Blessed to be a Witness

Gatinho —  January 16, 2008

I met his car in the parking lot. His driver opened the door, and I helped him out of the car and into a wheel chair. I introduced myself and let him know that I would be here all day long to help him with anything he needed.

“Coach Wooden, I’ll be your host today.”

We took him to a room that held the other legends who had graciously given their time for this worthy cause… Bill Sharman, Tex Winter, Jamal Wilkes, AC Green, Keith Erickson, Chick’s wife Marge Hearn, and Ann Myers-Drysdale.

As soon as Coach Wooden was wheeled into the back room, these basketball luminaries were reduced to fans. They all stopped what they were doing to greet The Coach. He may not have ever been their Coach, but you couldn’t tell who he knew intimately from those he knew in passing. Only Ann Myers-Drysdale openly betrayed her devotion to the man by referring to him as “Papa”.

We were unsure of who would exactly show up. Kareem was unavailable as he was called back east to preside over a function for the American Library Association, for which he is the national spokesman. Bill Walton was called away by ESPN, but in his stead, he enlisted his son to wrangle a couple of Lakers, and Tex Winter was asked to do his best to encourage their attendance by getting them out of practice early.

At about 1:00 Luke Walton arrived, followed shortly thereafter by Jordan Farmar, and shortly thereafter by Derek Fisher. They followed the same ritual of reverentially greeting Coach Wooden.

The rest of the legends and players made their way out to the newly built Toberman Neighborhood Center gymnasium to mingle with the those who had paid for the opportunity to hobnob with people that they probably had previously only known as guys running around on their TV screens in shorts trying to put a ball in a hoop.

This was a day where I was allowed to be privy to the kind of fly on the wall stuff one could only dream about.

I listened as Bill Sharman explained to Luke Walton that his real name was William Walton Sharman, so he was the first “Bill Walton”. And as Coach Wooden told Luke that it took his dad three months to agree to recite the part of The Wooden Pledge that stated, “No whining, no complaining, no making excuses.” Coach Wooden let Luke know that his dad lobbied for some “wiggle room” on that part of his pledge.

As the meet and greet portion of the event ended, the guests were sat in chairs as the Legends and Lakers made their way down the red carpet. It became very obvious that a majority of the folks were there to see and hear from one person. They rose to their feet as Coach Wooden walked down the red carpet. I was honored to hold his arm and escort him. At 97, the toll that that long a life takes on the body is obvious, but with Coach Wooden, the toll is solely physical.

The question and answer session afterwards had several highlights…

Tex Winter was asked if Phil Jackson’s reluctance to call timeouts ever frustrated him. He explained that Phil thought the value of working through situations was worth more to the team, even if it cost them a loss here or there. He also responded in his own sarcastic fashion that he used to sit by Phil and elbow him, “Coach, get a timeout. And as most of you now know, I’ve been demoted, and now I sit behind him.”

Tex also was asked how come more teams don’t run the Triangle after all the success he’s had throughout his coaching career and he responded, “Coaches should coach styles that they have a thorough understanding of.” He hinted that it was too complex for some to coach and remarked that he was glad that they didn’t utilize it.

Marge Hearn broke up the room with a hilarious story about Chick coming home from a road win in Phoenix with a hang dog look on his face. She inquired why he was sad, knowing that the team had won and Chick replied, “I think I lost my job.” He then relayed to her that when he signed off from the game he said, “We’ll see you next time. This is Chick Hearn signing off from The Sunshine Sh*tty…”

Part of the fun was the relaxed atmosphere that allowed these people to get on the microphone and riff during the auction. As Luke auctioned off a Bill Walton gift package he commented that,

“This looks like what I get for Christmas every year.”

Jordan Farmar and Luke Walton traded friendly barbs over the microphone during the auction. Farmar poking fun at Luke’s fundamental game, hinting that it was devoid of any flash.

“Every see someone post up on a fast break? That’s him right there,” pointing at Walton.

Walton retorted while auctioning off an opportunity to be Laker ball boy,

“You have to be between the ages of 13 and 17. Jordan, you’re seventeen, right? Wouldn’t you like something like this?”

But Wooden’s time with the crowd made us all feel blessed to be in his presence. The gym fell silent as we all bent an ear to grasp at the pearls of wisdom he was dispensing.

He was asked about a pivotal moment in his life, and he immediately began to talk about his “wonderful father”.

It was his father that gave him a small card at age 12 that contained the basic philosophy that has now become The Wooden Pledge and The Pyramid of Success. One point on the card was “Be true to yourself.” My thoughts immediately turned to Polonius’ quote from Hamlet, and before I knew it, he was reciting the passage…

“This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

He was asked how he bridged the gap between his so-called star players and his role players. His answer spoke to his greatest asset as a man, his profound decency.

“I loved them as people, not just as basketball players.”

Returning him to his wheel chair, he pumped his arm to the UCLA fight song as we passed the pep band. Once he was safely back inside the car that would take him away, I leaned in and thanked him. He replied with a thank you of his own, a smile, and a handshake.

“Thanks for all your help today.”

No, Coach. Thank you.

-Scott A. Thompson aka Gatinho