When you attend a Bruin game, you often do so in the company of Wooden, who sits in the risers behind the Bruin bench. When Wooden is on hand, his presence seems to make time stand still. Wooden hasn't coached the Bruins in 33 years, but you get the sense he's still guiding them.
Whereas a trip to Notre Dame enables you to feel the presence of Knute Rockne, taking in a basketball game UCLA often enables you to actually be in the company of Wooden. It is, in a word, awesome.
The building is named for Edwin W. Pauley, a Los Angeles oil executive and real estate developer. Pauley donated $1 million toward the $5 million construction cost for the building. Not bad. Today, $1 million wouldn't get your name on the title of a guesthouse in neighboring Bel Air.
Wooden isn't the only Bruin who is drawn back to the place. Don MacLean, the Pac-10's all-time leading scorer, can be spotted a midcourt, providing commentary on the Bruin radio network. Johnson, a member of Wooden's final NCAA title team in 1975, often is in the house as a TV analyst. Reggie Miller still drops in to check up on his alma mater.
Still, the most prominent name in the program's history is the one on the floor. In 2003, UCLA named its historic home court for its legendary coach, honoring Wooden's one request: That his late wife, Nell, be included in the honor. So it is that UCLA games are now played on Nell & John Wooden Court.
The couple met in high school and were married for 53 years before Nell passed away March 21, 1985. John still writes her a love letter on the 21st of each month and places it under her pillow. Wooden says he knows he and his beloved wife will be together again someday.
Bruin fans have a similar devotion for their team. It's been 12 years since a banner was added to the collection here. But after keeping the faith, UCLA fans have been reunited with basketball greatness in recent years. The Bruins are looking to reach the Final Four for the third consecutive year.
This could be the year they hang a 12th banner. Freshman sensation Kevin Love has done his part, averaging 17 points and 11 rebounds per game. He's also helped to bring back the love, as UCLA is once again a tough ticket, having already sold out the 12,819 seats for all of its home games this season. Seems like old times.
The team on the floor is vintage UCLA, too. Coach Ben Howland's Bruins play a stifling defense that allows less than 58 points per game and is ranked fifth in the nation. With so much history in the air and so much excitement on the floor, Pauley Pavilion is part museum, part gymnasium. Fittingly, the place seems to attract two groups of fans, as different as museumgoers and gym rats.
With so many upscale Westside residents in the house, the pregame feel is not unlike that of a heavyweight title fight. But it also feels a little like the start of a Dodgers game, which is a euphemism for late arriving. The traffic on the I-405 is every bit as stifling and unrelenting as Howland's defense. The winter climate warm and sunny is more forgiving. Inside Pauley, the UCLA band is attired in Hawaiian shirts.
The student section, which stands throughout the game, is sufficiently raucous. They begin the lovefest with a B-R-U-I-N-S spell out before the opening tip, followed by the school's signature eight-clap.
Upstairs in cushy seats, the older following of alumni and Westside residents treat the outing as if it's a night at the theater. For this faction of fans, a Bruin basketball game is something you appreciate and admire, but you don't participate in it.
When Wooden attends, his seat is directly behind the Bruins bench. So many autograph seekers typically deluge Wooden that UCLA recently asked its fans to refrain from imposing upon him. It seems he couldn't say no.
Wooden looks a lot like he did when he was leading UCLA on its title runs, which is remarkable. Pauley Pavilion looks much the way it did back then, too, which is both good and bad.
There is signage on the scoreboard that hangs over center court and along press row, but virtually nowhere else, which adds to the building's old-timey feel.
When you take in a game at Pauley, you are almost assured of seeing a Bruin victory. In their 43rd season at Pauley the Bruins record there is 579-87 (.869). Wooden coached UCLA during its first 151 games in the facility, compiling a remarkable 149-2 record. From 1970-76, the Bruins won 98 consecutive games at Pauley under Wooden and his successor, Gene Bartow.
A major renovation of Pauley Pavilion is currently in the planning and fund-raising stage. Wooden, who had significant facility-design input back in the early '60s, serves as honorary chairman of the committee to assist in the design and financial support of the building.
When the facility first opened in 1965, Wooden liked the idea of keeping a distance between the fans and the players. But among the changes now being considered is a new retractable seating system that will bring fans closer to the action along the baselines. Larry Brown tried unsuccessfully to do the same thing when he coached UCLA from 1979-81.
The new Pauley Pavilion will undoubtedly be better. But it will also be different. For now, the place is so timeless you expect them play the game without a shot clock.
Today's game has an undeniable link to all those that came before. Wooden used to demand his players acknowledge the teammate whose assist led to their basket, and the public address announcer evokes that tradition. When Josh Shipp hits a three-pointer after a pass from Darren Collison, the public address announcer intones, "Three-pointer, Josh Shipp. Thank you, Darren Collison."
When Luc Richard Mbah a Moute touches the ball, the Pauley crowd serenades him with a long, drawn out chant of, "Luuuuuc," as if hockey's Luc Robitaille who lives in the neighborhood was in the house.
The game vs. Idaho State on this evening is a blowout, and that's a familiar sight in this building, too. With UCLA leading 86-49 in the waning moments, the Bruins starters have long since made their way to the bench, but the crowd remains engaged.
Fans want to see benchwarmer Matt Lee score. As the final seconds tick off the clock, Lee obliges, hitting a three-pointer from just inside the midcourt stripe to beat the buzzer. The crowd erupts and the Bruins bench spills onto the floor, mobbing Lee as if this was a March Madness moment.
The band plays the alma mater, followed by "Rover," a song set to the tune of "I'm Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover" and one that became a post-game staple during the Wooden era. Everyone goes home happy.
It's not hard to understand why Wooden still does his best to make it to Pauley Pavilion as often as he can. The well-read coach considers himself a teacher, and is fond of reciting a poem by Glennice Harmon about the joys of the profession. In it, the author writes, "They ask me why I teach and I reply, 'Where could I find more splendid company?'"
Basketball fans at Pauley Pavilion seem to be asking themselves the same rhetorical question.
Doug Ward is a southern California-based free-lance writer.
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