Today was a beautiful day. I attended Coach Wooden's public memorial at his "workshop," where championships were made, and lives enriched.
I was fortunate to go with my good friend and his wife, he's a fellow diehard Bruin, who had the great good fortune to know Coach as a friend, and had his own personal Coach stories to tell. My favorite is that when they had dinner, he and Coach would always both reach for the check, but Coach after much protest from the other side would always pay. Finally, one night, my friend insisted so much that Coach said "I'll arm wrestle you for it." When my friend understandably declined, Coach looked at him with a smile and said "What, are you afraid you can't beat me?" One of my treasures is a photo my friend took of Coach at his condo sitting in an easy chair with a shy smile. I keep that next to my desk, across from my Jackie Robinson baseball card.
Parking was free (a first at UCLA!) When we got there, I was a bit discouraged by the sparse attendance. Yesterday, I didn’t think I’d get into Pauley at all. But we arrived at 9, were ushered in, and the place never filled up much more until it all started at 11. All of us who had been guided into the top rows of the first sections were allowed to sit closer before it started.
But once underway, it was heartfelt, well said, and incredibly inspiring. Keith Erickson, Jamaal, and Kareem all spoke, and all teared up recalling Coach’s love. There were a lot of funny stories about Coach’s teasing sense of humor. Jamaal said that when he was selected for the NBA, reporters asked Coach whether Jamaal could withstand the rigor of the NBA, and he replied “You don’t have to worry about Keith pulling a muscle, because he doesn’t have any muscles to pull.” Jamaal also told a great story about Coach getting his first good look at Jamaal’s bizarre shooting form, asking him to repeat it again and again, asking numerous questions about it, and then finally deciding that Jamaal should be allowed his individuality.
A speaker, I forget who, told another great story about sitting with Coach at Pauley, and asking him whether he would still be able to coach a team today. Coach said no, and listed reasons why not: "tattoos, earrings" and just as he was about to list another, a player made a showboat 360 dunk to the roar of the crowd, and Coach, as if on cue, said "and stuff like that."
I could see Bill Walton, who brought along his own special high backed chair, laughing along with the many Walton stories that were told. I believe Keith Erickson noted that when Walton came to visit Coach near the end, Coach looked up at him and said with a twinkle in his eye: “I thought I’d finished with you.”
Vin Scully, on video, was his usual eloquent self, and Al Michaels did a wonderful job as MC. Coach’s pastor had us all roll up our programs Wooden-style for a salute toward heaven, and then it closed with a terrific 20 minutes video, showing familiar sights, intermingled with a trove of family photos, and concluding with a photograph of Coach waving a visitor goodbye from the balcony of the “Mansion on Margate.”
It was a shame that more people didn’t show up, but we all left gratified, inspired, hearts full of UCLA feeling and renewed intent to live up to Coach’s example.