TARZANA, Calif. -- Paul Ma never played a minute of college basketball, didn't attend UCLA and speaks English with a thick Chinese accent. But like so many people in Southern California, from famous athletes such as Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to iconic Los Angeles Dodgers announcer Vin Scully, his life was changed immeasurably for the better by UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, who passed away Friday at the age of 99.
Ma and his wife Lucy are the owners of Vip's Cafe, a distinctly un-fancy diner on Ventura Boulevard in the heart of Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley. They moved from China to LA in 1997 with their two sons, eager to start a new life, and purchased the restaurant the following year. Before they took over, the eatery's former owner introduced Ma to the diner's best customer: Wooden, who lived nearby in his two-bedroom condo.
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"I knew nothing about Coach before I met him," says Ma, an energetic 47-year-old who grew up in Beijing. "But he treated me that first day like he did everyone else -- like family and with kindness."
Ma saw Wooden more than just about anyone else over the last 12 years. Nearly every morning, Wooden arrived around 8 a.m. for his customary breakfast of two scrambled eggs, bacon, English muffin and Ma's special breakfast tea, served at Table No. 2, a small booth tucked to the left of the restaurant's front door. Wooden rarely ate alone, often accompanied by former UCLA stars such as Walton, current and former Bruin coaches or one of his seven grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.
It didn't take long for Ma to understand the unique reverence his customers had for Wooden, whose teams won 10 NCAA championships in 12 years during the '60s and early '70s, but his relationship with the "Wizard of Westwood" grew considerably after the coach gave him a copy of "Wooden," a collection of Wooden's thoughts on leadership, teaching and basketball. Ma devoured the book, which he credits with improving his business and management skills. "I thought a coach of basketball just knows about sports -- he was really a coach for life," says Ma, who has memorized several of Wooden's famous aphorisms, such as "failing to prepare is preparing to fail" and "ability may get you to the top, but character keeps you there."
Over the years, Ma has turned his diner into a mini-shrine to Wooden. Along with a framed poster of the coach's famous "Pyramid of Success," there are numerous photos of Wooden on the walls, as well as a collection of Wooden and UCLA memorabilia -- including a Wheaties box featuring a picture of the coach -- on two shelves behind the cash register.
Saturday morning, the first morning after Wooden passed away, Ma placed flowers, a candle, a picture of Wooden and a small "reserved" card on Wooden's regular table. A procession of patrons, many of them dressed in UCLA hats and shirts, gave Ma hugs and shared memories of Wooden as they waited for tables and paid for their meals. Many of them shared the sentiments of Gary Stern, a 1977 UCLA graduate who was a member of the school's spirit squad and was on the sidelines in San Diego when Wooden won his last title in 1975. "You could set your clock on [Wooden] being here every morning. He was just so decent and honest, even if you were disrupting his breakfast," says Stern, now an attorney in Los Angeles.
Mike Tootikian also dropped in to pay his respects to the coach he often kibitzed with at the restaurant or at the local post office, which now bears Wooden's name. "He could've eaten breakfast anywhere in L.A., but he chose to come to this mom-and-pop place every day. That's all you need to know about Coach Wooden," says Tootikian, who played basketball at Hollywood High School and recalls rooting for Gail Goodrich, Walt Hazzard and the other members of UCLA'S undefeated '63-'64 team, Wooden's first championship squad.
He says he still utilizes several of Wooden's motivational sayings in his commercial real estate career. "My favorite is 'be quick but don't hurry,'" says Tootikian, 54. Wooden "was just the real deal and humble."
For all of his celebrated humility and strength, Wooden was not above showing a softer, more emotional side to locals who saw him regularly. Before he was confined to a wheelchair in recent years, Wooden walked five miles a day at a park near his condominium, where he often saw Al Yellen, a gregarious health-food salesman and, like Wooden, a proud grandfather. After Wooden's wife, Nell, passed away in 1985, Yellen approached the coach in the park and offered his condolences. Wooden responded by embracing Yellen and crying on his shoulder. It was a cherished moment for Yellen that only cemented Wooden's mythical status as a special and decent person, says his granddaughter Erit Yellen, a sports publicist in Los Angeles who works with several NFL players.
For Ma and his family, Wooden's loss cuts particularly deep, since his presence was so intertwined with their personal and professional journey in America. Saturday morning, Wooden's daughter Nan Muehlhausen visited and shared several long embraces with Ma and his wife, who was wiping tears from her eyes as she greeted customers.
After Muelhausen left, Ma looked down at Wooden's table, adjusted the flowers and looked again at the pictures adorning the diner's walls. "Coach impacts everyone he comes into contact with," says Ma. "It's a big loss for humanity."