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Passion for the Game : Former Bruin Dave Meyers Teaches Children About Basketball, but He Doesn’t Want to Coach

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dave Meyers has come back to basketball at the same moment basketball was looking for him.

He teaches the game, the way Coach Wooden did. For an hour a week the last four weeks at the Temecula Recreation Center, it’s drills and more drills--the same ones from Meyers’ salad days at UCLA.

Meyers enjoys these Friday afternoons working with kids, some of whom are literally knee high. He can pass along knowledge in the sport he loves in a setting he loves.

“A lot of people have asked me about coaching,” Meyers said. “But I don’t like the competition part. I like the teaching side. I can see why Coach Wooden got such a thrill. When we did those drills, it was part of the overall picture.”

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Twenty years after leading UCLA to the national championship and 15 years after walking away from the NBA, Meyers is a picture of contentment. He is a husband, father and teacher--the roles he cherishes most.

But his life includes basketball again, for better and worse.

Meyers, 41, walked away from the Milwaukee Bucks after five tumultuous seasons. That road led to back to the classroom. He has been a sixth-grade teacher at Railroad Canyon School in Lake Elsinore the last eight years.

He was happy to smother his playing career the way he once smothered opponents. But his past lingers.

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UCLA has returned to the Final Four, trying to win its first national championship since Meyers and Co. sent Wooden off to retirement in style in 1975. Meyers was captain of the team that beat Kentucky, 92-85, for the Bruins’ 10th title in 12 seasons. Those memories have been heavily recruited lately.

“People have called the last couple weeks wanting to talk with me about 1975,” Meyers said. “Most cultures are fascinated by anniversaries.”

Meyers has one of his own to celebrate this year, his 20th wedding anniversary, which is approaching. But it’s tough being an inconspicuous ex-Bruin when UCLA is in the Final Four.

Even former teammates can unknowingly betray you.

“I look at (UCLA forward) Ed O’Bannon and he reminds me of Dave Meyers in 1975,” said Marques Johnson, who started at forward opposite Meyers in 1975. “Ed’s a senior, pushing the team toward the national championship, just like Dave did with us.”

A compliment, but one Meyers can do without. “This is their season, not mine,” he said.

His is etched in history and people remember.

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When Meyers was announced during a halftime tribute to Wooden at The Pond of Anaheim in December, he received a standing ovation.

“Everywhere I go, people always ask me about Dave,” said his sister, Ann Meyers Drysdale, a former basketball All-American at UCLA and now a television broadcaster. “People admired him that much.”

Letters will arrive at Railroad Canyon from fans. Meyers shares some with co-workers and answers them all.

Meyers was honored at a UCLA game this season. He took his daughter, Crystal, 19, who was amazed to learn of her father’s exploits.

“Even his kids don’t know what he did,” Ann Meyers said. “But he was something special.”

Most who played for Wooden were. A player didn’t choose UCLA, it chose him. The talent pool was deep.

Meyers, a 6-foot-9 forward, led Sonora High to the Southern Section 2-A title and was named the player of the year in 1971.

The lineage had reached Bill Walton and Jamaal Wilkes by the time Meyers arrived. That was fine with him. It was better to play in the shadow than to cast one.

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Not that Meyers was a complete introvert. But his personality was reserved for family and friends.

“Whenever one of the kids was sick, I would tell them to take some aspirin and go to bed,” said his mother, Pat Meyers, who had 11 children. “Dave came home with a broken finger one day. It was a fracture that had broken the skin. He said, ‘Do I take an aspirin and go to bed?’ I laughed, as we went off to the doctor.”

Said Ann Meyers: “He always holds court when he talks, because he is so genuine. He used to pit my brother Jeff and I against each other. We’d play football and it would be Jeff and I against each other, with Dave as the quarterback.”

But Meyers remained in the background as much as possible at UCLA.

“Dave didn’t need a lot of media attention,” Johnson said. “Which was good, because with Walton and Wilkes, there wasn’t a lot left over. But Dave never sought it.”

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Going unnoticed, though, was difficult. This was, after all, UCLA under Wooden.

Meyers was on the fringe of Bruin, and college basketball, history in his sophomore and junior seasons.

He was a reserve in 1973, playing in the title game in which Walton made 21 of 22 shots and scored a title-game record 44 points. He was a starter the next season, when Notre Dame ended the Bruins’ 88-game winning streak. The Bruins’ run of seven consecutive national championships also ended, when they lost to North Carolina State in the semifinals.

