John Wooden is back. Not soon enough, in this me-first, Black Mamba world riddled with ego and hubris. Wooden’s glory grows with each passing year, and every time Jonathan Vilma appeals his NFL case, or Lance Armstrong insists it’s all a set-up. With Vince Lombardi, Wooden is the symbol of “old school” values. His simple virtues, his stubbornness, his bone-deep integrity are needed now more than ever.
Got a hole in your Friday schedule? Take your kid over to UCLA to meet Coach. In the little village of Westwooden.
Until 2:30 that day, his new bronze statue will be covered in some sort of sheet at Pauley Pavilion’s north plaza. When they finally unveil the monument, you’ll see him on his three-foot pedestal, eight feet tall and staring slightly to his left in the same way he gazed out on his players on the court.
Wooden’s arms will be folded (of course), and he’ll be clutching a game program. He’ll be standing — something Wooden seldom did while coaching.
And if sculptor Blair Buswell had his game on, the moment should be full of goose bumps. Fortunately, the former Brigham Young running back almost always has his game on.
“My whole thing from the beginning was trying to catch the essence of Coach,” the sculptor says, “rather than sweating the right shoe laces or the right tie.”
Each year, we see more and more of these sports statues. Probably, it traces to the Yankee Stadium busts, then the Pro Football Hall of Fame got into the act. Wrigley Field hit the jackpot with the terrific Harry Caray statue, and now Staples has a bevy of statues, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar about to join the lineup. It’ll be interesting to see what the new Dodgers owners do up the hill, though Vinny and Koufax seem like the surest of things.
Meanwhile, Buswell has given us this 800-pound bronze Wooden, which was to arrive Wednesday and move into place Thursday. The meticulous creative process was probably something the coach would have admired. The sculptor was picked based on his past work for the Pro Football Hall of Fame and various other sports figures — Bear Bryant, Mickey Mantle and Jack Nicklaus.
The first step was a small model, which he used for feedback from family, former players and benefactors Jim and Carol Collins.
Based on an 18-inch version, Buswell launched into the full piece at his studio in Pleasant Grove, Utah. To get the folds of the fabric correct, he even called on a friend to dress in a suit and model for him.
Again, family weighed in, with Wooden’s daughter Nan getting the final sign-off late this summer. She described it as more a burden than an honor, because she knows if it’s not just right, she’ll hear it from family members.
“The ears weren’t quite right,” she says of earlier versions. “The nostrils were too big, and the way the suit fell, it looked like he had a little pot belly, which he didn’t.
“Blair was great about any changes. And I never realized there were so many different colors of bronze,” she says after being asked to pick out the best shade.
For his work, Buswell relied on hundreds of archive photos and videos. The statue is a composite of the images, based on no single shot, and the Wooden you’ll see is of no particular age or season.
“I just kind of hit on a place [in time] that seemed to work,” the artist says.
You have to think Wooden would have taken to Buswell. The soft-spoken ex-jock understands the magnitude of the moment. Buswell remembers Merlin Olsen describing how horrified he was when another sculptor flubbed his likeness, and from that moment on, swore that when a statue or bust was unveiled, he would get it as right as rain.
“I’m not the best at tootin’ my own horn,” Buswell says. “But what I’m good at, and what I spent a lot of time on, was getting the right feeling and expression.”
And like a composer hearing his symphony played publicly for the first time, Buswell will see whether he passes Friday’s test. He remembers the pressure he felt when he unveiled Bear Bryant, the expectations of a football empire heavy on his shoulders.
“You hope they’re happy with it,” he recalls. Before they lifted the sheet, “I wasn’t sure whether they were going to praise or shoot me.”
All turned out well in Alabama, yet Friday’s unveiling comes with some of the same hype and expectations.
Nan Wooden isn’t worried in the least.
“That was very typical of Daddy,” she says of the arms-crossed pose and the facial expression. “I really think the statue is everything he would’ve wanted.”