Little Things, Part 2: Encounters with Coach

Stephen Dunn

Bumped. - BN Eds.

John Robert Wooden was a remarkable man. A Coach without parallel, a humanist like few others, and a model and inspiration to an amazing range of people, from preschoolers to professionals, from toddlers to seniors. John Wooden left indelible imprints on many people, like footprints left by a wise and kind trail guide.

Many of us have been lucky enough to be around during his time. Many, many others have been influenced by his words and deeds. Some have even had the great fortune to meet and possibly even speak with Coach, in person. This post is about my one and only such experience.

Fair warning, though: This is a little story, as stories about John Wooden go. The "big" Coach stories have mostly been told, by people who are more qualified and better able than I to tell them. The coaching legacies are legendary: championships; streaks; All-Americans; the list goes on.

The man-of-principle stories are also the stuff of moral legend: refusing to participate in racially segregated tournaments, even if it means not competing for the national college basketball championship; being ready to dismiss the best player in all of college basketball on a matter of personal principle. You don't have to hunt for very long to find inspiring big stories about Coach.

The little things about Coach, though, remain a rich vein of anecdotes and stories, many yet to be told. I'm talking about people's personal encounters with Coach in ordinary life. Sometimes, these little stories reveal big things about Coach, things that shed new light on the content of his character. And, it seems that light is unfailingly kind to Coach. This bounty of personal experiences and anecdotes further reveal and illustrate what a consistently good and wise man was Coach. This is my and Bob's story.

Forty years ago this past spring, my friend, Bob, and I ran into Coach by chance. We got to meet and chat with Coach Wooden for, maybe, three minutes, if you can call awe-struck mumbling on our parts, "chatting." In the large scheme of things, our encounter with Coach was nothing significant, whatsoever. But, to me and Bob, it was a doozy. It was three minutes that we both will remember and cherish forever.

Bob had grown up and completed his undergraduate study on the East coast, at Rutgers University. Bob liked college basketball. I mean, Bob really liked college basketball. The fact that he left family and friends in the East and chose UCLA for his graduate study was, in large, or perhaps primary, part due to the ongoing hoops excellence happening in Westwood. Bob liked what he saw from afar, and was intrigued with Coach Wooden. Who was this guy? Education might very well have been secondary in Bob's choice for graduate school.

I know that every Bruins Nation member has been touched by Coach in many different ways. I'm hoping that this post turns into a collective sharing of personal John Wooden stories by Bruins Nation members. I know that everyone here would love to hear about your encounters and experiences with Coach Wooden. Whether by chance or by plan, whether in-person or indirect, whether fleeting or prolonged, what has your experience with Coach been? Please share.

Little Things, Part 2: Encounters with Coach

We've all been there. You're busy; you're occupied; your mind is trained on something immediate, something that's happening right now. You don't have a spare thought to give. Or, maybe you've just settled down to a quiet moment with friends and loved ones, a time to unwind. Or, perhaps it comes at a time that you relish for yourself, a needed respite.

Whatever you're doing, your mind is in one reality. And, then without warning, someone confronts you with another. Someone interrupts you. Welcomed or intrusive, someone suddenly inserts themselves into your sphere of attention.

You blink to clear your head, to re-boot your now. Under the covers, your reaction may be one of acceptance, whether quiet or begrudging. It might be pleasantness, or even genuine joy, for the interruption. Maybe your interrupter is a welcome presence, a source of energy, rather than a sink.

Or, maybe you're irked. Maybe you feel downright anger. Do you try to hide your annoyance? Do you give in to the anger? How do you handle the disruption?

Now, imagine that you are a record-setting, legendary head basketball Coach, whose team is going for its eighth straight national championship. Like it or not, you're a big-time celebrity. Everybody wants to shake your hand. Everybody wants your response to their question, even if you have answered that same question ten thousand times before. Everybody wants to meet you; everybody wants to say they have met you.

This was the setting as Bob and I walked slowly toward our car at the Sports Arena in the cool night Los Angeles air on Saturday, March 9, 1974. The Bruins had just finished a game with a dangerous $c team, with future NBA all-star, Gus Williams. Weeks earlier, the trojans had played UCLA extremely tough at Pauley Pavilion, but the Bruins had prevailed in a harrowing 65-54 win. Now, in the rematch at $c's home, this was the final regular-season game for both teams.

