LOS ANGELES - Jamaal Wilkes answered his phone a week ago and heard Michael Warren’s voice urging him to get to the hospital to see John Wooden.
The former UCLA coach and Hall of Famer had been in and out of the hospital in recent years, but this time, it was different.
Warren told Wilkes that Wooden might be nearing the end of his inspiring life. A few days later, a grave Bill Walton called Wilkes, saying, “Jamaal, you need to get over here.”
So Wilkes headed to campus to see his 99-year-old former coach, one of many long-ago UCLA basketball greats who gathered at Wooden’s bedside in his final days to say farewell.
“There were lots of people coming through,” said Keith Erickson, who starred on the 1964 and ’65 national title teams. “Everybody wanted to give their last regards to him and let him know for sure that we had been there and how much we loved him.”
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, known as Lew Alcindor in his college days, rushed back from Europe, reaching Wooden’s side hours before he died Friday night. Gary Cunningham, a player, assistant under Wooden and later head coach of the Bruins, cut short a vacation in the Sierra Nevada. Los Angeles Dodgers manager Joe Torre, a longtime friend, came by, too.
“It was very sweet,” said Andy Hill, a reserve on UCLA’s national championship teams in 1970, ’71 and ’72. “I got to tell him he can leave, but he really can’t because he’s in all of us.”
Erickson spent a few minutes with Wooden on Wednesday night, tenderly holding the long, bony fingers of his mentor’s hand.
“When I spoke to him, he opened his eyes just a little bit and got a little bit of a smile,” he said. “He talked a little bit, but I couldn’t tell what he was saying.”
“They had a very, very close relationship. I’m sure today John is a happy person,” said Gene Bartow, who had the unenviable task of succeeding Wooden in Westwood.
Erickson reminisced Saturday under the 11 national championship banners hanging in a quiet Pauley Pavilion, taking solace in knowing that Wooden was no longer in pain.
“The last couple years he was not happy. He didn’t want to go through this, but he was a fighter,” he said. “He went two years longer than anybody thought he could and he kept getting real sick and he came back.”
Walton didn’t join Saturday’s informal player gathering on Nell and John Wooden Court at Pauley Pavilion.
“I thank John Wooden everyday for all his selfless gifts, his lessons, his time, his vision and especially his faith and patience. This is why our eternal love for him will never fade away. This is why we call him ’Coach.”’
Wilkes, Cunningham, Erickson, Hill, and Marques Johnson traded handshakes and hugs not far from a wreath of red carnations, red roses and white roses sprayed Bruin blue that rested next to Wooden’s seat in the second row behind UCLA’s bench. Overhead hung the blue and gold banner signifying UCLA’s 1975 national championship, Wooden’s record 10th and last.
President Barack Obama said Saturday he was saddened to hear of “the passing of an incredible coach, and an even better man, John Wooden. ... As an American, I salute the way he achieved all that success with modesty, and humility, and by wholeheartedly dedicating his life to the betterment of others.”
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