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Talk about being in awe. There we were, the Illinois State basketball coaching staff and myself, sitting in VIP's Family Restaurant in suburban Los Angeles having breakfast with John Wooden.

That's right, the legendary UCLA coaching great John Wooden sitting at the same table with us eating his usual scrambled egg, brittle-crisp bacon and English muffin with strawberry jelly.

It's the same breakfast the 95-year-old "Wizard of Westwood" has been eating six days a week for the last 15 years at the restaurant billed as "Coach John Wooden's Favorite Coffee Shop."

"Everyone loves him," said Jackie, a longtime waitress at the quaint, neighborhood establishment. "He doesn't make himself out as a celebrity ever. He comes in and always says hi to everyone. He sits in the back, but he never forgets to say hi to the people who sit up front.

"Beyond the fact he's a famous person and all the things he's done, he's a kind and considerate person. People tend to overlook that because he coached. We love him not because of what he has done, but who he is now."

Jackie laid down the "Wooden rules" to us before he arrived for breakfast.

"Know what you want to order when he gets here because he will insist you order first," she said. "He will order his usual No. 2 (not surprisingly four of the six of us ordered the No. 2) and don't argue with him about the bill. He doesn't like people to argue with him.

"He likes to make the decision. He doesn't want people catering to him. He doesn't like that. When it comes time to pay the bill, if you want to pay for his breakfast, take it up with the owner. Sometimes Coach let's you and sometimes he doesn't."

Dana Pump, a friend of ISU coach Porter Moser, arranged the breakfast date for the Redbird staff with Coach Wooden. This reporter just tagged along and soaked up everything the most successful college basketball coach in the nation had to say.

Wooden may have guided UCLA to 10 national championships, including seven in a row, but beyond that he is a true and gracious gentleman.

He fielded a variety of questions and offered his viewpoints on a number of topics. Moser asked him about the challenges of inheriting a program and attempting to turn it around with some players who didn't buy into a new philosphy or attitude.

"You have to have team unity and discipline," Wooden told Moser. "You can't have players who aren't going to follow your rules and demands. You have to make a stance on discipline.

"As a coach, you have to instill discipline in the players just as you do with your own children because they will always test you. It's only human nature. You have to stay strong with your beliefs."

But Wooden also said a coach has to be able to change.

"We had a team rule where the players were required to wear slacks, a suit coat and tie on road trips," said Wooden. "One time I had a player show up with a pair of jeans on. I reminded him of the team rule and he told me he didn't own any slacks and couldn't afford any.

"After that, it made me realize I had to change. I told the players they could wear jeans, but they had to be neat."

Wooden, who walks with the aid of a cane, had three simple rules for his teams: never criticize a teammate; no profanity; and be on time.

He also said there was no truth to stories that he used his famous rolled-up game program, which he always had in his hand during games, as a megaphone-type instrument to get on players and referees.

"I had notes written on it," said Wooden. "Things like who's the opponent's best and worst free-throw shooter or plays we might want to use in different situations. There were some games where I'd never have to unroll it."

Wooden said the biggest change in the game came long before this 49-year-old reporter was born.

"It was the abolishment of the jump ball (after every basket made)," Wooden explained. "I think the shot clock has been good for the game, but the 3-point line is too close. It needs to be international distance."

Wooden also said he doesn't watch games today unless he has a personal interest in the players or the coaches.

"I'm more of a people person than a team person," he added. "I usually only watch games that involve somebody who coached or played for me."

And he doesn't watch NBA games.

"I respect the pro players for their talent and they are very athletic," said Wooden. "But it's too much of an individual game. There is too much showmanship. If I wanted to see showmanship, I'd go watch the Harlem Globetrotters."

Wooden takes great pride in the fact he rarely recruited outside of California, despite landing such players as Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) from New York City.

"California is a big state with a lot of talent," said Wooden. "I never really had to recruit players outside of California. I never recruited Lewis (which is how he still refers to Jabbar). He watched us win the national championship on TV his junior year of high school.

"He told his coach then that UCLA was one of five schools he wanted to visit the next year. Then we won the national championship again the following year. We sparked his interest his junior year and won him over his senior year.

"But we never actively recruited him until he visited campus. Players from out of state came to UCLA because they wanted to. We didn't recruit them. They recruited us."

Then, after a few minutes of idle chatter, Coach Wooden picked up his newspaper - rolled up exactly how he used to roll up his game program - and went on his way to personally greet each and every one of the other patrons at the restaurant.

A true gentleman, who just happened to be a pretty darn good college basketball coach too.

I'm still in awe.

Bryan Bloodworth is the sports editor. Contact him at bbloodworthyayaypantagraph


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