Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Remembering Wooden, and a Prized Gift

I never met legendary John Wooden, yet your blogger still felt a touch of personal sadness at the legendary former UCLA coach's passing recently for a variety of reasons.

Primarily because Wooden and his teams were at their peak in the 1960s and into the 1970s during my adolescent/teen/early adult years, when my sporting interests were being formed. It's probably not much of a stretch to claim my affinity for college basketball ... and, maybe, my desire to cover the sport at that level, which I've done for 37 years ... is directly tied to Wooden and UCLA.

Those were UCLA's dominant years ... 10 national titles, an 88-game winning streak, etc. Your blogger, and a circle of friends growing up in a small upstate New York city, jumped on the proverbial UCLA bandwagon and discussions about the exploits of Walt Hazzard, Gail Goodrich, Keith Erickson, Lynn Shackleford, Sidney Wicks, Curtis Rowe, Steve Patterson and, of course. Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton, dominated our daily lunch table.

Nothing captured my imagination and interests in the sporting world like UCLA basketball. So, the thought was planted that covering college basketball as a profession would be an enjoyable occupation.

So, I owe that to a man I never met. But, I did later make a personal connection of sorts and received one of my most-treasured sports mementos as a result.

And, it even has a small MAAC connection, occurring when Siena made a west coast trip to play Stanford at the start of the 2006-07 season. Your blogger was still working for an upstate N.Y. newspaper, covering Siena and made the trip to Palo Alto, Calif.

The night before the game, while partaking in a liquid beverage in our hotel's sports bar, a conversation was struck up with a gentleman who sat down on the next stool.

We quickly learned we knew of each other ... the next-stool gentleman because he often read my Siena stories on line from his California home, and your blogger because he grew up watching the gentleman play basketball at Siena.

It was a chance meeting with Rod Brooks, who grew up in the Syracuse area, played at Siena and finished there as the program's second all-time leading scorer when he graduated in 1974 with 1,315 career points.

Not long after his Siena days Brooks moved to California to start a business that brought about a connection with John Wooden's only son, Jim Wooden.

Brooks and the younger Wooden became close friends, living in the same neighborhood. Brooks told of often making visits to to his friend's dad, John Wooden.

I was certainly impressed, and told Brooks of my younger days as a true fan of UCLA basketball and John Wooden.

Brooks asked me if I wanted to meet Wooden's son. Of course, I did.

"Just stay here a little while, because he's on his way over to meet me," said Brooks.

Later that night I did meet Jim Wooden, and listened to stories of his dad for several hours.

The younger Wooden made the trip to the hotel lounge to bring something to Brooks, three place mat sized reproductions of John Wooden's famed "Pyramid of Success" that were signed by the legendary coach.

Brooks was going to make a short presentation at the next morning's breakfast fundraiser for Siena College, and would present the signed reproductions to Siena's school president, to then-coach Fran McCaffery and to athletic director John D'Argenio.

Your blogger sat at the breakfast with Brooks who later offered to arrange to have Wooden sign one for me, too.

Brooks described that Wooden would want my name in order to personalize the reproduction because he didn't want them to be sold (personalizing sports memorabilia diminishes monetary value significantly).

And, so, about a week later a mail truck pulled into my driveway to deliver a large envelope. Inside was the reproduction of the Pyramid of Success with the inscription: "To Steve, thanks for being a fan. John Wooden."

The reproduction was quickly framed and hangs prominently on a wall in my home office, one of my most-prized possessions. And, don't worry ... I'll never sell it.

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