Starting today, visitors to the UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame will be able to see something they probably thought they’d never get to see: the inside of John Wooden’s den.
The tiny room in Coach’s modest Encino condominium was famous for being the place where he received the majority of his many visitors before he died June 4 at age 99 at the Reagan UCLA Medical Center.
Crammed full of books, trophies, photographs and other mementos, the den was the place where hundreds — probably thousands — of lucky friends and fans were invited to enjoy Coach’s company.
Now, fans who never got the chance to visit Coach at home may see his beloved den, which has been re-created in the Hall of Fame. This is no mere replica: Every book, table, lamp and photograph — even the carpet and drapes — once resided in Wooden’s actual den. The only thing missing is Coach’s sofa, which UCLA retains but opted not to place in the exhibit space because it would block full view of the display.
"We had a little bit of a challenge, because the original room was 9’ x 9’ x 17’, and this room is 9’ x 9’ x 14.5’. It was the only space we had," explained Kevin Borg, director of facilities and project management for the Department of Athletics. "So we made little modifications."
The changes didn’t bother Wooden’s daughter Nan or his son Jim, who gave UCLA their blessing to create the exhibit and loaned their father’s materials. Thirty-one members of the Wooden family received a private viewing of the den on Oct. 14, Coach’s 100th birthday.
"The family was very touched. They all thought it was perfect," Borg said. "They envisioned it back in Coach’s home, and they all really appreciated the good work that was done."
The concept was to honor Coach, said Associate Athletic Director Ken Weiner, who had seen similar displays at other halls of fame throughout the country. "At Alabama, they have a re-creation of Bear Bryant’s living room, but I don’t think it’s the original stuff," he recalled. "I said, if we’re going to do something, we’re going to do the original stuff."
Weiner pitched the idea to Associate Athletic Director Bobby Field, who then brought the idea to Nan and Jim. Once the family was on board, Weiner and Borg began the actual logistics of the task, which involved taking still photographs and bringing in a crew to videotape the room. A week later, Borg and his staff went to the condo, carefully packed every item that was in Coach’s den and made sure they were transported safely to UCLA.
After that, it was up to Emily Greer, senior graphic artist and curator for the Hall of Fame, to unload the boxes and put everything back the way it was in Coach’s den at home. She had gone over to Coach’s condo with a floor plan and laid everything out exactly the way he’d had it. Once back in the UCLA exhibit space, she put it back together "just like a puzzle."
It took Greer and two student assistants two full days to put everything in its proper place. She said that Jim Wooden had told them stories about many of the items in the display, including a pool cue that got Coach through college. "He was a pool shark," Greer said, laughing. "And there’s a little cane that he used to move things, turn lights on and off and things like that, while he was sitting in his recliner."
Greer noted that a shelf in the middle of the bookcase is the only one Wooden had arranged himself into a type of display. It has a wishing well full of at least a dozen keys to different cities; his Purdue basketball; and some plaques and statues. Greer also pointed out the wall above the television set that displays photographs of Coach’s 10 NCAA championship teams, arranged by Coach’s wife, Nell, into a sort of Pyramid of Success.
"The great thing about this room is that you really see how anything that anyone gave him was very important. The plates that his grandchildren scribbled on are given as much, if not more, importance than the amazing awards he’s won," Greer said.
Because one side of the exhibit is made of glass to allow for full viewing, there was less wall space to hang all of Coach’s favorite photographs, plaques and medals. To remedy this, Borg designed the space outside the den to include walls that now hold all the framed items. There is even a case that displays all of Wooden’s memorabilia devoted to Abraham Lincoln, one of the two people Coach admired most. (The other was Mother Teresa.)
Greer is rightfully proud of the work she and her colleagues have done on the re-creation of John Wooden’s den. She said, "When visitors come, I hope they say, ‘What a great tribute to this man. He was such an amazing person, friend, family man, coach, everything. It’s a great tribute to him and really does him justice.’"
For more information on the UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame, go here.