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Monday, June 28, 2010

UCLA hosts public service for late Wooden

LOS ANGELES (AP) John Wooden was remembered Saturday for being "one in a billion as a coach, mentor and friend" during a memorial service uniting the decades of "boys" who helped him win a record 10 national championships at UCLA.

News photo
Mourning a legend: Former UCLA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar speaks during a public service for John Wooden on Saturday in Los Angeles. AP PHOTO

A sepia-toned photo of the man who answered to the simple moniker of "Coach" rested on one end of a stage inside Pauley Pavilion, where Wooden plied his trade on the basketball court.

The 10 gold-and-blue banners representing each of his NCAA titles were spotlighted in the rafters.

"His spirit will be a part of this building forever," said broadcaster Al Michaels, who opened and closed the public service attended by 4,000.

UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero told the crowd that Section 103B, Row 2, Seat 1 — roped off and bathed in a spotlight — is now retired. That was where Wooden could be found sitting for years after his 1975 retirement, watching the Bruins' games and patiently signing autographs.

"No one else will ever sit there," Guerrero said as the audience applauded.

Wooden's life, from his early humble beginnings in Martinsville, Ind., to his days as an All-American player at Purdue to the dynasty he built at UCLA, were remembered in speeches and videos.

In homage to Wooden's Irish heritage, a former neighbor opened the 90-minute service by singing and playing guitar on "Galway Bay," one of his favorite songs.

Wooden died June 4 at 99. His daughter Nan, son Jim, seven grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren — the first great great-grandchild is on the way — sat in the front rows watching as dozens of photos detailing Wooden's life and love of family flashed on the screen.

Wooden's sense of humor, often accompanied by a twinkle in his pale blue eyes, was a common theme.

Current UCLA coach Ben Howland visited an awake but weak Wooden in the hospital two nights before he died.

"I leaned over and Coach hadn't shaved in about five days," Howland recalled. "He felt these whiskers and said, 'I kind of feel like Bill Walton.' "

The crowd laughed, fully aware of Wooden's strict grooming policies for his players that banned facial hair and long hair, popular in the turbulent 1960s.

Although he didn't address the crowd, Walton was among Wooden's so-called "boys" who gathered in the darkened arena, the cheers of the fans and the squeaking of shoes on the court silenced for this day.

He was joined by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jamaal Wilkes, Keith Erickson, Walt Hazzard, Gail Goodrich, Marques Johnson, David Meyers, Henry Bibby, Michael Warren and Sidney Wicks, among others.

"Coach Wooden was one in a billion as a coach, mentor and friend," Wilkes said. "As a friend, whenever you reached out to him he always reached back unconditionally. Coach led a good life and he died a good death. Let's balance that deep grief with the joy of having known this man."

In April 1965, Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor, walked into Pauley Pavilion for the first time, its wooden court not yet installed. The man who awaited him would become a lifelong friend.

"Many people have asked me if Coach Wooden was for real. They wanted to know if he really didn't use foul language or really didn't tell his teams they had to win a specific game," Abdul-Jabbar told the audience. "I'm aware how cynical the world has become. Coach's value system was from another era, it was developed in an America that has passed on."

He remembered becoming interested in Islam as a UCLA student and Wooden's interest in learning about it.

"That's the one thing that always impressed me about Coach," Abdul-Jabbar said afterward. "He never stopped being curious, understanding he hadn't learned everything that was possible to know."

Erickson, his voice choked with emotion, recalled some of Wooden's famous sayings ("Be quick but don't hurry") and insistence on showing his players the proper way to put on socks and sneakers. Their typical response was disbelief and a collective roll of their eyes out of Wooden's sight.

"He believed in hopelessly out-of-date stuff that never did anything but win championships," Erickson said. "There's never been a finer man in American sports than John Wooden."

Outside the arena, Warren recalled driving Wooden to renew his driver's license when he was 95. He marveled at people's reactions to seeing the Hall of Fame coach lined up like them for such a mundane task.

"It's like walking around with Jesus or Mother Teresa," Warren said. "It may sound outlandish, but in all sincerity, when you think about the things he accomplished and how humble he remained, he's one of those figures who transcends everything — ethnicity, gender, race."

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