Saturday, January 7, 2012

A Wooden Classic that sure didn't resemble one

A Wooden Classic that sure didn't resemble one

The annual tribute to the greatest basketball coach in history was held Thursday in a game between two struggling teams in a half-empty arena.

Bill Plaschke
D' Los Angeles Times
11:20 PM PST, January 5, 2012

Coach told us to make each day our masterpiece. But at times this felt like a finger painting.

Coach told us that failing to prepare is preparing to fail. But how many people could prepare for something they didn't even know was on the schedule?

The annual tribute to the greatest basketball coach in history was held Thursday night in a game between two struggling teams in a half-empty arena that bore little resemblance to the man who inspired it.

The 18th John R. Wooden Classic was barely about Wooden, and not quite a classic, and enough is enough.

As Wooden's 2010 death becomes more distant, the celebration of his life becomes increasingly important.

This event needs to be fixed, and now.

UCLA beat Arizona, 65-58, at Honda Center in a game that was won by the scrappy, short-handed Bruins and cheered by 35 members of Wooden's family. But as memorials go, it just didn't cut it.

A tournament that has always been held on a Saturday in December was moved to a holiday hangover week in January, resulting in few students and large swaths of empty seats, including an embarrassing stretch of vacant chairs at courtside.

A tournament that has always been two games was whittled to one game for the first time because, well, it's too difficult to schedule two games at one place in the first week in January.

An event that has always been a moving three-hour tribute to Wooden essentially celebrated the coach only in a program and with a midcourt logo and a brief video during a timeout.

Yes, there was a coach honored at halftime. But it was new Bruins football Coach Jim Mora, who answered questions at midcourt before cheerleaders taught him the eight-clap.

No offense to the great inspiration found on the UCLA gridiron, but where was the video of Wooden's memorial? Where was the video of Wooden's life? There were one clip during a timeout, but where was the extended remembrance of the most important name in the building?

Then, when the game ended, instead of remaining on the court to address the crowd with a Wooden tribute as he has done in the past, UCLA Coach Ben Howland disappeared into the locker room, his spot taken by dancing cheerleaders.

The Classic is in the middle of an ownership transition, and the ever-gracious Wooden family was thrilled simply to continue the event with one game against a competitive opponent. But c'mon, people.

The new owner, Honda Center, UCLA, the Pac-12 network and the family's IMG representatives need to get together to restore the event to its former glory before folks start forgetting the lessons and legacy of a man who coached not only his basketball team, but all of us.

"It's complicated," said Dan Guerrero, UCLA athletic director.

"This is different kind of year," said Greg Wooden, Coach's grandson and the family spokesman.

That is understandable, considering that this season the Bruins do not have a home gym and the Classic is between owners. With so much uncertainty, it was impossible to bring in two more teams for a Saturday doubleheader. And the one Saturday single game that made the most logical sense, on Dec. 10 against Pennsylvania, may not have made enough competitive sense.

"While we want a UCLA win, more than anything my grandfather would have wanted this to be the most competitive game possible," Greg Wooden said.

So organizers decided on the toughest home game possible, and kudos to the Wooden family for agreeing to this game instead of giving the Classic a year's vacation.

"We would rather have one game in the middle of the week than no game at all," Greg Wooden said. "It may not have been ideal, but we are very pleased with how it turned out, facing a tough challenge is what my grandfather would have wanted."

Except the challenge was so poorly advertised, even I didn't know it was the Wooden Classic until last week.

"This year was an anomaly," Guerrero said. "The most important thing is that we are moving forward. It is a priority for us to keep Coach's spirit alive."

In the beginning, when Wooden was alive, that Classic spirit rocked. In the tournament's debut season in 1994, UCLA was joined by Kansas, Massachusetts and Kentucky. Since then, Duke has been here, along with the likes of Louisville, Villanova and Maryland.

Yet in recent years, the tournament has scuffled, last season featuring St. Mary's, Long Beach State, Brigham Young and not even a midcourt logo or program.

This year, it felt like just another game. Moving forward, it is imperative that organizers never forget that Wooden was not just another coach.

If attracting great teams for the Classic means that UCLA has to agree to play at the homes of those great teams in the future, the Bruins need to do it. If attracting three great teams on a December weekend means throwing lots of that new Pac-12 TV money at those teams, the Bruins need to do it.

The mandate for organizers is as clear as it is insistent: Four good teams, two competitive matchups, on one Saturday in December, in honor of perhaps the greatest single athletic educator in college history.

Be quick, and, yeah, go ahead, hurry.

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