They call Tyler Trapani ‘Coach,’ just like great-granddad John Wooden
The freshman-sophomore basketball team from Reseda Cleveland High is in a panic.
It’s their first home game, their friends are whooping at them from the creaky stands in the musty gym, and they can’t find the basket. In their first four trips down the court against San Fernando High, they rush to the hoop and miss layups, their offense quickly dissolving into a chaotic blur.
On the sideline, the kid coach with the oversized dark blue tie hanging between rolled-up light blue sleeves stares quietly at the court. He won’t stop the action. Timeouts are not in his blood.
Instead, Tyler Trapani simply holds out his hands and presses his palms toward the floor in a gesture of calm, again and again. His team eventually feels it, settles down, the baskets fall, and suddenly it is leading, 20-2.
“No, no, I wasn’t going to say, ‘Be quick but don’t hurry,’” John Wooden’s great grandson says later with a grin. “At least not yet.”
Eighty-one years after the greatest coach in basketball history began his career at a small Midwestern high school, the Wooden legacy is reborn again this winter on a sprawling San Fernando Valley campus where an earnest 23-year-old attempts to be quick with his future without hurrying from his past.
Tyler Trapani doesn’t carry a rolled-up program, but he does require that his players stand and greet each other as they leave the floor during every game. He doesn’t recite from the Pyramid of Success, but he does make sure every player shakes the hand of every referee after every game. He will never be able to live up to the history of the late UCLA coach who won a record 10 national championships, but he will make sure to pass along his priorities.
“Great team effort this afternoon,” he tells his players after a recent 74-11 midweek victory over San Fernando High. “But have you guys done your homework? Who here hasn’t done their homework?”
Trapani is the third Wooden great-grandchild, and fourth member of the Wooden family tree, to venture into organized coaching. Craig Impelman, Wooden’s grandson by marriage, is a former college assistant coach who spent six years on the UCLA staff. Impelman’s son John is a Pepperdine assistant coach, and another son, Kyle, is a girls’ junior-varsity coach at Los Alamitos High.
All have faced the pressure of the Wooden name, but Trapani has followed a path that has placed him squarely in the cross hairs of the legacy, even down to an unintentional imitation of the soft clap and calming smile. Sitting behind the bench and watching him coach for the first time recently was his grandmother, Nan Muehlhausen, Wooden’s daughter. She shook her head with a cheery sigh.
“You know, when Daddy retired, I thought I was through with all this,” she says.
This latest challenge will be the toughest for this Simi Valley kid who has always attempted to embrace his history without getting swallowed up by it.
When Trapani was 8 years old and playing basketball in his driveway, his great-grandfather walked outside and asked if he wanted some help with his shot.
“I already know how to shoot,” Trapani responded, youthfully viewing the great coach as a meddlesome relative.
Wooden felt bad that he had annoyed his great-grandson and never offered basketball help again. Trapani felt bad that he had insulted his great-grandfather and never asked.
“Our relationship became about everything that wasn’t basketball — we talked about education, about hard work, about values,” Trapani says.
From the ultimate teacher, Trapani realized that he also wanted to be a teacher. And, like his great-grandfather, he decided he could do it best through basketball. So after a high school career as a backup guard at Simi Valley High, he became a walk-on, end-of-the-bench scrub at UCLA.
“I thought, what better way to learn the game than by sitting on a college bench for four years?” Trapani recalls. “I knew I would never play, but I knew I could learn.”
His presence on campus put him in a position to visit Wooden in the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center nearly every day during the final month before the coach’s death in June 2010. Then, a year later, his great-grandfather’s spirit seemingly returned the favor in a moment that will etch Trapani into the Wooden legend.
With 25 seconds left in the final men’s game before the 46-year-old Pauley Pavilion that Wooden had made famous closed for renovation, during a rout of Arizona that emptied the bench, Trapani threw up a jump shot that banked through the net for the final basket.
They were his first points in a three-year UCLA career. It was only the third shot of his UCLA career. It was only the fourth game in which he played in his UCLA career.
When fans realized that the last basket in that chapter of Pauley’s history had been scored by a Wooden, many of them hugged and wept, including coach Ben Howland, who conducted the postgame interview while fighting back tears. The moment still lives in comments from strangers, and in the background photo on Trapani’s phone.
“It was the greatest moment of my life, and I have no doubt my great-grandfather put me in the situation to make it happen,” Trapani says.
The meddlesome elderly relative and the confident kid in that driveway were thus bonded forever. Two years later, when his former Simi Valley JV coach Chris Garton asked Trapani to join him at Cleveland this summer, the decision was surprisingly easy.
Trapani is attending Cal State Northridge in pursuit of his master’s degree. He is also working part-time bussing tables and greeting customers at a California Pizza Kitchen. But he knew where his heart needed to be.
“Nobody has ever asked me, ‘Why are you doing this?’” Trapani says. “I want to teach, I want to coach, I had to do this.”
The Wooden name holds little influence with Trapani’s players, a collection of teenagers who know little about the former coach. Neither of the two team leaders interviewed for this story knew anything about Wooden’s accomplishments, neither had heard of the Pyramid of Success, and one didn’t even know he had coached at UCLA.
“We don’t see the past or whatever, we just see the coach,” says Roman Morales, a sophomore guard-forward. “And [Trapani’s] coaching style is great. He’s patient, he’s calm, he doesn’t scream, he lets us play.”
Indeed, like his great-grandfather, Trapani does most of his coaching during practice and uses the games as a report card. Perhaps that’s what makes his team, which is 4-1 with several overwhelming victories, so much fun to watch. The Cavaliers currently have only eight players because of eligibility issues, but, even when greatly outnumbered, they press, they run, they overwhelm the opponent with passing and defense while Trapani, like Wooden, rarely calls a timeout.
“The little mannerisms, the way he deals with the players, I can really see my grandfather in him,” his mother, Cathleen, says during a recent game. “He never talks about who he’s following, but you know it’s there.”
After the rout of San Fernando, which was completed when he ordered his players to stop shooting, Trapani addressed them in a locker room that’s not really a locker room. It’s an oversized closet with no showers, a small room where freshmen have to get dressed from their backpacks that are strewn across the floor. As they pull on their jeans over sweaty uniforms, Trapani is doing one last bit of teaching.
“You helped each other today, that’s so important,” he says.
If that phrase sounds familiar, it is part of John Wooden’s celebrated seven-point creed. A laminated version of that creed is the one memento from his great-grandfather that Tyler Trapani carries with him every day, even if it sometimes feels so bulky he has to leave it in his car.
“The creed is not always on me,” John Wooden’s great-grandson says with a smile. “But I always know right where it is.”
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