Wooden’s humor touched many

LOS ANGELES – Midway through Ben Howland’s speech at Saturday’s public memorial celebrating John Wooden’s life, the UCLA coach shared a memorable snippet from one of his final conversations with his iconic predecessor.

Howland visited Wooden at the hospital two days before his death and soon realized that failing health hadn’t robbed college basketball’s greatest coach of his trademark wit.

Kareem Abdul Jabbar was among many former UCLA players on hand at a memorial for John Wooden.
(Allen J. Schaben / Pool)

“Coach hadn’t shaved in about five days, so he looked up at me, he felt the whiskers on his chin and he said, ‘I kind of feel like Bill Walton,’ Howland recalled. “I just could not believe he had that sense of humor at that point. I was amazed.”

Intimate stories like that one were the highlight of a 90-minute ceremony that attracted a mix of fans and sporting luminaries to Pauley Pavilion including Dodgers manager Joe Torre, Angels manager Mike Scioscia and numerous players from all eras of Wooden’s career. Wooden died on June 4, four months shy of his 100th birthday.

A crowd of about 4,000 arrived under gray skies, filing into Pauley Pavilion as a selection of Wooden’s favorite songs played – everything from Elvis Presley, to Bette Midler, to Billie Holiday. Once the ceremony began, darkness enveloped the arena except for spotlights illuminating the stage, Wooden’s customary seat behind the UCLA bench and 10 blue and gold banners representing each of the national titles his teams won.

Although Wooden will always be best known for his unparalleled basketball success and almost saintly personality, the stories his friends and former players shared on Saturday often revealed a less-publicized side of his personality. Pastor Dudley Rutherford spoke about Wooden’s faith, UCLA chancellor Gene Block lauded his teaching skills and a handful of ex-players praised him as an inspirational figure in their lives, but all of them made sure to highlight Wooden’s devilish sense of humor.

The story that drew the most laughs was one former UCLA star Jamaal Wilkes relayed from just after the Golden State Warriors drafted him in 1974. A reporter asked whether the spindly Wilkes could withstand the physical rigors of the grueling NBA schedule, and Wooden responded, “Well, you don’t have to worry about him pulling a muscle because he doesn’t have any muscles to pull.”

“People always thought of coach Wooden as being very serious, but he had a funny side that he kept to himself,” ex-UCLA center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said. “If you could get him to talk, he’d start talking about different things about different people that would have you in stitches.”

Longtime former UCLA play-by-play announcer Dick Enberg couldn’t be at the ceremony, but he taped a video message that included a story from the morning after the Bruins won their first championship in Kansas City in 1964. Wooden and his late wife Nell were walking to a nearby church to celebrate Easter Sunday when a pigeon flew overhead and took aim at the couple.

Bill Walton and many of John Wooden's former players got to know the former coach's humorous side.
(Allen J. Schaben / Pool)

“The direct hit, as he put it, inspired him to turn to Nell and say, maybe Johnny’s not as good as he thinks he is,” Enberg said, chuckling.

Even Rutherford, Wooden’s longtime pastor, touched on the lighter side of the coach’s personality. A photo of Rutherford, Wooden and Walton appeared on the giant video board on stage during the pastor’s speech with a message from Wooden written on it that read, “Dear Pastor Rutherford. Please pray for the sinners on your right.”

Three weeks have passed since Wooden’s death, but it’s still difficult for his former players to cope with the fact that they can’t call him on the phone, visit him at his condo or meet him for breakfast anymore.

Wilkes and Keith Erickson choked back tears on stage during the ceremony as they described the impact Wooden made on their lives. Mike Warren had to step away from reporters after the ceremony to compose himself in the midst of an anecdote from his playing days.

Before emotion overcame him, Warren told the story of the final time he saw Wooden in the hospital a few days before his death. Wooden said Warren’s name, but he was too weak to communicate much beyond that.

“He tried to say something, but it was inaudible,” Warren recalled. “I said, ‘Coach, I really can’t understand what you’re saying, but I know you’re saying something really smart-alecky. Whatever it is, right back at you.’”

Wooden smiled in response. His body was frail and his voice was gone, but the twinkle in his eye remained bright.

Updated Saturday, Jun 26, 2010