UCLA and Pauley Pavilion get a heaven-sent ending — from John Wooden himself?
It was an alley-oop from heaven.
It was a pass from one Wooden to another, the late legend who opened Pauley Pavilion dropping a basketball softly into the hands of a kid benchwarmer who would close it.
It was the closing of a circle of life played out on the iron circle of a rim, the spirit of the late UCLA coach John Wooden coursing through the veins of his great-grandson Tyler Trapani in the final moment of the final game of an aging gym that had one great memory left.
With 25 seconds remaining Saturday in the final men’s basketball game at Pauley Pavilion before it is shuttered for renovation, Trapani caught a teammate’s airball shot and threw it back toward the basket.
In three seasons as a UCLA walk-on, he had never scored a point.
Watching from behind the Bruins’ bench, his grandmother Nan Muehlhausen looked toward the sky.
“Daddy and Mother had to be watching,” she said. “I’m sure they were saying, ‘C’mon, Tyler, c’mon, Tyler.”
Prayers heard. Pass completed. Trapani caught the ball, stuck it in his right hand, and banked it through the net for the final points of UCLA’s stunning 71-49 victory over 10th-ranked Arizona.
Yeah, that’s right, the last men’s basket in the 46-year history of old Pauley Pavilion was scored by a Wooden.
The sellout crowd roared in delight. His teammates danced in disbelief. His parents looked at each other in amazement.
Coach Ben Howland, for perhaps the first time in eight taciturn seasons, openly wept.
“I pray a lot. . . . To have Trapani make that last shot means so much to me, you have no idea,” Howland said, pausing to control a sob. “You couldn’t have written it any better.”
Who would have even dared to attempt to write it? Trapani is a guard who was not supposed to be under the backboard. He is a kid who had taken only two other shots in his entire UCLA career.
During a halftime ceremony here, it was announced that Coach Wooden, who died last June at age 99, was an amazing 149-2 in this building.
The only explanation for any of this is, that figure should now be 150-2.
“What are the odds that it would end like this, just think about that,” said Paul Trapani, Tyler’s father. “For him to even have the ball in his hands at that moment, you have to think his great-grandfather had something to do with this.”
Afterward, Tyler Trapani said his family was probably worried about him because, for the first time ever, he was delaying their postgame dinner to do an interview. And when actually asked about the shot, he couldn’t really answer.
“I’m still kind of baffled about what just happened,” he said. “Usually, I don’t even get into the games. I’m just honored to be part of the team.”
It was a perfect Wooden answer for a perfect Wooden player. Trapani is the only Wooden relative ever to play for the Bruins, and he has taken the responsibility seriously, thrown his body around the floor for this team for three years without ever landing under a spotlight.
Before Saturday, he had played in the final seconds of only three games, and two of those were in the Wooden Classic, where Howland honors Wooden by playing Trapani. In his third appearance, against Oregon State this month, Trapani and other reserves gave up six points in 15 seconds before Howland pulled them back out.
When he was put into the game in the final minute Saturday, Howland was aware of the possibility of dramatics, and actually shouted for the players to “get it to Tyler.” But then freshman Jack Haley threw up the three-point attempt, and everyone assumed Arizona would grab the rebound and finish the game.
Said Howland, shaking his head: “Then the ball fell right in his hand. . . . Something’s going on there.”
Said Trapani: “I pretty much feel my great-grandpa put me in that position.”
Others were sure of it.
“Watching this was one of the greatest moments of my life,” said Muehlhausen. “Knowing the connection between Tyler and his great-grandfather made this perfect.”
Last spring, Trapani spent about an hour each day sitting with Wooden during his final days. Even in the middle of final exams, the kid would bring his homework to the hospital and sit with Coach.
“Even though he couldn’t talk to me or know I would be there, I would usually say to him, ‘I love you, Poppa,” Trapani recalled.
This was more than a shot, it was the celebration of a connection that will live forever. The players knew this was cool but didn’t realize the full impact of the shot until Howland began crying in the locker room, then later cried when meeting with members of Wooden’s family.
“It was the perfect way to send off old Pauley and head off for the new one,” said Bruins center Joshua Smith.
Indeed, one more time before disappearing for 18 months of plastic surgery, the grand old lady dressed up in her finest magic and loveliest mystique, creating a stirring final memory that bulldozers will never touch.
The house that Wooden built was also the house that Wooden closed, and, even though it won’t happen until the fall of 2012, I can’t wait to see how Coach will open it up again.
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