Posted: Monday June 7, 2010 2:31PM ; Updated: Tuesday June 8, 2010 7:43AM
Seth Davis
Seth Davis>HOOP THOUGHTS

To the regulars at Vip's, Wooden was simply another warm presence

Story Highlights

Wooden occupied the same booth at Vip's most mornings for nearly 20 years

Vip's regular Carmichael: "They'd reserve a seat for him, but he didn't like that"

Wooden will always be remembered at Vip's with numerous pictures, memories

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Over the final 20 years of his life, John Wooden spent most mornings in this booth at Vip's restaurant.
Seth Davis/SI

TARZANA, Calif. -- Vip's restaurant was bustling with customers as usual on Sunday morning, but one booth sat conspicuously empty. Tucked into the corner, second from the end, it served as a mini-shrine to the man who occupied it almost every morning for nearly 20 years. A vase of yellow roses sat on the table, surrounded by envelopes that had been placed by well-wishers. A book of remembrances lay open so people could write in it. Next to the book stood a framed photograph of the honored occupant. In the picture the man is wearing a coat and tie, he is sitting with his legs crossed, and he is holding a basketball. The picture is signed, "Best wishes, John Wooden, UCLA."

Wooden would have preferred the folks at Vip's didn't make such a fuss over his death, but he would have no doubt appreciated their thoughtfulness. (Wooden himself was nothing if not thoughtful.) There was, however, one memento that would have prompted his objection. It was a small plastic sign that read "Reserved." Vip's is located about a mile from Wooden's modest condo in nearby Encino, and the staff used to keep his favorite booth empty for his standard 8:30 a.m. arrival. But that was done mostly without his knowledge because no other customer was afforded that treatment. John Wooden didn't come to Vip's to feel like a celebrity. He came for the food, the company and the routine. They called him Coach, but they thought of him as John.

"John didn't want special preference," Gene Carmichael said as he sat in his usual seat at the counter on Sunday. "They'd reserve a seat for him, but he didn't like that. The rest of us used to make a little fuss out of this. We all want to feel special. Every person wants to feel as important as everybody else."

There are so many repeat customers at Vip's that Wooden's son, Jim, referred to it as "Cheers without beer." (Imagine Jim's surprise when he recently learned they actually do serve beer there.) Vip's is the kind of place where the waitresses kiss the customers. Given that many of its regulars are elderly retirees, it's not unusual for them to lose one of their own. In Wooden's case, the loss was especially heartfelt for reasons that have little to do with his 10 NCAA championships.

"You never thought of him being any different than the rest of us, really. He was just a nice man doing his own thing," said Margaret Ekstedt, a Vip's customer for about 13 years. "I used to say to him, 'Coach, we'll see you tomorrow.' He'd only say, 'God willing, but if I'm not here it's all right because I'll be with my wife Nell.' He was a dear soul."

She looked over at his booth and sighed. "It's hard to believe he's not going to be there anymore."

When Ekstedt first started having her daily breakfast at Vip's, she knew nothing of Wooden's pedigree. Nor did many of the others. Not the owner, Paul Ma, a native of China who knew nothing about American sports when he emigrated to Los Angeles from Spain in 1997 and bought the restaurant a year later. Not Charlene Duarte, who started working as a waitress six years ago. Not Lizz Jingley, a 39-year-old high school English teacher who has been eating there every weekend for 10 years. "My dad had to explain to me who he was," she said.

Like Wooden, Carmichael used to have his own seat in one of the booths, but many years ago a back injury forced him to take his seat at the counter. He has been in the exact same seat every morning since. "These people would fall over in shock if I ate somewhere else," he said. "When me and John sat down to talk, sports never came up. We fought about Abraham Lincoln many times. I didn't believe in the Civil War. That could have been fought in Congress. We didn't need to lose 400,000 men. He never got mad about it, though. I don't think there was any subject you'd talk about with John that he didn't know about.

"I'll tell you this," Carmichael continued, leaning closer. "If the Lord needed somebody to speak good to him, John is the one. He was a good person. Yeah, we're gonna miss him."

