Window on Wooden
Ben Howland, the 'steward' of the legendary coach's program, helps us say goodbye
LOS ANGELES -- If he had been crying, there was no trace. Only a grateful smile graced Ben Howland's face.
UCLA's basketball coach had admired John Wooden for as long as he'd loved basketball, and he had the privilege of meeting and learning from the legendary coach when he became the "steward," as he calls it, of Wooden's program in 2003.
And like all of the Bruins coaches who came after Wooden, Howland had known full well he would never live up to Wooden's legacy but would try to make him proud.
On Friday night, being the steward meant it was Howland's job to help everyone say goodbye.
"Everyone in the UCLA community is deeply saddened by the loss of Coach Wooden today," Howland said in a late-night news conference inside Pauley Pavilion. "He touched so many lives throughout his career and beyond his retirement, through his teachings, his philosophies, his books.
"I go back and think about him sitting right over there, behind our bench, for our games every night. This is and will always be Coach Wooden's program. What he built here, the tradition, the legacy, will never be equaled."
This time of year, only a few people use the court at Pauley. Players come by for late-night shooting sessions after they finish their homework. Campus tours drop by during the mornings. But mostly it sits empty, getting warmer inside as spring turns to summer.
It always feels open, though, the result of an extraordinary bit of sportsmanship Wooden demonsrated nearly 50 years ago in approving the plans for this now-hallowed court, which bears his name and that of his beloved wife, Nell.
Unlike in most college basketball arenas, the stands are set back far off the court.
"He wanted to make sure we were good to our opponents," Howland said, smiling and shaking his head at the thought. "That we were fair and good to them, and didn't make it too uncomfortable.
"Now, trust me, he was unbelievably competitive, too. You never knew it, but he was always getting on the officials under his breath."
Longtime UCLA sports information director Marc Dellins flashed one of his first smiles in days.
"He was hard on them, but he never cursed," Dellins said. "There were a whole lot of 'goodness gracious sakes alives,' though."
Howland laughed, saying, "That's another area where I don't measure up to Coach."
Dellins has been at UCLA longer than almost anyone else in Westwood. He covered Wooden and his teams as a cub reporter for the Daily Bruin in the 1970s.
These past few days have been hard on him. Every day begins around 6 a.m. and ends close to midnight. He has known Wooden was hospitalized for more than a week now and has been doing what he can to help shield Wooden's family from an inevitable media storm.
It's his job, of course, but he's done it with a love four decades in the making.
"I'll never forget what he did for me when I was here," Dellins said. "I was 19 years old and covering the team the year he announced he was going to retire. We were all down in San Diego for the Final Four, and that's when he announced this was his last year.
"I went up to him after the game and asked if he had some time for the Daily Bruin, that we wanted to do a special report on him. And he said, 'Sure, I'm going to go out to dinner with my family, but you can call my hotel room around 9.' I called, and he told me to come over. We talked for 15 or 20 minutes. I couldn't believe he would make that much time, after his last game, after he'd gone to dinner with his family, for this kid from the Daily Bruin."
These past few years, everyone knew this day would come. Wooden had been in and out of the hospital several times. His body was failing, although his mind was still sharp.
In May 2009, there was a scare that Wooden had passed. Dellins couldn't reach Wooden's longtime trainer and caretaker, Tony Spino, or Wooden's daughter, Nan Muehlhausen, on their cell phones.
Fearing the worst, he called Wooden's condominium in Encino.
Jim Wooden answered the phone and passed it to his father.
"I just said, 'Coach, You don't know how glad I am to hear your voice,'" Dellins said. "'We got a call saying you'd passed.'
"He laughed and said, 'Not yet; maybe soon, but not yet.'"
Howland stuck around Friday's news conference longer than he had to, lingering a little while after the cameras had cleared to sign an autograph for a small group of people who sat in the stands as he talked.
There was no place anyone had to be that late at night. It was warm out and warmer inside.
An hour earlier, 500 students had held a candlelight vigil outside UCLA Medical Center, where Wooden died at a quarter to 7.
They had chanted his name and performed an eight-clap. They had cheered as Wooden's family left the hospital.
But now, the whole campus was still. A legend had died.
"John Wooden is with God. There's no question," Howland said, smiling again. "I'm a Christian. I believe that he is with God. There's no doubt in my mind.
"Who has lived a better life?"
The question hung in the air a few seconds but needed no answer.
When it was time to leave, they left the lights on. UCLA sophomore Reeves Nelson was coming in to shoot baskets late into the night.
Looking forward, everything after in Wooden's memory.Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com.