The teams had come into the game with identical conference records of 11-2. u$c's overall record stood at 24-4, while UCLA's was 25-5. One of the two teams would be the sole representative of the Pac-8 conference in the NCAA playoffs. A second, at-large conference team from the Pac-8 wouldn't be allowed until the next season. The loser would have to choose among the NIT or the Commissioner's Conference tournaments if they wanted to keep playing. To say the least, this was a big game.

At the time, the UCLA-USC basketball rivalry was very intense and very real.

Few, if any, have dominated the UCLA-USC basketball rivalry, which will be renewed today at the Sports Arena, more than the Bruins' Bill Walton. From the 1971-72 season through 1973-74, the Trojans had winning teams under Coach Bob Boyd but couldn't beat Walton and UCLA.

"I remember my first varsity game against USC," Walton said. "I was playing center against Ron Riley. The game was just getting going when Riley caught me with one of his elbows right in the mouth. I was spitting out teeth and blood all game. That was my introduction to the UCLA-SC rivalry."

The 1973-74 Bruins team included Bill Walton in his last year, Keith Wilkes, Dave Meyers, Greg Lee, Pete Trgovich, Andre McCarter, Ralph Drollinger, and Tommy Curtis.

On this night, there had been much joy in Westwood, as the game played out and concluded. The Bruins ran away with the contest, pummeling the trojans 82-52. Bill Walton finished off his rivalry with a perfect 6-0 record against them. At the half, Walton had seven more points and four more rebounds than the entire $c team. In the game, Walton had 26 points and 20 rebounds.

As Bob and I walked along the circumferential asphalt concourse outside the Los Angeles Sports Arena, inside a tall chain-link fence that separated the ticketed portion of the Sports Arena from the parking lot, we were euphoric. We had just witnessed a resounding whupping of the trojies at the very pivotal pinnacle of the conference season. The game had been reminiscent of UCLA's epic NCAA playoff throttling of a talented Houston team in their rematch during the 1967-68 season.

Caught up in unabashed celebration, we had stayed until the Sports Arena was nearly empty. We were among the last spectators to leave the building. Despite the cool L. A. night air, Bob and I were toasty through and through.

Suddenly, there was Coach!

Quite by dumb luck, Bob and I had stumbled on a lull in Coach's life. He was stationary, talking through the chain-link fence to someone on the parking-lot side. I can't tell you to whom Coach was talking, or even whether it was a man or a woman. It could have been a family member. From their quiet conversation and from their body language, it seemed to be a close friend, at least. In any case, we didn't notice much about this other person, as our eyes were fixed permanently on Coach.

We stopped dead in our tracks, maybe 15-20 feet away from Coach. Bob and I looked at each other, awe-struck dumb. There was Coach Wooden, all alone except for one other person. And, us.

We stood awkwardly, incapable of moving. Neither one of us knew why we had stopped. Neither one of us had the foggiest notion of what we would do next. We were frozen in time, completely powerless to leave, and, simultaneously, completely devoid of plan.

Would we just leave and let him have his private moment? Would we wave and say "Hi" in passing? What would we do if, heaven forbid, he were to accept our abrupt and tacitly rude implicit invitation to join us? What would we do or say? Neither of us had the slightest idea.

More accidentally than shrewdly, we had not left Coach with an unimpeded escape route. When he finished chatting with his friend, he would have to walk in our direction. He would most definitely see us. Our minds raced, but in all directions at once. What to do?

Then, to our considerable panic, we saw that Coach and friend were finishing their conversation. They were beginning to separate, and Coach was stepping backwards with conversation-ending finality. He was getting ready to leave! Coach turned around, looked up, and saw us. Oh, my God. He sees us. O-h-h, m-y-y G-o-o-d-n-e-s-s!

Coach approached us calmly, stopping at a distance that would allow for comfortable conversation. He nodded pleasantly, smiled, and waited. At that moment, it occurred to us for the very first time that it was not up to Coach to start the conversation.

I don't know what Bob was doing at the time, as my eyes were only on Coach. Judging by his silence, though, Bob was at least as stunned as I. Seconds ticked by, verrry, verrrrry slowly. For goodness sake, somebody say something!

