The Coach

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Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden pictured with Edward Takahashi.

By Edward Takahashi

In 2004, a group of the present and former scouts of Koyasan Boy Scout Troop 379 gathered to plan for the Troop’s 75th Anniversary celebration in late 2006.  Like everything else, nothing happens until the last minute.

A year before, I entrusted my 401K program, with what little I had, to Tetsu Tanimoto of Merrill Lynch. I’ve known Tetsu for some years, when he was playing for the Lords AA championship teams, and his daughter played in the JAO girls basketball program. In passing we talked about JA basketball, and John Wooden’s name came up. Tetsu was the Coach’s “bodyguard” at the Wooden College Basketball Player of the Year Award programs at the LA Athletic Club.  He told me quite a lot of Coach Wooden.

For the 75th Anniversary, we were seeking a speaker for all ages. I called Tetsu at his office, but he was out of the city. By the end of the day, Tetsu called back, from Atlanta. I asked if he would be kind enough to ask the Coach to be our luncheon speaker. He told me that when he returned, he would call Coach with the request.

A week later, Tetsu called back to inform me that Coach John Wooden had accepted our invitation to be our luncheon speaker. I broke down with joy. One of the guys in the meeting asked if there was a problem. I replied, no. I quickly made a couple of calls to the members of the luncheon committee to inform them the Coach’s acceptance to be our keynote speaker.

As a memento of the 75th celebration, I purchased 100 copies of the Coach’s book on Leadership, for each Scoutmaster, Cub Master, Girl Scout leaders of the past 75 years, and the anniversary committee members.  Several weeks before the luncheon, Tetsu made arrangements for the Coach to autograph the books.

When we arrived at his condo in Encino about 2 p.m., after he had returned from attending Sunday church services, we were greeted by Coach, waving at us from his window.

He was just getting over his brief illness from a couple of months ago, looked a little weak, but he was in great spirits. When I walked into his unit, it was like stepping into a basketball museum. There were photographs donning the walls of the Coach with his teams, basketball and other sport personalities, dignitaries, and letters and poems from his former players. He gave us a tour of his unit, room by room, slowly walking without a cane.

When I was following him, I noticed an opened box with a red and white ribbon and a silver buffalo. In 1990, Coach Wooden was a recipient of the Boy Scouts of America’s Silver Buffalo award, an honor bestowed to those persons who gave noteworthy and extraordinary service to youth. It is Scouting’s highest commendation of the invaluable contributions that outstanding Americans make to youth.

In 2003, Coach Wooden was one of the recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush.

Coach was a gracious host. As we made small talk, it was as if we were long time friends getting together. I was nervous and apprehensive in the presence of this basketball legend, but he made me feel comfortable.

We sat down at his dining table, and Coach enthusiastically autographed each book with the name of the recipient. I printed out the list of the book recipients in large type, so it would be easy for Coach to read and autograph the cover page.

Years before, I talked with Richard Banton and Kenny Booker, K/T basketball refs, both who had played for Coach Wooden. Dick and Kenny both still remember how to put their socks and shoes on to play basketball, and now to officiate basketball games. Dick gave me a gem—on Tuesdays, there was a light practice, because Coach made sure he would not miss an episode of Gunsmoke. Both consider the Coach as a father figure, a teacher of life, not just basketball.  Coach remembered both of his former players.

I asked about a former Dorsey High player, Conrad Burke. Coach remarked that Connie was not as talented as some of his teammates, such as Willie Naulls, but he was a good reliable and consistent player, he could always depend upon.

Coach Wooden talked about some of his players. He was very fond of Swen Nater.

When Swen was coaching in Blythe, he asked coach to speak to his team. It was a great experience for the kids, but I sensed gratification in the Coach’s mind of how well Nater progressed as a person. Swen used to write poems and send them to him. Some of the poems were framed on his wall. Coach recited some of Swen’s poems.

When Tetsu asked Coach about his schedule, Coach replied he had to go the Reseda Post Office next week. Tetsu asked why, Coach dryly replied, they are going to name it in his honor.

When Coach Wooden asked me about his luncheon topic, his philosophy of the Pyramid of Success came up. I had always heard of the Pyramid of Success, but never saw a copy. The Coach presented me with a copy. As part of the luncheon program, we arranged for the printing of the Pyramid of Success, from a printer recommended by UCLA’s Athletic Department. Banton has his 50-year old autographed copy framed at home, as a treasured family heirloom.

We invited Coach Wooden for an early dinner. He first accepted, but I think it was too early, and he humbly declined. Marcus Tanimoto, Tetsu’s son, and his wife brought the Coach to the Luncheon at the Quiet Cannon in Montebello. When he arrived, walking with a cane, he was enthusiastically greeted by everyone.

After the introductions of guests, we had the Coach come up on the stage, seated in a chair with armrests, as he requested. The first honorees were the pre-war scouts. Some had served with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, several were members of the Military Intelligence Service, and one diminutive former scout served in BCI (Burma, China and India Theater) for OSS (Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the present CIA). They gathered around the Coach for a photo op.

Coach Wooden then presented his autographed Leadership books to the past Scoutmaster, Cub Masters and Girl Scout leaders or their family members, in attendance. For those that could not attend, former Eagle Scout Ernie Ikuta sent them the book, after an exhaustive search of the Internet. When Coach Wooden discussed the evolution of his Pyramid of Success, you could have heard a pin drop. There were members of the serving staff in the back and sides of the room.  Everyone listened intently about the Coach’s philosophy of life. It was a momentous occasion for everyone.

At the end of the program, the Boys and Girls Scout, Cubs and their leaders got a photo op with the Coach.

After the luncheon, Coach Wooden graciously took time, for over an hour, autographing copies of his Pyramid of Success, luncheon programs and basketballs for everyone. I saw the joy in the Coach and the individual eyes, as he greeted each one and autographed an article for them.

As Coach Wooden made his way slowly to the parking lot, he was greeted by the luncheon crowd that gathered to thank him and wish him well.

Last year, I met a scouter from South Bay. Because one of our former 379 Eagle Scouts was his troop’s assistant scoutmaster, he attended the luncheon. He said that luncheon was the highlight of his scouting career.

Thanks Coach, for sharing your life with us.

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Edward K. Takahashi is the Luncheon Committee Co-Chair of Troop 379 and former Eagle Scout, 1953. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the Rafu Shimpo.

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