How about a more distinguished coach? Can we play catch-up with John Wooden instead?
Chris Carlson/AP file
Three times in the last six years, SI.com's Seth Davis had had dinner with the legendary UCLA coach, chatting about the day's hot sports topics, reminiscing about Wooden's Bruins teams and touching on the coach's health.
Wooden, 98, must make a great dinner companion. Davis clearly cherishes the experience.
His 2003 story touched on, among other topics: Ben Howland (who was entering his first season as the Bruins' coach); the best player he wanted on his roster, but couldn't get (Paul Westphal, who attended cross-town rival USC); the best point guard Wooden coaches (Mike Warren, lauded for his consistency); and a brief tour of Wooden's home.
Three years later, Davis repeated the same process. He met Wooden for a meal, then talked about anything and everything, with Wooden offering his opinion freely. For example: Is Tiger Woods the most dominant athlete in the history of sports (no; Byron Nelson was better in 1945); should Barry Bonds be in the Hall of Fame (his stats say yes, but Wooden isn't sure he'd vote for him); and a nice line about throwing out the first pitch of the 2003 World Series in Anaheim. ("It was a slider," he said. "I threw it halfway and it slid the rest.").
That year, Wooden was still able to make it around town in his 1988 Ford Taurus, which speaks to both his reflexes and his confidence. "In all my years, I've never had an accident that was my fault," he said. "And I haven't had a ticket of any sort in probably 30, 40 years. Not even a parking ticket."
The most recent interview, however, was a bit more downcast.
"My eyesight is not nearly as good. My hearing is probably going away. My memory is slipping too. But I'm still around." He is due to turn 99 on Oct. 14. "Hope to make it," he said pleasantly. "But if I don't, I've had a long run."
(He's touched on that topic before, including a lengthy Q&A last year.)
Not that the story was a downer. Wooden came across as comfortable and still sharp, though, according to Davis, not the same as the previous meals. They talked about a variety of topics, including Bobby Knight ("People think I don't like him. I don't think there's ever been a better coach than Bobby Knight. Do I like the way he teaches? No, I don't. I never cared for it, but nevertheless."), voting for Barack Obama last Nov. ("I didn't vote for him because I thought he was outstanding. I just liked him better than the others, that's all."), and why he doesn't like to visit the hospital (modesty).
And, to give Davis some credit, he also asks Wooden about Sam Gilbert, the notorious UCLA booster who allegedly gave the Bruins gifts in violation of NCAA rules. Gilbert, depending on your point of view, was as responsible for UCLA's rise to prominence as Wooden. It's not that black and white, but it's clear Gilbert played a role. And Wooden wasn't happy about that role.
"It's not upsetting because I know what the truth of it is. I had never tried to use Sam Gilbert in any way. I never sent a player to him," he told Davis. "I tried to keep players away from him. I talked to him and so did [athletic director] J.D. [Morgan], but we're not going to be able to tell him what to do. He's going to do what he wants."
I hope this isn't the last time Davis sits down to a meal with Wooden. Not because I hope Wooden lives forever, but because it seems like there's still more to learn, and still more for them to talk about. Three years is too long.
Can we read another in the next three months, maybe?