John Wooden at the Coliseum?

What at first sounds like a colossal sports mismatch became sports history May 20 when legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden became the first basketball figure to be inducted into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum’s Court of Honor. The moving ceremony dramatized his role as an inspiration to all, no matter what their sport.

Local dignitaries and sports figures lauded 97-year-old Wooden, whose presence marked his first public appearance since a fall at home sent him to the hospital in February with a broken wrist and collarbone.

Wooden’s former star player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bruins basketball coach Ben Howland and Dodgers announcer Vin Scully were among those speaking at the unveiling of the bronze plaque honoring Wooden. Chancellor Gene Block, Athletic Director Dan Guerrero, L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and other prominent figures joined in to heap praise on the coach in a presentation that lasted almost an hour.

“You think I’ll be able to fly out of here when I leave?” Wooden joked from his wheelchair, referring to all the compliments that were directed his way. Despite the wheelchair, he showed characteristic good humor and charmed the crowd.

He said he was honored that his plaque was being added to the Coliseum’s columns alongside Scully’s and those of coaches and athletes who starred in the football stadium. Wooden’s plaque is also the first in the Court of Honor representing the Coliseum’s adjacent Sports Arena. “I can’t understand why a basketball guy would be here. But,” he added quickly, “that’s fine.”

Wooden coached the Bruins from ’48’75 and his teams played at the Sports Arena from ’59 until ’65 before moving to Pauley Pavilion. Among his many accomplishments listed on the new plaque, Wooden’s teams won 10 NCAA championships in 12 years, and set the all-time NCAA consecutive winning streak at 88 games.

Coliseum Commission president David Israel called it appropriate that Wooden became the first “basketball guy” in the Court of Honor. “He’s John Wooden,” Israel said simply. “I kidded with the guys from ’SC  [USC’s basketball team] played here from ’59 to 2006, but there wasn’t an ’SC basketball coach we would consider.”

Speakers at the presentation noted several times how important Wooden’s wisdom was to them, although some, including Yaroslavsky and former Bruin and basketball star Keith Erickson, remembered thinking in their youth that it was “corny” before recognizing its value.

“Many, many years ago,” Wooden recounted, “one of my players, who’s present here today, was asked what he thought about the pyramid, and he said, ‘When I first heard Coach Wooden speak of a pyramid [the Pyramid of Success], I thought it was the corniest thing I’d ever heard. Before I got out of school, I found it to be rather meaningful, but it wasn’t ’til years later that I found out what it really meant,’” Wooden said, before adding pointedly, “Do you remember who that was, Kareem, who said that?”

As the crowd laughed, Abdul-Jabbar shook his head “no.” Wooden added wryly, “An outstanding student, but a little forgetful at times.”

Wooden’s speech took a serious turn when he recalled being asked whether he was afraid of death. “I’m not afraid of death – I’m not going to do anything to hurry it up, but I’ve been so blessed,” he said. “But it’s only after death that I’ll be with [my wife] Nellie again.”

But it was mostly a time of celebration. Scully called Wooden “a genius in his ability to inspire” and a “giant” walking among us. Erickson recalled his gentle nature, saying he had never heard Wooden swear, but “if he said ‘Goodness gracious sakes alive!’ you knew you were in trouble.”

Abdul-Jabbar summed up the feelings of those present: “We love you, coach.”

Block noted that long before he became chancellor at UCLA, he had heard of Wooden. “Of everyone affiliated with UCLA, Coach Wooden’s name is the best recognized in the United States. It’s a household word. He produced not just good players, but good people.”