Dramatic moments, but preludes, really, for Meyers’ senior year and Wooden’s finale.

“I imagine reading that Dave Meyers was UCLA’s only returning starter was not something to fear,” Meyers said. “With no Walton and no Wilkes, that’s exactly how that team was perceived the first five, six, seven games.”

Perceptions changed. Wooden named Meyers the team captain before the season, only the third time in 29 years that Wooden picked a captain.

Meyers led the team in scoring, averaging 18 points and had a career-high 39 against Oregon. The Bruins won their ninth consecutive Pac-8 championship. Still, they were not the favorite entering the tournament. Undefeated Indiana was the top-ranked team.

Louisville appeared to have the Bruins beat in the semifinals. The Cardinals led by one in overtime and Terry Howard was shooting a one-and-one with 13 seconds left.

Howard was 28 for 28 from the line on the season. He missed, Richard Washington got the rebound and called timeout.

“I was a little nervous, wondering if coach was going to call my number,” Meyers said. “But he came to Richard without hesitation. He knew Richard’s personality. Richard wasn’t going to have his life ruined if he missed.”

Washington sank the jumper. Sports Illustrated’s cover the next week showed Meyers, arms extended under the basket, with the ball going through the net.

“It all happened quickly after the game,” Meyers said. “We were hugging each other in the locker room. Coach came in and said, ‘Boys, I’d like to talk with you.’ You never heard a room go so quiet. He told us he was hanging it up (after the title game). Coach always preached balance, but we didn’t have it at that moment.”

Wooden’s final game gave him another title, but it was close. The Bruins led Kentucky by one with six minutes left when Meyers was called for an offensive foul. He slammed the floor with his hand and was called for a technical.

“My hand throbbed the rest of the game,” Meyers said. “It was kind of a humorous scene. Coach got up and was trying to talk to the official. It was a long delay. Everyone was just standing there and Kevin Grevey was waiting on the foul line.”

Grevey missed the technical and the front end of the one-and-one. Kentucky then turned the ball over.

“The calls went our way from that moment,” Meyers said. “That is, there were no calls after that. They let us play.”

It was the end of Wooden’s basketball career. It was the beginning of the end for Meyers’.

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Meyers was named first-team All-American. He was the Lakers’ second-round draft pick, then was traded to Milwaukee in the deal that brought Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the Lakers.

But a long-term NBA career wasn’t for Meyers. He played well, but had philosophical differences with management. He said he was pressured to play injured and disagreed with the treatment of injuries. But that was only part of his concern. His priorities were shifting.

Dave and Linda Meyers were married in 1975 and Crystal was born a year later. Son Sean followed three years later. The game was taking him away from home too often.

He also became a Jehovah’s Witness, which required him to attend meetings three times a week and do volunteer work.

“I really understand what Coach Wooden was talking about when he said his family came first,” Meyers said. “As I get older, I understand that more and more.”

After a back injury forced him to miss a season, Meyers returned in 1980 and won back his starting job. He averaged 12 points and five rebounds and did the same selfless chores he had at UCLA.

Then he quit. “Every time I see Bob Lanier, he tells me I cost him a championship ring,” Meyers said. “He is sure we would have won one if I had stayed.”

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Meyers got into sales, pitching two-way radios. He moved his family to Temecula when Orange County became too crowded. But he was still searching.

“I was driving one day and heard an ad for National University, where you could get your teaching credential,” Meyers said.

Meyers got his credential and began as a substitute at Railroad Canyon in 1988. It seemed a natural career for those who knew him.

“He is so great with kids and sixth-graders need a male role model like Dave,” Ann Meyers said. “So many athletes get caught up in pro sports and here’s a guy doing something with his life.”

Still, one thing has been missing: Basketball.

His return to the game started innocently enough. Jeff Meyers, his brother, contacted him last year to ask his help with some basketball camps. The Meyers Hall of Fame Camp was formed.

Dave Meyers found he enjoyed the teaching. He ran an ad in a local shopper, offering his services as a private coach, and received eight calls. Last month, he approached Temecula’s recreation department about holding basketball classes for kids.

“He called up and wanted to know if we were interested,” said Lorri Ann Amavisca, recreation coordinator for the Temecula Recreation Center. “I had no idea who he was, then I talked to my husband. We put some fliers together the next day.”

A second class, for teen-agers, is planned. In it, they will run drill after drill.

“Dave has so much to offer,” Ann Meyers said. “He quit playing to focus on his family and that was a great choice. But I think he’s finding out how big a part basketball was in his life.”


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