Sun, Dec 21, 2003 - Page 24 News List

UCLA dedicates its court to legendary coach J. Wooden

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , LOS ANGELES

With microphone in hand, Mike Warren was speaking to a group of folks and laughing off a quick jab John Wooden made earlier in the day about Warren's hairpiece. Warren, who played for Wooden decades ago at UCLA, gave it right back to his old coach.

Later, while Warren was engrossed in his speech, Wooden sneaked behind him and mockingly pulled off Warren's hairpiece. Roars of laughter ensued, as Warren recalls.

"He's got a great sense of humor, and you don't know that when you play for him," Warren said. "It's something I learned later. He loves jokes. I learned not to trade barbs with him because he invariably gets the last word, and he's really good at counter-punching."

Wooden's former players paint pictures of their existing relationship with their one-time coach, always speaking with enormous respect but also discussing how the player-coach relationship has evolved into a friendship of -- at least in Wooden's mind -- equals.

But today everyone will be reminded just how beloved and revered, but also legendary and respected, the 93-year-old Wooden remains.

More than 65 of his former players, including Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and five members of his first UCLA team in 1948-1949, will be in attendance as the floor at Pauley Pavilion, a building in which he was 149-2, is named "Nell and John Wooden Court."

There is a invitation-only luncheon beforehand in Wooden's honor and the court-naming ceremonies will begin 30 minutes before the Bruins tip off against Michigan State at 3:30pm.

"If any one coach should have the court named after him in the history of college basketball, it's John Wooden," current Bruins coach Ben Howland said.

"It's really a special day for UCLA and the UCLA basketball program because of the naming of the court. That was one of my first questions when I arrive here. When are we naming the court after coach Wooden?

"You look around the country, this is probably long overdue. So it's really nice this honor is occurring in coach Wooden and Nell's name and will forever be there on the floor, which it should be."

Warren, who played at UCLA from 1966 to 1968, said the dedication is testament to the type of man Wooden is. He remains loyal and loving of his wife, Nell, who died in 1985 after 53 years of marriage.

"I really believe if they had not given [Wooden] a choice to have [Nell's name] on the court, he would not have done that," Warren said. "I don't think there's any way."

Yet, the cherished memories former players share of Wooden, who already has the Wooden Center named in his honor on the Westwood campus, isn't about his 620-147 mark in 27 seasons as Bruins coach. Nor of his 10 national championships or 88-game winning streak. It's of the off-the-court lessons he gave his players, and the friendships that blossomed afterward.

"We've all kind of lived our lives from what we learned from him," said Lynn Shackleford, who played for him 1967-1969. "At age 93, he has a lot of bad days and nights and never complains. His philosophy on life is time-tested and well thought out. It may sound simple to some people, and it is, but it worked ... I don't try to control what I can't control. That was it.

"We never scouted, never watched film and never worried about the opponent. We worried about doing things his way. He used to say, `If they were better, it didn't matter what I did.'"

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