Great-granddad knows best

Special to The Times

Tyler Trapani couldn't have been more than 6 when his great-grandfather, John Wooden, decided to begin teaching him a thing or two about the game of basketball.

The legendary coach was patient with his great-grandson, initially going over the fundamentals while being careful not to discourage the impressionable youngster.

More than 11 years later, Trapani, a senior at Simi Valley High, doesn't remember much about those early lessons. One thing is certain: His great-grandfather was there for him then and has been the families' source of inspiration, both on and off the court, ever since.

"Tyler's great-grandpa, we call him Papa, has always been supportive," said Trapani's mother, Cathleen, one of Wooden's seven grandchildren. "In fact, I remember when he would come and watch Tyler's youth games. Afterward, back at the house, he would pull Tyler to the side and show him how to improve his free-throw shooting, using the proper form and follow through.

"Once, Tyler told him, 'Papa, I know how to shoot,' and proceeded to do it his own way."

Big mistake. Then again, there was no way Trapani could have understood about his famous bloodlines at that stage of his life.

"My husband, Paul, overheard the conversation, ran outside, told Tyler not to talk to his great-grandfather that way and sent him up to his room immediately," Cathleen added. "Tyler had no idea who John Wooden was. He didn't know what he had just said to one of the greatest coaches ever. He was just speaking to his Papa. We still laugh about that one from time to time."

Basketball is in the family genes. But there's never been added pressure on any of Wooden's kin to be something they're not. Following in his footsteps was never a prerequisite.

Trapani, for example, is comfortable with being a role player. He has often been the first player off the bench for the Pioneers, who lost to Long Beach Wilson, 78-76, in Tuesday's second round of the Southern Section Division I-AA playoffs.

The loss ended a high school career in which Trapani was always comfortable deferring to Simi Valley's senior stars, point guard Lorne Jackson and forward Michael Meza. Trapani is comfortable in his own skin.

"I'm particularly proud of Tyler," Wooden said. "He's smart, always has been. He's grown into quite a fine young man. He's got a good head on his shoulders. He has a bright future ahead of him.

"I've been blessed, truly blessed, with a wonderful family. It's been a joy watching everyone grow up and mature. I've always encouraged my kids, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to find their own paths in life."

Wooden is known by most as one of the greatest coaches in the history of sports, having coached UCLA to 10 national championships in men's basketball.

But at home in Encino, it's a different story. There, Wooden is the patriarch, someone who has always provided an attentive ear and sound advice.

"Honestly, I know how lucky I've been to grow up with John Wooden as my great-grandpa," Trapani said. "I'm sure there's people out there that think it would be cool to have someone famous for a relative. Don't get me wrong, I understand that.

"But there's another side to Papa, a side not many people see. A great-grandfather side. He's been a tremendous influence in that sense. He's always been there for me and for everyone in our family."

Trapani is one of 13 great-grandchildren. John Impelman, his distant cousin, is a senior at Occidental College. Impelman's younger brother, Kyle, attends Huntington Beach Ocean View High. Cori Nicholson is a graduate student at UC Riverside.

"Sure, everyone knows Papa as one of the greatest basketball coaches of all time, but I think he'd rather be known as a good family man," said great-grandson Eric Bernstein, a senior on the Simi Valley baseball team. "Family comes first.

"I don't think it's ever mattered what sport we've played, basketball, baseball, football. I don't think it's ever mattered if we played a sport at all. All Papa has ever wanted was for us to do our best in whatever it was we chose to do."

As for Trapani, his playing days could be numbered. He averaged two points this season for Simi Valley (26-2), ranked No. 8 in the Southland by The Times.

One thing he has learned from his great-grandfather is, there's life after basketball. Trapani carries a 4.3 grade-point average, has applied to seven colleges and been accepted to three so far.

His goal is to stay close to home, close to his 14-year-old brother, Cameron, and the rest of the family. The plan is to continue his education and attain a degree in teaching, perhaps from his dream school -- the one in Westwood, of course.

"When I filled out my application to UCLA, one of the questions they asked was if I knew any Bruin alumni," Trapani said. "I didn't feel the need to mention who my great-grandfather was. Actually, I don't think many people know I'm related to John Wooden.

"Papa always taught me to be my own person. If I'm going to be accepted at UCLA, or in life down the road, I want it to be based solely on who I am and the things I've accomplished."

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