For the Record
John Wooden remains a legend in Southern California.

I've missed my friend the past two weeks. I've missed his smile, his stories but most of all his sheer presence which was always a daily reminder of what we should all aspire to be in life.

Every morning I have breakfast at VIP's Café, a nondescript coffee shop in Encino, about 30 minutes north of downtown Los Angeles, and every morning I see John Wooden.

"Coach" -- as everyone calls him at the café when he walks through the door as if he were on Cheers -- hasn't been at the diner in two weeks. Needless to say, the place hasn't been quite the same without him.

The former UCLA basketball coach has been staying at a nearby hospital recovering from pneumonia, but is doing well and is expected to be released soon, according to his daughter Nan Muehlhausen, who occasionally joins her father for breakfast. 

Usually when a 98-year-old man is missing from his regular hangout for a couple weeks, you think the worst. But with Wooden for some reason no one at the diner ever does.

Not the owner, Paul Ma, who personally greets every patron as they walk through the door.

Not Debbie Winter, the waitress who has been serving Wooden his scrambled eggs and brittle bacon for years.

That's partly because no matter what he's had to recently endure -- from breaking his left wrist and collarbone last year, which sidelined him for nearly a month -- to his most recent sickness, he's always recovered.

It's also because few could imagine the diner without him.

"Coach is a very special man," said Ma, who makes it a point to visit Wooden whenever he checks into the hospital. "We're all very lucky to know him. I feel like he's a part of my family."

When I was with Wooden while he filmed those new Gatorade "G" commercials a couple of months ago, he blew away director Spike Lee and the crew with how engaging he was. From a wheelchair, he was reciting poems and talking to Lee about the Knicks, past and present.

During the filming, Lee asked each subject what their "G" moment was, a ridiculously-worded question intended to elicit each person's career highlight. Serena Williams said it was winning Wimbledon, while Kerri Walsh said it was winning an Olympic gold medal. For Wooden, the winner of 10 national championships in 12 years at UCLA, it was a simple answer. 

 "It's when my late wife said, 'I do,'" he said without hesitation, which brought tears to the eyes of many on set.

Wooden still writes a letter to his late wife, Nellie, on the 21st of every month to mark the monthly anniversary of her death over 30 years ago and keeps every one of his love letters to her on her side of the bed at his quaint, 700 square-foot condominium in Encino.

Everyone at VIPs was hopeful that they would see Wooden soon so they could once again yell "Coach" as soon as he walked through the doors. One patron even reminded me that Wooden told him he'd be around until he was 100, something he also told former LSU coach Dale Brown after his birthday.

 "I recently asked how he was doing and he said, 'I'm 98 and I've made a decision. I'm going to live to be a 100,'" he said. "So I asked, 'How did you make that coach?' He said, 'I looked at my driver's license and I have two years left, I'm not going to let that money go to waste.' "


Remember to keep your posts clean. Profanity will get filtered, and offensive comments will be removed.

Truth & Rumors


  1. 1
    D'Antoni's newest 'blunder'
  2. 2
    Baseball's top 2015 free agent
  3. 3
    The NHL's model franchise?
  4. 4
    Cup drought weighing on Sid
  5. 5
    Smith won't play for San Fran in 2014

SI Photos