The House That Wooden Built

Oct. 5, 2012

Part I: Reflections on Pauley Pavilion's History

By Larry Stewart

If the old Yankee Stadium was "The House That Ruth Built," then Pauley Pavilion could easily be called "The House That Wooden Built."

Eight of the 10 NCAA championships John Wooden's UCLA basketball teams won came after the iconic arena opened in 1965. The Bruins, under Wooden, at one point had a 98-game winning streak in the building.

Pauley Pavilion has been the site of more than just UCLA basketball. Who can forget Mary Lou Retton's 10 in the vault, and the USA men winning a gold medal in the team competition at the 1984 Olympics? And what about the UCLA men's volleyball teams coached by Al Scates winning 19 NCAA championships while playing in Pauley?

Those events will be featured later in this 10-part series leading up to the reopening of the remodeled Pauley Pavilion.

But here, in Part II, the focus is on John Wooden.

We all know so much about the Coach, his Pyramid of Success, his principles, his attention to details, his "Coach of the Decade" honors, and his sayings such as "Be quick but don't hurry."

I once asked the Coach how many books have been written about him. He said he thought it was nine, but wasn't sure. Think about that for a moment. He wasn't sure about how many books had been written about him.

To get a different perspective for this segment of our series, my wife Norma and I invited our friend Nan Wooden, Coach's only daughter, out to dinner at her favorite restaurant, the Valley Inn in Encino. Two other friends of ours and Nan's, Denny and Lynn Ryan, came with us.

Nan, now 78, and her brother Jim, 76, moved from South Bend, Ind., to Southern California with their parents in 1948 after their father accepted the job at UCLA.

"Right from the start they promised Daddy he would have a new arena in two or three years," Nan said. "In 1953, it appeared as though it was going to happen."

It took until 1965 to get it done, thanks in large part to a $1-million donation by University of California regent Edwin Pauley. That matched the $1 million collected from donors toward the $5 million needed to build Pauley Pavilion.

There were two things her father insisted on, according to Nan.

"He wanted the floor to be big enough so that the moveable bleachers at the west could be pulled back so that the freshmen team could also practice there at the same time," she said. "A partition separated the two teams.

"And one thing he was adamant about was the dressing rooms for the home and visiting teams be the same."

Of course Nan and her brother Jim, along with their mother Nell and several of their children, attended the first event ever played in Pauley on Nov. 27, 1965. It was the UCLA varsity, coming off the school's second consecutive NCAA championship, facing a freshman team featuring Lew Alcindor.

Nan remembers that game best not because Alcindor scored 31 points to lead the freshmen to a stunning 75-60 upset. Her most vivid memory was something much more personal.

Joining the Wooden clan at the game was Opal Hambly. She and her husband Jack were the Woodens' neighbors in South Bend for nine years. Young Nan called them Auntie Opal and Uncle Jack.

Opal had moved to Southern California following the death of her husband and remained close to the Woodens.

"When I was pregnant with my first daughter, she wanted me to name her Opal Nellie," Nan said. She considered it, but instead named the first of her three daughters Christy Anne.

"I remember just how excited Auntie Opal was to be at the game," Nan said. "That next day my mother got a call. Auntie Opal had died. I guess it was a heart attack. We never found out for sure.

"That's what I remember most about the first event ever in Pauley Pavilion."

There were mostly fond memories after that, such as the time Sidney Wicks, who had many confrontations with his coach over playing time as a sophomore, after a game late in his senior season, leaned over and told Wooden, "You are something else."

But possibly her fondest memory came during the last men's basketball game played at the old Pauley Pavilion on Feb. 26, 2011.

That's when Nan's grandson, senior Tyler Trapani - her father's great grandson and her daughter Cathleen's son - got into a game for only the third time that season.

Call it divine intervention or an amazing coincidence, but Tyler scored the first basket of his career - and the last ever scored during a men's basketball game at the old Pauley Pavilion. Tyler just happened to be in the right place at the right time to put back a missed shot by Jack Haley, Jr. toward the end of a 71-49 victory over Arizona.

Coach Ben Howland choked about and could barely talk about it during his postgame news conference, considering what John Wooden had meant to him and the UCLA program. "It was so fitting," said Howland as he battled to hold back the tears. "You couldn't have written it any better."

"I feel like my great grandfather put me in that position," said Tyler, an outstanding student who got mostly A's during his time at UCLA and recently graduated with a degree in education.

Asked about that moment, Nan said, "I didn't see it." During our dinner, she held her hands over her eyes and said, "I was like this. I couldn't watch."

But that didn't dampen the memory one bit. "It was simply unbelievable," she said.

There's one more thing, on a personal note.

My wife Norma and I went out to dinner with Nan and her father and Denny and Lynn Ryan on a couple of occasions late in the Coach's life at the Bistro Garden on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City.

The last time was when Wooden was 98. By then, he was not very mobile. My wife and I picked him and Nan up at his condo in Encino and loaded the Coach into the front passenger seat of our car.

After a three-hour dinner and some wonderful conversation, it was time to leave. The fee for valet parking was $4.50, and I only had a $5 bill in my wallet. So I asked Norma for a $1 bill.

As the valet, Nan and I were helping the Coach get into my car, he held up his hand and told us to stop. He struggled as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of money. (We always wondered why he had the wad of money, and Nan explained just the other night that her father always carried cash because he was a good tipper.)

The Coach then peeled off a $1 bill, called Norma over and handed it to her.

"Ladies should never have to pay," he explained.

Above all, John Wooden was a true gentleman.

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