"Well, it's my understanding that he's dead," said West, solemnly, at courtside, when a FanHouse columnist informed the Los Angeles Lakers great that Wooden actually was alive but gravely ill.
Added West, "Oh, boy. He was one of the greatest men I've ever been around in my life. He was more than just a basketball coach."
For one, since Wooden won so big and so graciously during his nearly three decades as the "Wizard of Westwood" at UCLA, he was the epitome of that cliché of somebody ranking bigger than life. For another, during the latter part of Wooden's nearly century on earth, he WAS bigger than life after he evolved into the second coming of Lazarus.
Time and again, Wooden was placed at the doorstep of death. Then, time and again, he would walk the other way.
Bleeding colon. Dizziness. Broken wrist and collarbone.
Old age in general.
So this was hinting of becoming more of the same on Thursday, with some reports claiming Wooden already had expired, and others claiming that the new Lazarus still lived.
This was for sure: At the start of what is expected to finish as another classic in the NBA Finals between West's beloved Lakers and the locally demonized Boston Celtics, the most instrumental person in the history of basketball this side of James Naismith likely wasn't going to fulfill the wish of many -- that he would reach his 100th birthday.
Wooden was born on October 14, 1910 in Hall, Indiana, and as a fellow Hoosier, I'll tell you this: We've claimed Wooden as much as -- if not more than -- those in southern California, where he did the incredible for 27 seasons at UCLA. He became greater than great, and then he surpassed even that. His Bruins won 10 national championships in 12 years. They had four seasons at 30-0. There also was that 88-game winning streak, but there always was that Hoosier feel about the guy.
It takes a Hoosier to know one.
I was born and raised in South Bend, Ind., home of a little university with a Golden Dome and Touchdown Jesus.
In addition, South Bend is one of those places that helped make Indiana high school basketball famous, with an assist from Wooden. When he wasn't coaching South Bend Central High School to prominence, he was a beloved English teacher on campus.
Among those at Central back then were my Uncle Charlie and other relatives. They looked at Wooden as their own despite his future stops at Indiana State (decades before that Larry Bird guy) for two seasons and 44 victories in 59 games and then to UCLA.
As for me, I was like many in Indiana and elsewhere. I knew John Wooden -- everybody's favorite grandfather or great-grandfather who had that approachable air about him despite his legendary status -- but I didn't know him. He retired in 1975, a couple of years before my tenure as a professional journalist began.
Still, there were the two times I dialed Wooden's number at his condominium forever in Encino, Calif., and then wondered if I was dreaming after he answered the phone.
This was years after Wooden's wife, Nellie, died of cancer in 1985. He never recovered from the loss to the point of writing a love letter to her on the 21st of each month -- the day of the month that she died. He also kept the same furniture that she purchased for the condo decades before, and he slept with her night gown on the side of the bed that she preferred during their 52-year marriage.
Wooden's pain didn't change his pleasant ways, though. He eternally was polite and thoughtful, and he often spoke at length to acquaintances or strangers of playing basketball the right way.
The pure way.
The way they don't play in the NBA, which is why Lakers public relations man John Black said Wooden attended zero Laker home games during Black's 20 years with the franchise.
Wooden preferred women's basketball, because he once told me that it was more fundamentally sound.
Even so, more than a few noted men of the pros said Thursday night that they respected all things Wooden. None was more glowing than Danny Ainge, now the Celtics general manager after 15 years as a sparkplug for four NBA teams, including the Celtics.
Prior to that, Ainge was such a prominent player in 1981 at Brigham Young that he received the John Wooden Award, which is given to the most outstanding college player during a season.
Ainge shook his head with a deep sigh. This was long before the Lakers crushed his Celtics 102-89 in Thursday's NBA Finals opener.
"Since I won his award, [Wooden] has kept in contact with me, and here I wasn't one of his players, and he befriended me, and he sent me notes periodically and letters congratulating me and keeping tabs on what I was doing throughout my career," said Ainge, adding that Wooden even remembered his father's name through the years.
"He was just always impressive, and it was something to see how far he would take his concern, his compassion and his love -- and also how much he had to give.
"I'm just a nobody to him, and yet he made me feel special."
Ainge spoke for the masses at the Staples Center. The same went for West, who is immortalized as the face of the NBA since his silhouette is the league's logo.
That said, West also was an accomplished college player at West Virginia, where he became a disciple of Wooden's teachings -- stretching from a book called "Pyramid of Success" to the so-called principles of life that Wooden received from his father after Wooden graduated from grammar school.
"[Wooden] was one of my really favorite people, and at West Virginia, we got to play one of his teams at Pauley Pavilion (UCLA's home court), and I got a chance to finally meet him when I first came to Los Angeles," West said of his debut with the Lakers in 1960.
Added West, "I last saw John about four months ago when I went out to his home, and I had hoped that he would be able to be around for the event over at UCLA in his honor."
West's reference was to UCLA's plan to dedicate the remodeled Pauley Pavilion in Wooden's honor -- on his 100th birthday. As of this writing, the new Lazarus still lived, which meant he had a chance -- a fleeting one -- to dribble in his soul toward another miracle.