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Quest for an Edge Leads to Wizard of Westwood

The Notre Dame daughter listened to Dick Vitale, Digger Phelps and Max Kellerman, then bet $10 she’d do better filling out her March Madness bracket than I would.

So I called John Wooden.

*

THE FIRST thing Coach Wooden tells me, “I’ve never filled out a complete bracket before in my life.” Great -- a rookie. Well, I figure he’s about to turn 93, and now is a good time to start.

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So we go game by game through the first round, and when he’s finished he has taken every higher-seeded team in the Midwest, West and East Regionals -- his idea, I guess, of building his March Madness pyramid of success.

He deviates only once -- in the South Regional, the Wizard going sentimental fool on me and taking Purdue, his alma mater, over Louisiana State.

“Let’s keep going,” I say. “You’ve only missed one so far.”

I had no idea he could be so feisty. “I’m not sure this is the only thing we disagree on,” he fires back, and I hear him laughing.

*

WE MOVE to the second round, and he takes Kentucky, Wisconsin, Missouri and Pittsburgh to advance in the Midwest, and I ask him if he knows what he’s doing because he has eliminated Marquette. I remind him there’s $10 riding on this. He reminds me I’m the one paying the $10.

He takes the same four in the West that most folks who haven’t won 10 NCAA championships would take: Arizona, Illinois, Duke and Kansas. I’m wondering now if he watches “Around the Horn,” and Kellerman is his bracket mentor.

In the South he goes with Maryland, Florida, Texas and Stanford, and tells me he once held Stanford Coach Mike Montgomery in his arms as a baby. “In fact I held two famous babies in my arms,” he says, “Mike Montgomery and Sally Rand.”

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I’m a gentleman, of course, so I wait about a full second before asking him what it was like to hold Sally Rand, the world’s most renowned fan dancer, a.k.a. burlesque queen, in his arms, and I get an “oh my gosh,” followed by a string of “oh nos, oh nos, oh nos,” and another round of “no, no, no. I meant to say Sally Ride, you know, the astronaut.”

Yeah, fly me to the moon, Coach.

“Now don’t you go putting that in the paper -- don’t mention it,” he says, and I’m a little taken aback, telling him, “What kind of person do you think I am?”

“I know what you’re like,” he says.

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Then tell me more about Sally Rand.

*

IN THE East, he went with Oklahoma, Louisville and Wake Forest, and I can hear Vitale telling the Wizard: “That’s right, baby!” He also took Oklahoma State, a No. 6-seeded team, to beat Syracuse and sensational freshman Carmelo Anthony -- always a team over an individual player.

“So what do you think of Kobe Bryant, isn’t he exciting to watch?”

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“I like Kobe; he’s a nice young man and truly good, but I’d rather go watch John Stockton or Tim Duncan,” he says, and I’m screaming at him now like I’m Vitale, telling him Stockton’s a dirty player and Duncan’s dull.

“Duncan is always in the right place, doing the right thing and Stockton is setting screens, getting knocked down and getting right back up,” he says. “I think you’re more into entertainment than I am. If I want to be entertained, I’ll go watch the Globetrotters.” (You notice this time he didn’t say Sally Rand.)

*

IN THE Midwest he narrows it down to Kentucky and Pitt, and moves Kentucky into the Final Four to play Arizona after it has beaten Kansas from the West. He has Texas playing Florida in the South and Texas advancing, and for those keeping track, that’s three No. 1-seeded teams in the Final Four. Thanks for the help. The only time he lets his hair down is when he pits Oklahoma against Wake Forest, and pushes Wake Forest -- seeded No. 2 -- into the Final Four.

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“I wonder,” I say, “do you get a little nostalgic at this time of the year?”

“Don’t miss a single thing except for the practices,” he says. “I loved to plan for practice. I don’t miss the games or all the rah-rah tournament stuff. I’ll watch the championship game, but I don’t sit there switching channels from game to game ...”

But then he’s never filled out a bracket before, and when LSU whips Purdue, I sure hope he’s watching: Never bet with your heart -- now that’s a block he might want to insert into that pyramid.

*

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COACH WOODEN has Kentucky and Texas playing for the national title and Kentucky winning it all. The daughter also has Texas advancing to the Final along with Notre Dame, and the Irish winning it all. And I’m not sure I’d argue.

“I’ve always wondered why Sports Editor Bill Dwyre keeps you employed,” the Wizard says. “But now I understand.”

*

I’VE GOT a long list of folks in local sports who just don’t get it, so what a pleasure/honor to speak to a 92-year-old icon, who not only rolls with everything, but who also knows how to dish it out.

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*

UCLA ATHLETIC Director Dan Guerrero said, “I’ve been leaning toward this decision [to fire Steve Lavin] over the last several weeks.” That raises the question: Is he just slow -- or can you believe anything else he has to say?

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TODAY’S LAST word comes in e-mail from Nicholas Reiner:

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“I’m 14 years old and a sports fanatic. I’d like to be in the Times, but I still have to go to college and get my degree in journalism -- I thought the best way to get in the paper soon was through the ‘Last Word.’ I root for you on ‘Around the Horn’ and I have been to the Times’ building and have had lunch with Mr. Plaschke

You poor child -- of course, I’ll put your name in the paper.

*

T.J. Simers can be reached at

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t.j.simers@latimes.com.


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