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A Night with Coach Wooden

Update June 5, 2010: With the passing of legendary Coach John Wooden on Friday, June 4, 2010, at age 99, Arcadia’s Best is rerunning a blog Larry Stewart wrote two years ago.

Blog posted September 18, 2008:

I’ve said this many times: One of the great perks of being a sportswriter in Los Angeles for nearly 40 years (going back to my Herald Examiner days before going to the Times in 1978) is that I had the privilege of meeting John Wooden.

Larry Stewart

Larry Stewart

I’m not sure when I first met the coach but I do remember talking to him at a book signing in the early 1970s. My wife Norma was with me and I can still remember her saying, “I didn’t know you knew Coach Wooden that well.”

I said something like, “I really don’t; I think that’s just the way he treats everyone, like a friend.”

Since then, I’ve had many conversations with Coach Wooden and have visited him at his home in Encino on several occasions. The first time was with Bill Sharman and Arcadia resident Carl Boldt.

Sharman and Wooden, close friends, are two of the three men in the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach. Lenny Wilkens is the other. Boldt was a basketball star on the University of San Francisco teams featuring Bill Russell.

Larry Stewart's wife Norma Stewart enjoys dinner with legendary coach John Wooden in fall 2006.

Larry Stewart's wife Norma Stewart at dinner with legendary coach John Wooden.

During that first visit I told Coach Wooden that that my wife and I, when we were first married in 1972 and before we moved to Arcadia, lived in an apartment building just around the corner. “We went to just about every UCLA home game back then,” I told the coach, then joked, “We could have carpooled.”

Replied the coach, “Yes, we could have but you would have had to leave early.”

Talking with the coach is always a pleasure, but just imagine having dinner with him, as Norma and I did earlier this week.

We picked up the coach and his daughter Nan at the coach’s condominium in Encino and drove to Bistro Gardens, a restaurant in nearby Studio City, to meet another couple, Denny and Lynn Ryan of Glendale. The occasion was Denny’s birthday.

Coach Wooden shows off remnants of birthday cake on October 15, 2008, the day after he turned 98. Larry Stewart took this photo during a visit to Wooden's condo in Encino.

Coach Wooden shows off remnants of birthday cake on October 15, 2008, the day after he turned 98. Larry Stewart took this photo during a visit to Wooden's condo in Encino.

Two years ago, Denny, who is a close friend of both mine and Coach Wooden, arranged a dinner that included the coach and Nan on my birthday. I was returning the favor.

It took Denny and Lynn by complete surprise, and one reason for that is the coach doesn’t go out to dinner very often anymore. The coach, who will turn 98 October 14, is completely immobile since taking a bad fall at his condominium earlier this year.

It took both Nan and I to get him loaded into our car from his wheelchair. And the valet helped us get him loaded back into his wheelchair after we reached the restaurant.

The legs may be gone, but the mind remains sharp.

While Nan, Lynn and Norma mostly talked among themselves during the 2 ½-hour dinner, Denny and I, flanking the coach, hit him with all kinds of questions.


Stewart and Coach Wooden share a moment a few years ago following a charity golf tournament at Riviera during which Wooden was honored.

The Bruins upset Kentucky in the championship game to give Wooden 10 national titles in 12 years.

I told the coach those games against Louisville and Kentucky ranked one-two on my personal list of most memorable sporting events I had witnessed.

“That Louisville game was very well played by both teams,” the coach said. He also singled out David Meyers as the star of that 1974-75 team, and said he thought Meyers never got the credit he deserved.

There had been speculation before the Louisville game that Wooden might retire. I was then the assistant sports editor of the Herald Examiner and we ran a big headline on Page 1 of the Sports section speculating that Wooden was considering retirement. The Times, meanwhile, ran a short story on Page 2.

The other night I asked Coach Wooden when he made the decision to retire.

“If you would have asked me before that game when I was going to retire, I would have told you in two or three years,” he said. “Despite anything that was written, I made up my mind on the way to meet with the media after the game.”

He said there were a number of factors that made him decide to retire at age 64. He did not want to say what those factors were.

He said J.D. Morgan, then the UCLA athletic director, “spent the rest of the night trying to talk me out of retiring.”

Coach Wooden also said that he has never had any regrets about leaving when he did.

Talking about his retirement reminded Wooden of another story, one he said he had never told publicly.

He said that around 1970, a sportswriter asked him how much longer he planned to coach.

“I told him maybe five or six more years,” Wooden recalled. “And then he asked what I planned to do after retirement. I said, ‘I think Nell (his late wife) and I would like to get a condominium in La Jolla.’ “

After the NBA’s Clippers moved from Buffalo to San Diego in 1978, the team’s owner at the time, Irv Levin, offered Wooden the head coaching job. And Levin had somehow seen or remembered that quote.

“He told Nan and I that we could pick out any condominium in La Jolla that was for sale and he would buy it for us,” the coach said. “And he said if we couldn’t find one we liked, he’d build us one. My concern was if the team didn’t play well, I’d be fired.”

Even though Levin offered a six-year contract, Wooden decided to stay retired.

Levin ended up selling the Clippers to Donald Sterling in 1981 and in 1984 the team moved to Los Angeles, where it has struggled for the most part. Maybe things would have been different if Wooden, who was named the greatest coach of the 20th century by ESPN, had accepted Levinâ’s offer.

Among the questions my friend Denny asked Wooden during dinner was this: “How many wins in your career do you think you were directly responsible for that your team won because of your decisions.”

“Oh, I don’t know if there were any,” the coach said. “But there were some games I was responsible for us losing.”

Asked to name one, he said the 1974 Final Four semifinal loss to David Thompson-led North Carolina State at the Los Angeles Sports Arena.

“We had an 11-point lead in the second half and a seven-point lead in the overtime,” he said. “I should have slowed it down and played more conservatively and there were some substitutions I should have made but didn’t.”

Reminded just how devastated senior center Bill Walton has always been about that loss, Coach Wooden said, “I know. He blamed himself. But it was my fault.”

Eventually, the dessert had been eaten and it was time to go. But there is one more story worth sharing.

When the valet brought our car around, I realized I didn’t have enough money for an appropriate tip. So I asked Norma for a dollar, which she gladly supplied.

As Nan and I and the valet were helping the coach back into the car, he reached into his pocket, which was a struggle, and pulled out a small wad of bills. He peeled off one dollar and said, “Norma, this is for you. A woman shouldn’t have to pay.”

That’s Coach Wooden.

Above all, he is a true gentleman.

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