Following Coach John Wooden's passing Friday night, every journalist in the country is rushing to eulogize him. As a retired sports journalist, I will chip in a recollection of my own brief contact with the legendary coach and educator. Of course, it is boxing-related:
When Joe Frazier came to Los Angeles to meet Chuck Leslie in May of 1966, he had won the Gold Medal at the Tokyo Olympics and had knocked out eight opponents in a row since turning professional. He was already being hailed as a "star," headed for the top of his brutal profession.
I was writing a weekly boxing column for a small, suburban newspaper called the Huntington Park Daily Signal, and sought an interview with Smokin' Joe and his manager, Yank Durham, through our mutual friend, Eddie Futch. The interview took place in Frazier's room at the Gala Motel, down the street from the Olympic Boxing Club. Upon learning from Joe that he had been born and raised in the small Sea Islands town of Beaufort, South Carolina, I remarked that there was a young man from Beaufort on UCLA's national champion basketball team. The young man's name, I said, was Kenny Washington.
"Kenny Washington!" Frazier shouted. "Kenny Washington! He's my friend! We grew up together!"
It turned out that Joe and Kenny were next-door neighbors and close friends, though they hadn't seen each other since Frazier had moved north to Philadelphia, five years earlier.
I told Frazier that I would see what I could do toward getting word to Kenny Washington that Joe would be fighting at the Olympic Auditorium on May 19. Later that day, I advised Olympic Boxing Club publicist Van Barbieri of my "discovery," then called the UCLA Athletic Department. I was transferred to the "basketball office"--and immediately recognized the scholarly but friendly, down-home country voice of the person who picked up the phone. It was Coach John Wooden, himself!
Figuring that I was in over my head, I hurriedly explained the purpose of my call, identifying myself as a part-time boxing columnist for the low-circulation Daily Signal. Figuring that Coach Wooden had more important things to do than talk to me, I asked only that he relay my message to his player. But talk he did--going on for what must have been ten minutes, expressing admiration for the courage and discipline of professional boxers, and telling me in careful detail just what a worthy young man Kenny Washington was.
As a postscript to the story: Van Barbieri left complimentary tickets and a dressing room pass at the ticket window for Kenny Washington, and minutes after Frazier had dismantled Chuck Leslie, the two Barefoot Lads from Beaufort were reunited in the future heavyweight champion's dressing room. There was an Associated Press photo of their reunion in newspapers across the country the following day.