Friday, June 04, 2010

He Coached Some Seven Footers, But He Was Still The Biggest Man On Campus

I'm a Bruin through and through. As a kid, growing up in L.A. I was a big sports fan and a big fan of UCLA basketball. The truth is, the reason I chose to go to UCLA was because I would be guaranteed the opportunity of getting tickets for every UCLA home basketball game.

When I arrived on the Westwood campus as a freshman, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor) had just graduated and gone to the NBA. The stars of the basketball team in the fall of 1969 were Sidney Wicks, Curtis Rowe, and a guy from Santa Maria named Steve Patterson.

UCLA's dominance of college basketball continued through my four years of college. Every year UCLA went to and won the NCAA tournament. I remember one year,our arch rival from across town, USC, only had two losses. Both to UCLA. That was back in the days when only the conference champion got a bid to the post-season tournament. So USC had no post-season. Boo hoo.

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So, as you've probably heard by now, the great papa bear of all good Bruins,
legendary coach John Wooden, died Friday
at the age of 99.

I wasn't an athlete in college but I did have one brief brush with Coach Wooden. One afternoon during my sophomore year, I had gone down to the athletic field that was adjacent to Pauley Pavilion to meet a friend to go jogging. (Nobody "ran" then, we "jogged.") As I waited and scanned the field looking for my jogging partner I must have looked lost or something. Then I heard a voice behind me call from a few yards away, "Do you see him?" I turned and looked and standing there wearing a white short sleeve shirt with a necktie was Coach Wooden. I turned and looked back out over the field to see who Wooden was calling to. Then I realized that he was talking to me! When I turned back to look at Wooden I can't remember if I asked "who" or if I just looked puzzled. Coach Wooden then said, "Do you see whoever you're looking for?" I replied, "No, not yet." Wooden then said, "He'll be along" and waived and continued on his way.

I was thunderstruck. Here I was a skinny college kid, a nobody, one of 28,000 anonymous students on the campus and the Coach went out of his way to talk to me!

That was the kind of guy John Wooden was.
© 2010 by Craig Smith and