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They call Tyler Trapani 'Coach,' just like great-granddad John Wooden

Tyler Trapani, the legendary John Wooden's great-grandson, is coaching the Cleveland High freshman-sophomore team, and winning, in Wooden's style.

December 21, 2013|Bill Plaschke
  • Tyler Trapani, the great grandson of UCLA coaching legend John Wooden, coaches the Grover Cleveland High freshman basketball team. He talks with the team in the locker room before a game at James Monroe High.
Tyler Trapani, the great grandson of UCLA coaching legend John Wooden,… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

The freshman-sophomore basketball team from Reseda Cleveland High is in a panic.

It's their first home game, their friends are whooping at them from the creaky stands in the musty gym, and they can't find the basket. In their first four trips down the court against San Fernando High, they rush to the hoop and miss layups, their offense quickly dissolving into a chaotic blur.

On the sideline, the kid coach with the oversized dark blue tie hanging between rolled-up light blue sleeves stares quietly at the court. He won't stop the action. Timeouts are not in his blood.

Instead, Tyler Trapani simply holds out his hands and presses his palms toward the floor in a gesture of calm, again and again. His team eventually feels it, settles down, the baskets fall, and suddenly it is leading, 20-2.

"No, no, I wasn't going to say, 'Be quick but don't hurry,'" John Wooden's great grandson says later with a grin. "At least not yet."

Eighty-one years after the greatest coach in basketball history began his career at a small Midwestern high school, the Wooden legacy is reborn again this winter on a sprawling San Fernando Valley campus where an earnest 23-year-old attempts to be quick with his future without hurrying from his past.

Tyler Trapani doesn't carry a rolled-up program, but he does require that his players stand and greet each other as they leave the floor during every game. He doesn't recite from the Pyramid of Success, but he does make sure every player shakes the hand of every referee after every game. He will never be able to live up to the history of the late UCLA coach who won a record 10 national championships, but he will make sure to pass along his priorities.

"Great team effort this afternoon," he tells his players after a recent 74-11 midweek victory over San Fernando High. "But have you guys done your homework? Who here hasn't done their homework?"

Trapani is the third Wooden great-grandchild, and fourth member of the Wooden family tree, to venture into organized coaching. Craig Impelman, Wooden's grandson by marriage, is a former college assistant coach who spent six years on the UCLA staff. Impelman's son John is a Pepperdine assistant coach, and another son, Kyle, is a girls' junior-varsity coach at Los Alamitos High.

All have faced the pressure of the Wooden name, but Trapani has followed a path that has placed him squarely in the cross hairs of the legacy, even down to an unintentional imitation of the soft clap and calming smile. Sitting behind the bench and watching him coach for the first time recently was his grandmother, Nan Muehlhausen, Wooden's daughter. She shook her head with a cheery sigh.

"You know, when Daddy retired, I thought I was through with all this," she says.

This latest challenge will be the toughest for this Simi Valley kid who has always attempted to embrace his history without getting swallowed up by it.

When Trapani was 8 years old and playing basketball in his driveway, his great-grandfather walked outside and asked if he wanted some help with his shot.

"I already know how to shoot," Trapani responded, youthfully viewing the great coach as a meddlesome relative.

Wooden felt bad that he had annoyed his great-grandson and never offered basketball help again. Trapani felt bad that he had insulted his great-grandfather and never asked.

"Our relationship became about everything that wasn't basketball — we talked about education, about hard work, about values," Trapani says.

From the ultimate teacher, Trapani realized that he also wanted to be a teacher. And, like his great-grandfather, he decided he could do it best through basketball. So after a high school career as a backup guard at Simi Valley High, he became a walk-on, end-of-the-bench scrub at UCLA.

"I thought, what better way to learn the game than by sitting on a college bench for four years?" Trapani recalls. "I knew I would never play, but I knew I could learn."

His presence on campus put him in a position to visit Wooden in the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center nearly every day during the final month before the coach's death in June 2010. Then, a year later, his great-grandfather's spirit seemingly returned the favor in a moment that will etch Trapani into the Wooden legend.

With 25 seconds left in the final men's game before the 46-year-old Pauley Pavilion that Wooden had made famous closed for renovation, during a rout of Arizona that emptied the bench, Trapani threw up a jump shot that banked through the net for the final basket.

They were his first points in a three-year UCLA career. It was only the third shot of his UCLA career. It was only the fourth game in which he played in his UCLA career.

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