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

Gatinho

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26 responses to Blessed to be a Witness

  1. That was a great read. It feels like every other laker game I sit and think, man I would love to hear chick call this one. To think he would get fired, even considering what he said, would be a travesty.
    Think about all the great schemes that Coach Wooden came up with, the guy is a basketball genius hands down.
    Great post.

  2. Gatinho, this was a fantastic post.

  3. Excellent post. I would consider myself fortunate to have that opportunity and learn or rather listen, to the wizard and other respected players of the game.

  4. Thanks for a great column! Whatt a classy individual John Wooden is!

  5. The Dude Abides January 16, 2008 at 2:04 pm

    The Los Angeles area has had some of the best coaches in the history of basketball. Thanks for that story.

  6. I would pay serious money for a time machine/Predator suit so I could see Wooden and Walton in practice back then.

  7. Phenomenal, eloquent, and inspiring post. Well observed and well written. It made my day……..thanks.

  8. the other Stephen January 16, 2008 at 2:24 pm

    woooooo. great post!

  9. Fabulous post. Well done!

  10. Nice post! I really appreciated it!

  11. Thanks for the compliments guys… much appreciated…

  12. longtime lurker, have to give it up for this post. great work.

  13. When I was at school at UCSB there was a class available where the curriculum was twice a week someone with an interesting life story would come and speak. I can’t remember the name of the course but I feel so lucky to have been there when one of the guests was John Wooden. Me and my roomate had the class together, and both being b-ball junkies got there early and sat in the front row. To this day I count that as one of the greatest I can remember. He’s truly one of a kind.

    Thanks for the wonderful article and bringing back some good memories.

  14. Its no wonder he gets a standing ovation anytime he’s spotted in Pauley.

  15. Great Piece Gatinho, great piece.

  16. Thanks for the great story. I went to UCLA long after Coach left, but I feel proud to have been part of that tradition even in a small, insignificant way.

  17. I went to Oregon State in the early ’60s – Mel Counts was our center – and we just couldn’t get by UCLA to get to the NCAA tourney (only one school made it from each conference). This was before Wooden had won any championships.

    Well, by 1965 I had become a UCLA fan and remember the game where the freshmen (Lou Alcindor among them) beat the seniors – some of whom had won the NCAA championship the previous year.

    I feel so blessed to have been able to follow all the UCLA championshp teams except 1993/4 and 1994/5.

    John Wooden was a legend then and has just cemented his legacy since that time. When he retired, he said it was time, but I do remember he was quite at odds with the Athletic Director and couldn’t countenance some of the things going on. He has never mentioned any of this, but I do believe they contributed, but didn’t cause, his retirement.

  18. Great great great great post. Truly a very good job. Gatinho, do you think you can leave us some more information about yourself and how you became involved in such an event? Can you give us some background? Also, is there contact information for you to do guest posts more often here as well as other website such as mine at http://www.laballtalk.com ???

    Thanks again for the read, it truly inspires us all to be not only great at our profession and career but as people and as members of the society that we live in. Thank you

  19. Great article. Thanks for the post.

  20. I am a middle school admistrator and English teacher in Northern California.

    My mother is the chairman of the board at Toberman. She befriended Joyce Sharman and James Worthy’s wife when they volunteered at another charity that she was working for and persuaded Joyce to join her at Toberman. Joyce is the woman responsible for wrangling all these folks for the fund raiser.

    I’ll head over to your site and give you my contact information.

    and thanks for the compliment…

  21. Gatinho –

    Where in Nor Cal are you at? I am in Suckramento.

  22. hahaha, ok can we talk about tonight’s game. TNT, ya know. Charles barkley and whatnot… “steve nash is amazing x 1000 times”

    Kobe, point expected.

  23. points^ expected.

  24. Foster City aka Pleasentville

  25. Thank you Gatinho, I’ll be sure to keep in touch in regards to some potential input from you througout the remainder of the season!

  26. Also a long time lurker. What an incredible experience. Thanks for sharing it…to have John Wooden shake my hand and say “thank you”… I’m in FC too. My toddler son may be attending your school in a few years!