Saturday, June 5, 2010

Wooden and L.A.'s 'Golden Age'
John Wooden coached the UCLA basketball team at a time that was unprecedented in Los Angeles sports history. The 1960s and and '70s in Southern California was an era of champions and Wooden and his Bruins accounted for more glory than any other L.A. sports franchise. At USC, John McKay and the Trojan football team won national titles; the Dodgers under Manager Walter Alston collected World Series trophies; the Rams and Lakers were playoff-bound nearly every season.
But UCLA basketball was king, with the Bruins winning seven straight NCAA championships and 10 in 12 years.
I had the opportunity to meet Wooden twice after I joined the sports staff of the L.A. Times in the fall of 1971. The second occasion was at Jim Murray's funeral in 1998. Wooden attended the Mass at St. Martin of Tours church on Sunset Blvd. in Brentwood, as did several of his former players. After the service, Wooden found a bench outside St. Martin's and visited with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jamaal Wilkes and Mike Warren. As the coach chatted with his players,
a young Kobe Bryant shyly approached the group and introduced himself to Wooden. He shook hands with the others and talked with them for a few minutes.
It would have been interesting to know what Wooden thought of Bryant, both as a player and a person, because at that time Kobe, a rookie with the Lakers, was just a year out of high school.
My first meeting with Wooden was rather unique. Times sportswriter Dwight Chapin, who covered both UCLA football and basketball, had arranged to interview Wooden to talk about the coach's health. Wooden had suffered a heart attack in the early '70s and part of his exercise program was to walk five miles a day.
Chapin and Wooden agreed to meet at the campus track near Pauley Pavilion and the interview would be conducted as Wooden walked around the oval, which was just east of the basketball arena.
Chapin asked me to come with him because he needed someone to hold his tape recorder close to Wooden while he took notes with a pencil and pad.
We met the coach on the track on a cool, gray morning in Westwood. He was dressed in a warm-up suit and carried a bottle of Nitro-glycerin pills in his hand. We walked with him for at least two miles before Chapin's interview was concluded.


1st add Wooden: Chapin and fellow Times sportswriter Jeff Prugh authored the excellent book "The Wizard of Westwood," which at the time was not popular with Wooden or his family. The coach countered Chapin and Prugh's work with a book of his own titled "They Call Me Coach," which was reportedly ghost-written by Jack Tobin, a writer for Sports Illustrated.


2nd add Wooden: Prugh liked to tell a story of how Wooden would try to convince a high school recruit who may have been considering attending another school, to come to UCLA. According to Jeff, Wooden would escort the young man on foot down to Westwood Village around noon time. The sun would be out, the temperature would be close to 75 degrees and they would sit down on a bus bench. It was lunch time and coeds from UCLA and secretaries from the nearby office buildings would stroll by the bench on their way to get something to eat.
After a few minutes of observing the glamorous scene, Wooden would turn to the young man and say, "Now, son, are you sure you really want to go to Iowa?"


third add Wooden: Of course, Wooden was a resident of Encino for many years. He was often spotted dining at several of his favorite restaurants on Ventura Blvd., usually accompanied by members of his family. He always ate dinner early, around 5 p.m., and two places that he frequented were the Valley Inn on Sherman Oaks Avenue and Tony Roma's at Rubio Ave. He also was a regular diner at Fromin's deli near White Oak Ave. which was around the corner from his house.


last add Wooden: In the 1970s, the sports department had access to tickets to all the major events in L.A. On my nights off from work during basketball season, I attended many games at Pauley Pavilion during Wooden's tenur as coach. The seats were at center court, about five or six rows up from the hardwood, a great position to watch Sidney Wicks, Curtis Rowe, Bill Walton, Tommy Curtis, Steve Patterson, John Valleley, and of course, Wooden as the Bruins rolled through one opponent after another.

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