March Madness Voices: Tournament Time with John Wooden By: Cathleen Trapani

To honor the excitement and history that is the NCAA tournament, will be publishing first-person accounts from different people who have March Madness experiences to share. These March Madness Voices represent the people behind what makes the NCAA tournament one of the most thrilling sporting events of the year. Check back at to read more stories that will be published throughout March.

Cathleen Trapani, the granddaughter of legendary coach John Wooden, is a mother of two and currently resides in Southern California. Below she writes about her March Madness experiences from when she was a young girl to a mother of her own.

It’s times like these when I miss my grandfather the most.

March Madness is here, when college basketball is at its best. It’s during this month, along with the start of basketball season and of course his birthday, when I really think about him the most. I recall the memories we shared, the wisdom he gave me and the way he lived his life.

He is the man who the world knows as the greatest basketball coach of all time, John Wooden. To me, he’s Papa.

When I look back at some of my March Madness memories, I can’t help but laugh with joy.

I think about the national title he won when I was eight years old. After the victory we went back to his apartment in Santa Monica. As we were getting ready to go out to eat, the telephone rang. Papa answered and said hello.

I am just getting ready to take my family out for dinner...Of course I will hold, I heard him say.

Thank you Mr. President, I really appreciate that.

Then he handed the phone to me. On the other end was Richard Nixon. The President said hello to all of us grandchildren and later wrote each grandchild a letter on stationery from the White House. It was what I brought to show and tell at school each year after.

That last title he won also stands out because none of us knew he was going to retire. In fact, I don’t think he even knew it was coming. It was at the Final Four in San Diego when he told his players in the locker room that this team had given him more pleasure than any other group he had coached, and it would also be the last team that he ever coached. My grandmother didn’t even know. He just decided it was time. Thankfully, he went out on a high note.

After he retired, basketball was still a presence in all our lives. He continued to keep tabs on all the games. As I got older and had my children, I would go back to the Final Four with my grandfather, both of us as fans. Of course we would fill out brackets, but my grandfather never bet. He just had fun predicting who would go far and who would do well. It’s also not surprising he was pretty accurate most of the time.

I cherished our time together attending the McDonald’s All-American games and our trips to the Final Four. We would continue to go to the Final Fours, but as he got older and his knees got worse, we would often be escorted across the floor so he could get to his seats. For someone so well-known in the college basketball community, he didn’t like a big deal being made of him. We would go through the tunnel and walk across the floor and he would sit fairly close. But there was no way he could have gone to the games if we didn’t get to our seats that way. He didn’t like special treatment. Many spectators would greet him, from everyday fans to celebrities, but Papa was always down to earth and humble. He didn’t do things for fame or flattery, but just because he wanted to. He would sign autographs for hours, was happy to do it and was always pleasant.

I think he enjoyed being around the fever and fun of the Final Four, and especially because of the interactions he shared with so many people. The Final Four reminded him of his former players, or who he called his boys. Many kept in touch with him, phoned him and visited all the time. His love for life and people is why I believe he lived to be 99, almost 100.

Obviously, basketball was always part of our lives. But one thing to know about my grandfather is that while growing up, we didn’t really talk about basketball. When he was coaching, he was Coach. And when he was home, he was Papa. After a game you couldn’t really tell if he won or lost, we never really discussed it. After home games we would go out to dinner and the conversations were about what was going on in life and school. It wasn’t really around basketball. Basketball wasn’t even his favorite sport, baseball was. He watched a lot of women’s basketball, he felt like women played a much more fundamental game than the men did. He thought women really played good team game of basketball, shared the ball a lot better. Unless you asked him specific questions about sports he wouldn’t talk about it.

Make no mistake though — if you asked him about basketball, he would have an answer. I would pepper him with questions when we sat together at UCLA games. He was always like a teacher, as he would say he wasn’t a coach but a teacher of the game of basketball. And that’s how I felt when I asked him questions. He would explain to make sure I understood the whole thing. I would say “That is not a foul” and he would say, “Well honey, it was” and give reasons and explanations to why. He would tell me “I know you want the Bruins to win, but sometimes they foul too.” He was always honest and no-nonsense. And he always had a little twinkle in his eye when he would smile at me.

So on a day like today, in the middle of the madness that is March, I miss him dearly. But I know his legacy is not forgotten. In fact, I know it’s passed down. I see it when I watch my son Tyler coach high school basketball. He too is a teacher of the game. I like to think Papa is more well-known for the man he was than his coaching record. It makes sense, because he was a great man. I miss him because when I would get uptight and upset he would be calming to me. He was simply special. He was different.

Go Bruins!

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