Jeff Eisenberg

John Wooden's 100th birthday is bittersweet for great-grandson

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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LOS ANGELES — One of Tyler Trapani's most vivid childhood memories is the time he unintentionally insulted his iconic great-grandfather.

A six-year-old Trapani had just returned home from a youth basketball game when great-grandfather John Wooden came outside to try to teach the youngster proper free-throw-shooting form. Unaware that he was speaking to college basketball's most legendary coach, Trapani told Wooden he didn't need any help.

"My dad and mom come running over and go, 'Do you know who that is? That's John Wooden. You don't know what you just did,'" recalled Trapani, a walk-on guard on the UCLA basketball team. "From that point on, my great-grandpa didn't help me with basketball anymore unless I asked, but he did help me with people, life and how to be a good person."

Stories like that one will be retold again and again Thursday night when members of Wooden's family gather at one of his favorite restaurants to celebrate what would have been his 100th birthday. Wooden died on June 4, leaving behind an unparalleled coaching legacy and a grieving family still coping with his absence.

When Wooden lay in his bed at UCLA Medical Center the week before his death, Trapani said he visited his great-grandfather every day to capitalize on each moment they had together. Trapani prayed that his great-grandfather would regain his health but found it comforting that Wooden viewed death as his chance to rejoin his beloved wife Nell, who passed away a quarter-century earlier.

"I wanted him to pull through, but I also wanted him to be happy," Trapani said. "And the only way he was going to be happy was if he did pass because he wanted to be up in heaven with Nell. We're happy for him. It's a loss, but we have to move on and we're trying as hard as we can."

Staying busy with school work and basketball typically helps Trapani keep from dwelling on Wooden's death, but he plans to devote all day Thursday to the memory of his great-grandfather. Before joining his family for dinner on Thursday night, Trapani and other UCLA student-athletes will visit Los Angeles-area elementary schools to teach kids about Wooden.

One of the stories Trapani might share is Wooden's pride at seeing him play the final 37 seconds of UCLA's 72-54 loss to Mississippi State at last year's Wooden Classic in Anaheim. It was the second consecutive year that Trapani made his lone appearance of the season in the Wooden Classic game, but it was the first time his great-grandfather was there to witness it.

Tears well up in Trapani's brown eyes as he reflects on Wooden's life, but he knows his great-grandfather would want his 100th birthday to be a happy time for the family.

"He wouldn't want us to be sad," Trapani said. "He'd want us to celebrate no matter what."

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