Wooden encountered a steady stream of autograph seekers whenever he ate at Vip's. Cheerfully, unfailingly, he obliged every one. "For the 12 years I knew Coach, he never said no to anybody," Ma said. Out of sensitivity to those demands, the other customers and staff were reluctant to impose on him. "My sister came in and she said, I'm going to ask if I can take a picture. I said, 'Oh, don't bother him,'" Jingley said. "But he was very cordial. Then he looked at me and said, 'Why don't you want to take a picture with me?' So we took a picture and I put it up in my class. I'm so glad he told me that, because I hated to bother him."

When Wooden celebrated his 99th birthday at Vip's last October, Jingley brought her father, who is a big sports fan. Wooden signed some books for him. As a thank you, Jingley's fiancÚ, Josue Mendez, a member of the Coast Guard's search and rescue division, gave Wooden a Coast Guard hat. Wooden looked at the Latin inscription and translated it: "Always ready."

"I remember one time he was walking out of the restaurant, and I was holding the door for him, waiting patiently for him to leave," Jingley said. "When he got to the door, he insisted on holding the door for me. I said, 'After you.' He said, 'No, after you.' It was really sweet. Always a gentleman."

Jackie Hunt, who has been working at Vip's as a waitress for 12 years, likewise refrained from treating Wooden like he was some kind of famous coach, but on one occasion she couldn't help herself. Her son had been having some trouble with his football coach at school and Hunt wasn't sure how to handle it. So she asked Wooden what he thought she should do. "You know," he told her, "it's never too much to ask that the people who influence your children have character."

"I went home and told my son, this is what Coach Wooden said, and I don't expect anything less for you," Hunt said. "So I went to the football coach and caused a big 'ol ruckus."

Hunt was more emotional than anyone else at Vip's on Sunday morning. Every time someone spoke about Wooden or brought flowers to place in his booth, she puddled up anew. "He never failed to ask me about my children. When I went through my divorce, he always made sure I believed things would turn out OK," she said. "When I tell you the world has lost a real source of light, it has. A lot of people say these things. Coach lived them."

Like most of the regulars at Vip's, Wooden prized his routine. Not only did he sit in the same booth, he always ordered the same breakfast. "He was a number two [special], with scrambled eggs and brittle bacon," Duarte said. "He'd have an English muffin, and we'd butter it and put strawberry jelly on it. We did that special for him." During a time of life when so many people grow sedentary and detached from their surroundings, Wooden found in Vip's a reason to get out of his apartment first thing in the morning and immerse himself in a community. "The food is good, the price is good, but I don't think that's what drove him here," said Dick Varon, a retired health insurance salesman who has been eating there since the early 1980s. "There's a certain camaraderie. It's just a good neighborhood restaurant."

"It's like this is your family," Ma said. "If someone doesn't show up, the other customers get worried. They think, what's going on? We didn't see him."

Wooden made his last appearance in Vip's about three weeks ago. "He seemed real tired, but he still looked good. He made some jokes," Duarte said. "You wouldn't have guessed he would go this quickly." As Ma stood at the cash register collecting checks on Sunday morning, customer after customer offered their condolences. Responding to a man in a black Kobe Bryant T-shirt, Ma tapped his chest and said, "Coach lives with us forever." Another offered similar sentiments and then told Ma about his wife's ongoing battle with cancer. Yet another paid his check and said to Ma, "We had to come this weekend. We come every weekend, but we especially had to come this weekend."

Eventually Wooden's booth will be cleared and someone else will sit underneath a sign that Ma has ordered commemorating the booth as Wooden's favorite. Meanwhile, the entire restaurant will remain as a shrine. Pictures of Wooden are all over the walls. A poster of his Pyramid of Success hangs over the iced tea dispensers. A Wheaties box with his picture on it sits above the coffee makers. "We're gonna miss him," Margaret Ekstedt said, "but what can you do? We're still here."

Life will go on. Breakfast will still be served. But even when this cozy eatery is teeming with customers, it will forever feel a little bit empty. The world of sports may have lost one of its greatest coaches, but the family at Vip's just lost one very good man.

Seth Davis is writing a biography of John Wooden, which will be published by Times Books.

 
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