- Rick Reilly, Columnist, ESPN.com
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This column is for UCLA freshman walk-on Tyler Trapani, who will probably see zero minutes this basketball season, and yet will be my favorite player.
That's because Trapani is the great-grandson of legendary UCLA coach John Wooden.
Tyler, I've admired your great-grandfather for 40 years, known him for 20. Every couple of years I sit down with him, just to breathe the clean, clear good sense that pours out of him. And it occurs to me that I may even know a few things about him that you don't.
For instance, he turned 98 two weeks ago, but did you know he should've been dead at 35? During World War II, he was scheduled for a tour of duty in the South Pacific on the USS Franklin when an emergency appendectomy put him in the infirmary. The Franklin left without him. It was eventually hit by a kamikaze, killing 724 crewmembers. Much the same happened years later, when your great-grandpa didn't take a flight from Atlanta to Raleigh that he had a seat on. That plane went down. Everybody died.
"Pure, blind luck," Wooden says, holding on to the arms of his wheelchair. "I don't believe in fate."
Well, I do. I believe your great-grandfather was spared so he could be an example of how to live morally and simply and well.
For instance, he and your late great-grandmother, Nell, had the truest love I've ever seen. Junior high school sweethearts, they were married 53 years until Nell died in 1985. To this day, he writes her a love note every month and sets it on her side of the bed. He has never kissed anyone else.
I once asked him if we could write a book together about how to make love last. He agreed—until the day we were to start. I'd been waiting on his porch for half an hour when he finally opened the door, tears streaming down his face. "It's too soon," he wept. And Nell had been dead 15 years by then.
With stocks cratering today, people fret about having to give up their gym membership or their Lakers tickets. Please. Your great-grandfather grew up on an Indiana farm without electricity or running water. He lived his teen years during The Great Depression, listening to his father read poetry by the light of a coal lamp. He never made more than $35,000 a year, including 1975, the year he won his 10th national championship, and never asked for a raise.
I know some people think he's about as relevant as the Edsel, but I don't. For years, UCLA freshmen rolled their eyes when he gave his famous lecture on how to put on their socks and sneakers. Beau Bridges, the actor, was a Bruins walk-on one year and thought he was nuts. But your great-grandfather never stopped. Anytime he sees you before a game, Tyler, he goes into it, right? "I want to see you do it," he'll say. "Pull up the socks, make sure there are no wrinkles. Now, put your shoes on, start from the bottom and tighten them up from the bottom up." It's gotta drive you bats, but you've got to admit, you've never had a blister.
He is as square as a pan of fudge and honest as a toothache, but I love him. Unlike so many coaches today, he didn't see the game as his own personal Hollywood screen test. He'd sit quietly on the bench, a rolled-up program in his right hand. In 27 years at UCLA, he remembers getting only one technical. "I really didn't deserve it, either," he says. "Someone behind me called the ref something not very nice. And the ref thought it was me!" Forty years later, he still blushes.
Your great-grandfather is his own man. He changes his principles as often as his haircut, which is to say, never. He believes in team, not star. And so he loves Chris Paul and is "disgusted" by Allen Iverson. He hates the dunk and college's one-and-done rule. He admires you not for your unselfish style of play—although he sighs and admits you have "heavy feet"—but your 4.3 GPA. Oh, and he loves that you never mentioned him when you applied.
I worry about him, though. Earlier this year, his walker caught on the rug and he fell. He was on the floor—with a broken wrist and a broken collarbone—from 9 p.m. until someone found him at 7 the next morning. "What'd you do that whole time?" I asked.
"Froze!" he said.
Now he has someone with him 24/7, which is one reason he's selling "the best car [he] ever owned." So what about buying it, Tyler? You know how chicks love a pimped-out great-grandfather's 1989 Ford Taurus, right?
When I said goodbye last week, I mentioned that the next time we visit, he'd be 100. "How will you celebrate?" I asked.
"Probably from a stretcher," he said.
And he'll still be the most upright guy in town.
One coach still knows more than all the others combined. And he's been retired for three decades.