Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Wooden in Hospital - and on Bruins' Minds

By The Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A half-hour before the NCAA championship game, UCLA coach Ben Howland gathered his team together and told his players John Wooden was in the hospital.

The 95-year-old Hall of Fame coach was going to be fine, Howland said. He was in a Los Angeles-area hospital for an undisclosed condition, but team spokesman Bill Bennett said it wasn't life-threatening and Wooden should be home in the next day or two.

But Wooden means so much to UCLA — all of college basketball, really — that Howland couldn't help but get emotional.

"He's the patriarch," Howland said Monday night. "He is why this program is where it is. It's one of the elite programs in the country, and has been since he started that job in 1948.

"I was really hoping we would play really well tonight, so he and his family could enjoy that in the hospital room."

There was little in the game for Wooden to enjoy, though. Florida romped to its first national title with a 73-57 victory Monday night, preventing UCLA from adding to all those championship banners won by Wooden's teams and still hanging in Pauley Pavilion.

"We were pretty focused on the game, but our heart and everything we do on the floor is always a tribute to him, whether he's healthy or not," Arron Afflalo said.

Added Darren Collison, "He's the one who started this tradition. He's the reason we play so hard in the tournament. He's the one who started this. He is the god of this program."

Wooden had hoped to come to Indianapolis and watch the Bruins play for a 12th national title. When the Bruins won No. 11 in 1995, under coach Jim Harrick, Wooden was at the game in Seattle, quietly slipping out before the final buzzer to keep the focus on the players.

But while his blue eyes still sparkle, he walks with the aid of a cane and doesn't travel much anymore. He spent last week in San Diego for the McDonald's high school All-American games. He was sure to be in even greater demand at the Final Four, and decided the back-to-back trips were simply too much.

Instead, he planned to stay in Los Angeles and watch the game from home. But his family insisted he go to the hospital on Sunday night, wanting to make sure he hadn't gotten too worn down.

"He didn't want to go," Howland said. "Sounds just like coach."

Wooden retired from UCLA in 1975 with a record of 620-147 in 27 years as coach. The Bruins won 10 national titles under the "Wizard of Westwood," including seven in a row. The streak included 38 straight NCAA tournament victories.

"Will anybody ever get a program at that level? It will be very difficult to win 10 in 12 years," Howland said.

But Wooden's impact went far beyond his record. Humble and deeply principled, he was more concerned about helping his players become good men than champions on the court. He tried to give them life lessons every day, and they continued to revere him decades after leaving UCLA.

Bill Walton calls often to say thank you, and has passed on Wooden's words of wisdom to his own sons. His former players are also frequent visitors to his home, and the coach is mobbed like a rock star wherever he goes.

"Greatness to me is the way John Wooden's players talk about him. That's greatness," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "Because you know what, tomorrow this is over. It's over with. It's on to the next thing. But when you affect people's lives, that can carry on for generations and a lifetime."

Howland has made sure Wooden's impact extends to the current generation of Bruins, too. The players see him at games and visit with him. Last fall, Howland had a barbecue at his house for his team, and included Wooden and dozens of his former players.

"I hope he's doing OK," Cedric Bozeman said. "I'm sorry we couldn't come back with a victory. But I think he's still proud of us."


(photo credit: AP)


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