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Friday, December 17, 2010
First 'Classic without coach

By Peter Yoon
ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- As a child, Tyler Trapani dreaded going to the Wooden Classic.

For different reasons, he's dreading this year's Wooden Classic a little bit, too.

Trapani is a walk-on guard for UCLA, which will play Brigham Young on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. in the Wooden Classic, but it's not the game against the No. 18 Cougars that has Trapani worried.

His trepidation comes not from whom he will see at the Honda Center in Anaheim, but rather from whom he won't.

John Wooden
John Wooden was able to share the experience of the Wooden Classic with great grandson Tyler Trapani at the 2008 event.

This is the first Wooden Classic since legendary UCLA coach John Wooden died June 4, and the first to be held without Wooden present. And for Trapani, who is Wooden's great grandson and has been attending the event since its inception in 1994, that means something will be missing this year.

"It's really going to be different," Trapani said. "I mean, I'm sure he'll still be watching from above and his presence will certainly be felt everywhere, but it's not going to be the same without him there."

The Wooden Classic started as a way to pay tribute to Wooden, who guided UCLA to 10 national championships and a record 88-game win streak. This year, tournament organizers say that tribute takes on an even more significant role.

Video montages and historical perspectives on Wooden's career will make prominent appearances throughout the two-game event (Long Beach State plays St. Mary's at 11:45 a.m. in the first game) and those in attendance will have constant reminders of why there is an event named after Wooden.

"We certainly go into [it] with some level of heavy hearts," said Tim Ryan, president of the Honda Center and one of the event organizers. "But from our standpoint, this will be a celebration of continuing his legacy. We'll be honoring him in some unique and creative ways."

There also looms the possibility that this could be the last Wooden Classic. The event is on a year-to-year contract and Ryan said there have not yet been discussions on the future of the event.

"There has never been a question about whether the event was going to go forward this year," Ryan said. "Regarding the event's long-term plan, we really haven't focused on it yet. We felt it was important to put our efforts into this year's event and I'm sure we'll talk about future plans in the coming months."

Trapani said he hadn't talked to his family about the possibility of discontinuing the event, but said he'd like to see it keep going.

"It would be a shame not to keep it going just because he's not alive," he said.

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With that in mind, UCLA has made this season's game a top priority. The Bruins desperately need a victory over BYU because the Cougars currently are the last ranked team on UCLA's schedule this season, but the importance of padding their resume is secondary to living up to the standard Wooden set.

They have dedicated the week to Wooden and have vowed to practice and play in a manner that would make Wooden proud.

"We know he's looking over us and looking over this program so we have to honor what he did and where he brought the program," UCLA forward Brendan Lane said. "We have to come out and play in his honor and play the way he would want us to play."

Like Trapani, UCLA coach Ben Howland has mixed emotions about this season's Wooden Classic. While acknowledging the need to continue to pay tribute to the Bruins' icon, Howland said it won't be the same going through news conferences and putting on charitable clinics without Wooden.

"It's really going to be difficult," Howland said. "He'd always be there and talk to everyone afterward. He was always so gracious and loving. So it's going to be definitely different. It was always special to be there with Coach."

But, Howland said, it's also an opportunity to spread the word of just how much Wooden meant to UCLA, college basketball and to society in general.

"Everyone here really, really gets how lucky they are to be at the same university that he has meant so much to," Howland said. "Not only as a coach, but as a person and the things that he stood for. All the championships that were accomplished under his tenure here are special, but equally important is just all the philosophy of life that he has given to others throughout his life."

Trapani admits he didn't always pay attention when his great grandfather was offering those philosophies. Early on, he wasn't even interested in basketball and thus his dread for going to the Wooden Classic.

Plus, the event usually became a family reunion of sorts, with uncles and great aunts and second cousins all getting together.

"I'm not going to lie, sometimes I really didn't really want to go," Trapani said. "I would take a Game Boy and play the Game Boy the whole time."

But, as he grew older and began to play basketball, Trapani grew to appreciate the Wooden Classic. Now, as a member of the UCLA team, he is even more thankful for the opportunity to wear the uniform his great grandfather helped make famous.

Trapani's only appearances in a regular-season UCLA game have come in the Wooden Classic. Two years ago, he played the final moments of a blowout victory over DePaul, and last season, he played the final moments in a blowout loss to Mississippi State.

Howland wouldn't commit to playing Trapani on Saturday, but certainly you get the feeling that the circumstances of this year's event would mean Trapani gets some time on the floor.

"Last year when I put him in the game at the end of that game, it was really special for both Tyler and his family," Howland said. "His great grandfather was there. It's really special for me to have the Wooden blood as part of the program because it is his program and it will always be."

Peter Yoon covers UCLA for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.