vin Scully applauds during an event at the Nokia Theatre in 2008. Wooden and Spino were inseparable for years before the former UCLA coach died.
Tony Spino helps John Wooden as Vin Scully applauds during an event at the… (Bernstein & Associates )

When it came time to say goodbye, he could not.

John Wooden was dead. He was Tony Spino's friend and "I wouldn't leave him," says the UCLA athletic trainer who became Wooden's 24-hour caretaker in the coach's final years.

"To see him slowly die in front of me was hard, yet I had a job to do to take care of him," Spino says. "But it really hit me when he died. I was the only one left in the hospital room and I cried my eyes out.

"I couldn't go away. I waited for the mortuary to come and get him, bag him and tag him. It was so weird, it was like I wanted them to take me and not him.''

It has been more than a year since Wooden's death, and Spino, 61, understands now Coach's undying devotion to his wife, Nellie, who passed 25 years before her husband.

"He never got over the loss; that emptiness was always there,'' Spino says. "I now know that emptiness.''

It gets no easier for Spino. He loses his brother-in-law in March, his own father in June, his father firm and loving like Coach.

"It's like losing two fathers,'' he says, "And most people lose only one.''

Wooden fell 132 days shy of making his 100th birthday, and what a celebration it would've been.

"He wouldn't have liked it,'' says Spino. How many times did the two men argue about dying — Wooden wanting to go but Spino trumping him with, "It's God's will.''

Spino was a trainer for Wooden's freshman basketball team in the early '70s, and took a job as the Milwaukee Bucks' trainer when Wooden retired in 1975.

He returned to UCLA in 1981, and when a doctor asked Spino to look in on Wooden, he didn't stop until the day Coach died.

"First time I walk into his condo there's all this Abraham Lincoln stuff on one side, Mother Teresa on the other and John Wooden sitting in the middle. Holy smokes!''

For the next 25 years Spino goes to the Wooden condo three times a week, 6 to 9 a.m., before continuing to UCLA to work with its athletic teams. As Wooden grows older, it becomes five days, and then six.

"When I drive the 101 and I don't get off at Exit 22, it's like I'm making a mistake," he says, his car already making that turn a while back before he realizes there's no reason to be exiting.

When Wooden finishes his morning exercise routine, Spino drives him to Vip's, Wooden's favorite breakfast hangout. Always the same booth, most often No. 2 on the menu, but on wild and crazy days, No. 1 — which is No. 2 with pancakes.

Spino does not order breakfast because Coach does not allow him to pick up the tab.

"People join him all the time,'' Spino says. "One lady comes in, says hi to me, hi to Coach and sits down. She starts talking to Coach and eating his pancakes.

"When she leaves, Coach wants to know, 'Who's your friend?' I think he's kidding. I thought it was his friend. He says, 'Well, I think she enjoyed her breakfast.' ''

Spino also takes Wooden to Fromin's for dinner, same restaurant every night, same senior turkey dinner, while Spino orders off the children's menu. The food is cheaper, and a stubborn Wooden still won't let him pay.

How many people dream of an audience with John Wooden? Morning after morning, night after night, Spino becomes Wooden's audience. They talk about everything, sharing things maybe they wouldn't with anyone else.

"The best thing I can say about Coach,'' and he has already filled a tape recorder, "is he was human.''

They share a passion for baseball, which initially helps them bond. They disagree at times, Wooden talking about Babe Ruth and how can you win an argument with a guy who is old enough to have watched him play?

"Coach was a great teaser,'' he says. 'He'd like to see if you would give it back to him. And he could take it.''

For decades no one at UCLA knew Spino was working on his own time helping Wooden, Spino just as stubborn as Coach and refusing to be paid by Wooden.

"We had a handshake agreement,'' says Spino. "I was doing it for no other reason than just wanting to do it for him.''

When Wooden fell in his condo, breaking his collarbone and wrist, it was Spino who almost stepped on him in the early morning darkness.

"He's shivering; he's going into shock,'' says Spino, while wrapping his own body around Wooden to keep him warm. "I thought he wasn't going to make it.''

A few days later the UCLA brass stops by to visit Wooden and notices how much he needs Spino. The school reassigns Spino, paying him now to be Wooden's caretaker.

But it still takes an understanding wife and daughter to complete the change, both willing to allow him to dedicate his life to Coach, 24 hours a day.

"We just had our 38th wedding anniversary on Aug. 4,'' he says proudly, but he can't help himself. "Coach's wedding anniversary was Aug. 8.''

Spino moved into Wooden's condo, his own wife and daughter getting him back each Friday evening. The only other time he would leave is to attend church each Saturday.

"He tells me to pray for him,'' Spino says. "I do. I pray to God not to have Coach suffer.''

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