More out of panic than with coherent or cogent thought, I began babbling. I think I said something about how much I had enjoyed watching his Bruin teams perform over the years, and how privileged I felt for having been there to see some of them. This, of course, was all true.

Coach expressed appreciation for my experiences, smiling graciously and warmly all the while. We conversed about basketball for a bit, though it's a self-flattering exaggeration to call our half of the encounter "conversing." Of course, Coach was in full control of his faculties. You could not say the same for Bob and me. We were dumbfounded in a moment of virtual surreality.

For my part, my ears were ringing in a sort of sustained alarm tone inside my head. I fought for control of myself. Gradually, I came to a moment of something approaching, yet far from, real confidence, but more like feigned bravura, a poise disguise. I broke off from safe conversational pleasantries, and I began to make a basketball observation.

I spoke of some of Coach's teams over the years. I attempted to express my special appreciation for Coach's relatively undersized teams. My thoughts seemed clear at the time. I had especially enjoyed those teams that lacked a dominant center. I started to compare the Wickes-Rowe teams with the earlier Goodrich and Hazzard teams. I said, "Those teams (the Wickes-Rowe teams) were sort of like..."

And, then, right there in mid-sentence, I stopped talking. I had become overwhelmed by nerves. I left my unfinished sentence hanging in the air, like an endlessly circling airplane, awaiting clearance that was not to come. Like a beginning actor completely overcome with stage fright, I stood as inert as rock.

My words hung in the air: "... were sort of like..." Coach waited patiently, still smiling. The thoughts that had seemed so natural, inside my head, just seconds ago now seemed stupid. I was suddenly incapable of finishing my own sentence. The words were there ("... were sort of like your earlier teams." ), but suddenly the thought behind them seemed completely vapid.

This was a stupid comparison, I now thought. The Goodrich-Hazzard teams were nothing like the Wickes-Rowe teams. They were each unique. And, since when did lack of a dominant center define a team? Besides, who the hell am I to be talking basketball with John Wooden? Geesz, I thought, I can't believe I was about to say that...

The alarm was getting louder and louder. What was probably about four seconds of actual silence seemed like forty minutes. I really don't know what I would have done had someone not spoken next. The silence was deafening.

To the surprise of, I'm sure, no one here, Coach was brilliant at this awkward moment in time. He came to my rescue. He finished my sentence for me. "Like my earlier teams?" he proffered.

"Yes," I said, nodding enthusiastically, extremely grateful for Coach's conversational save and embarrassed at my tongue-tied seizure. I breathed, probably for the first time since I had begun blabbering.

It wasn't a stupid statement, after all, or at least, Coach made me feel that way. His earnest face hinted that it might even be somewhat interesting. He treated my beginner basketball statement like it was, if not one of the most profound things he had ever heard, at least a thought worth discussing.

We chatted a bit more, though the details of the remaining moments are sketchy. We said good night, and Coach departed, walking toward his transportation.

For several minutes, Bob and I remained in the same spot, transfixed with what had occurred. Did that really just happen? As though we had just had a near-death experience, we took mental inventory of our body parts. We had gone into the turn at high speed, and had skidded. But, we hadn't crashed. And, we were all right. Neither Bob nor I had died. Our one and only chance encounter with Coach, and, despite our bumbling, the encounter had been utterly magical and uplifting. We were left elevated, and then some.

Never mind the unrelenting appetite for attention placed on Coach, at this hugely momentous time in his team's season, Coach had made us feel welcome and appreciated. He had conversed like an ordinary person with two awkward twenty-something guys, as though he had all the time in the world, as though we mattered to him.

Bob: "After that moment, I was awestruck. Here was this guy who had won 10 national championships (the last yet to come), stopping to talk to us after this big game which he won. He could have been basking in front of the cameras, signing autographs, letting his ego get the best of him, but he talked to 2 people in a parking lot like he had nothing better to do."

Personally, I felt simultaneously humbled and reassured. I had stumbled, and Coach had caught me. When I had doubted myself, he calmly threw me a lifeline, and he gently pulled me in.

And, isn't my and Bob's story just like what we know about our dear Coach Wooden?

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of BruinsNation's (BN) editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of BN's editors.

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