LOS ANGELES.—Richard “Duke” Llewellyn, chairman and co-founder of the John R. Wooden Award that goes to college basketball’s player of the year, died Friday, June 4. He was 93.
Llewellyn’s longtime companion, Nancy Tew, said he died of congestive heart failure at Hollenbeck Palms, a retirement home in the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles where he had been for the past week.
Working with Wooden, a friend for more than 60 years, Llewellyn founded the Wooden Award in 1976. He remained on the board through this past college basketball season, meeting with sponsors, players and staff as he battled cancer.
Wooden died Friday night of natural causes at 99.
“We are devastated to lose Duke,” Los Angeles Athletic Club president Steve Hathaway said. “Quite simply, he was the Wooden Award, and symbolized everything that is right about college athletics and amateur sports. He led an incredible life having touched so many people along the way. We will miss him deeply.”
Llewellyn’s life was dedicated to people and sports. He began at the Los Angeles Athletic Club as director of athletics in 1956 and advanced to a senior vice president position. He created Olympic training programs that led to gold medal performances for such athletes as divers Pat McCormick and Kathy Ferguson and swimmer Murray Rose of Australia.
The club’s sports-themed restaurant Duke’s is named for him.
Llewellyn’s other contributions to sports included serving on the board of the World Boxing Hall of Fame for more than 20 years; as attache for his native Bermuda at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics; as director of the Southern California Tennis Association; and as a college, high school and junior college football coach and official for several decades.
But perhaps his most important contribution, one that continues to extend beyond the physical activities, awards and committees, was his willingness to cross color lines. To the post-war Japanese American community, he was a friend to a group of people who had been ostracized by many of their fellow citizens and imprisoned by their own government.
When former Rafu Shimpo publisher Akira Komai and others began the Nisei Athletic Union, they were met with great resistance and were unable to find gymnasiums to host the league. But while others had said no to Japanese Americans, Llewellyn said yes. Llewellyn granted access to gyms for Nikkei basketball and even officiated the games.
“One of my heroes is Duke,” said Tetsu Tanimoto a longtime friend of both Llewellyn and Coach Wooden and one of the founders of the Aki Komai Memorial Awards. “People don’t realize how big a guy had to be to allow Japanese Americans to play, at that time, in that day, when prejudice was rampant.”
Llewellyn saw the value of opening up space for Japanese Americans to play sports and continued his relationship with NAU until the 1960s as a game official. Today, thanks in great part to Llewellyn’s foresight, the Japanese American basketball leagues’ players number in the tens of thousands.
Last September, Llewellyn was awarded an Aki Komai Award for all that he has done for the Japanese American sports community.
Born in the Bermuda Islands, Llewellyn’s family eventually moved to Los Angeles where he became a four-sport letterman at Loyola High School. Continuing his all-around athleticism, he matriculated to USC and was a three-sport letterman. In 1936, Llewellyn finished fourth in the decathlon in the U.S. Olympic trials. He played football in the Pacific Coast League with the L.A. Bulldogs and Hollywood Rangers and after the war with the L.A. Dons. While in the Army, he became the heavyweight boxing champion of the 9th Service Command, which led to his exhibitions with heavyweight world champion Joe Louis.
Llewellyn was inducted into the Los Angeles Athletic Club Hall of Fame where he was recognized as a “citizen of the world” and lauded for “his welcoming demeanor and his loyalty to friends…a model for everyone.” Whose “deeds and accomplishments will live in the hearts of those he continues to touch.”
In addition to his companion Tew, Llewellyn is survived by sons, Mark and Mike; daughter, Debby; and several grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are private. A celebration of his life will be held later.