John Wooden began his 66th year as he had begun every day since his heart attack three years ago—with a five-mile constitutional. His walks are usually uninterrupted, but on that smogless, crackling, red autumn dawn last month, the joggers scattered along the UCLA track stopped him. One by one, they wished him well. That evening nearly 7,000 more well-wishers paid formal tribute to Wooden at a birthday/retirement party in Pauley Pavilion, the arena where he had scored so many of the 620 victories in his 27-year career at UCLA.
Although the man being honored certainly deserved an occasion rich with sentiment, Wooden Night went beyond that. It was an affair that could only be described as schmaltzy. "On cue, sing out loud and clear: Hello Johnny, well hello Johnny," the program instructed. Auld Lang Syne came later. Assorted celebrities, ranging from Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley to Bob Hope, took turns expressing gratitude for being given the honor of honoring Wooden. And there were so many standing ovations that people popped up and down in their seats as if they were watching an overtime game against USC.
A number of times Wooden was called the greatest coach in the history of basketball, and who present would argue with that? He was also called the creator of "the most magnificent era in the history of intercollegiate sport," a weighty accolade that caused him to gaze self-consciously at the floor. From the evening's proceeds—the worshipers paid $5 per ticket—Wooden received a watch, a tie clip and cuff links, each inset with 10 diamonds, one for each of the NCAA championships he brought to UCLA. He was also given a pale blue Mercedes-Benz 280 sedan. Fortunately for Wooden, whose taste in status symbols runs to such things as well-polished wing tips, the car came without a diamond-studded steering wheel. He could have been given Pauley Pavilion, and no one would have minded.
Sitting quietly in the shadows at Wooden Night was a bespectacled man who must have been squirming in his chair with each display of reverence accorded the guest of honor. He was the man appointed to replace the Wizard of Westwood. He has not been asked to replace Wooden in the hearts of UCLA fans, but he knows he soon must find a nook of his own in there.
"I figure this nostalgia for Coach Wooden will pass in about a year," Gene Bartow says, "...as long as UCLA keeps winning." He shakes his head. "But they love him here, don't they?"
For the six months since he was hired last April, Bartow had shared Wooden's office and had sat toe to toe with him, a position that served as constant reminder of how big a legend's shoes can be. Technically it had been Wooden sharing Bartow's office, but the signs of success in the room—plaques and trophies and framed magazine covers—meant more than the name on the door.
The office sharing was by Bartow's choice, not necessity. Relieved though he may be now that Wooden's physical, if not spiritual, presence is gone, he had asked Wooden to stay around for a while and submit his brain for picking. And the information Bartow obtained rubbing feet with the master made the tight quarters worthwhile. "Besides visiting with Coach Wooden about common interests like golf and the Dodgers, I asked him specifically about the zone press and the strengths and weaknesses of the returning 11 players," says Bartow. "Several times we sat down and worked at the blackboard, actually using Xs and Os."
"Intimidating" is a word that Bartow uses a lot these days, usually accompanying it with a chuckle, a shake of his head and a roll of his eyeballs. He has heard so much about the aura he is supposed to be intimidated by that he responds to it now with an easy, genuine laugh. "If I felt differently about Coach Wooden, if I felt he wasn't actually above the rest of the basketball coaches in this world, then there would be pressure for me to prove something," he says. "But I don't feel that way."
So for the past six months Bartow has been saying things like "I don't intend to try to compete with John Wooden; his record is a miracle," and "We're in a new era now; the Wooden book is closed." Something he has not been saying is, "O.K., you guys, lissen up: things is gonna be different around here from now on, see?"
Of course, things will be different, but not much. Bartow's second move (his first was to put Lee Hunt, who has been his assistant for the past five years and a friend for 15, on the UCLA staff) was to hire Larry Farmer as jayvee coach. Farmer had played forward on UCLA's undefeated teams of 1971-72 and 1972-73, and he had been an assistant coach on Wooden's staff the following year. "If you take over a program that's bad, you may not want to know anything about it," says Bartow. "But if you take over a program that's just won 10 national championships, it helps to know a little bit about what's been going on."