John Wooden gets the last laugh
In Pauley finale, Coach's great-grandson makes final basket for UCLA in fitting sendoff
LOS ANGELES -- They'd all said their goodbyes to John Wooden in their own way, months ago.
At the hospital, before he died in June at 99.
At his memorial service, a few weeks later.
In their quiet prayers, alone with their thoughts and memories of the legendary coach.
Saturday felt like another moment for those who knew and loved Wooden to reflect and remember, another goodbye, as UCLA played its last men's basketball game in the house he'd done so much to build.
Instead, it just might've been a "Hello."
You had to see it to believe it. You had to be here to really feel it. Then you had to laugh at the old coach with one last mischievous grin for all of us.
Right at the end of the game, as the last 25 seconds ticked off the clock in UCLA's 71-49 upset win over No. 10 Arizona, something happened that I'm not sure anyone in Pauley Pavilion on Saturday afternoon will ever be able to explain.
Tyler Trapani, Wooden's great-grandson who walked onto the team three years ago, was lingering, completely unguarded, on the far side of the court.
The walk-ons were in. The sellout crowd was on its feet, cheering UCLA's most impressive game of the season.
The old-time wooden bleachers around the court swayed under the rumble of thousands of feet. Coach Ben Howland cracked a smile on the sideline.
Just as the roar of the crowd crested, Jack Haley Jr. shot the ball from the corner. Trapani broke for the basket, anticipating a rebound. Not one Arizona player noticed him.
The shot was short. Way short. The ball landed perfectly in Trapani's hands.
"I didn't think about it at all," he said. "When I got the ball, it was just instinct to put it back up there."
And just like that, Wooden's great-grandson scored the last basket at Pauley Pavilion.
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"I'm still just baffled at what happened," Trapani said. "I really don't get to get in [the games] very often.
"So right now I really just feel like my great-grandpa put me in that position to just catch the ball and put it back up and in."
You had to laugh.
You couldn't help but cry.
While everyone else was saying another goodbye, Wooden said hello.
"Something's going on there," an emotional Howland said after the game. "I really believe that."
Pauley will look about the same when it re-opens in September 2012. It'll be newer. The paint will be fresher. The old wooden bleachers will be gone.
This will always be Nell & John Wooden Court.
But old houses lose a little something when they are updated. The sweat of five decades of games bakes into a place. Even its flaws become memorable.
"I can say this now," Howland said. "But the floor here is so hard. I'm not going to miss the floor for our players' sake.
"What I'll miss is the fact that this current state is how it was for Coach."
Howland paused for a few seconds at the mention of Wooden. His throat was obviously choked by emotion. His heart was full. He smiled to keep from crying.
There are a lot of coaches who would cower at the idea of forever coaching in Wooden's shadow. This program will always belong to him.
But Howland has always been awed by the opportunity and honored to be the latest caretaker of what Wooden built.
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"I pray a lot," he said, clasping his hands together and choking back emotion once again. "And ... to have Trapani make that last shot ...
"It means so much to me, you have no idea. You couldn't have written it any better."
UCLA had the ball one last time before the clock on Pauley Pavilion ran out. The symbolism of Trapani's final basket was beginning to sink in.
Up in the stands, Trapani's mother, Cathleen, smiled.
"I think Papa helped him with that one," she said.
Howland walked off the court as he always does. Quickly and with purpose.
His players lingered, dancing in the middle of the court with the kind of joy reserved for only the biggest wins, then rushing over to a jubilant student section.
It was UCLA's biggest win of the season. It was Trapani's finest moment, and Pauley Pavilion's last great dance.
But it was Wooden who had the last laugh.
Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.