Wooden could touch lives over a meal

They began trickling into Vip’s Family Restaurant in Tarzana before 8 a.m. Saturday, the regular customers with their canes, a lawyer in a Bruins T-shirt, a family wearing UCLA caps.

Around the time John Wooden used to sit down for breakfast at his favored Table 2, owner Paul Ma and his wife Lucy placed a vase of yellow roses, a photo of Wooden and a copy of the Los Angeles Times with news of the former UCLA coach’s passing in the booth, now a shrine to their most famous regular.

“He liked the No. 2 special: bacon, scrambled eggs, English muffin,” Ma said. “At the beginning, Coach always liked hot tea. So many memories… I always put the honey out for Coach, and I would squeeze the honey for him.

“He was a great man.”

Wooden, who died Friday at 99, visited the modest coffee shop on Ventura Boulevard almost daily for the 12 years Ma has owned it, and for a number of years before that. He would come in with such former players as Bill Walton, with his daughter, Nan Muehlhausen, his caregiver, Tony Spino, or with the stream of reporters who sought his time.

The last time Ma saw the coach who won 10 NCAA men’s basketball championships, but became almost as famous for his wisdom and longevity, was about three weeks ago, when Wooden was wheeled in sitting in a wheelchair.

At the counter Saturday, a man with a cane took a seat, putting his bills and loose change in front of him before he ordered.

“I never looked at him as a coach,” said the man, who didn’t want to give his name. “We’d talk about Lincoln. We didn’t agree. Sometimes, I won.

“By the way, even the horses liked John. There used to be horses over here, and he would walk up every morning and feed them apples. They knew when he was coming.

“I’ve lost a friend,” he said, and a tear ran down his cheek.

Anthony Lovullo of Encino came through the door Saturday and called out to the waitress behind the counter.

“I thought you’d be closed today in honor of Coach,” he said. “I walked my dog and I thought I’d come pay tribute.”

Jennelle Stewart of Winnetka, UCLA Class of 1995, sat in a booth with her children, Malia, 6, and Cody, 4, wearing UCLA gear.

“We’d come in for breakfast and run into Coach,” Stewart said. “He always said hello to the children.”

The 6-year-old remembers.

“We got a basketball from Coach,” she said. “It has his name on it.”

A box of Wheaties with Wooden’s picture is encased in Lucite on a shelf in the restaurant, and autographed photos of him are all around.

“In 12 years I never heard him say no, no matter if some people disturbed him during his breakfast,” Ma said. “He loved kids. He would give the young kids the card with what his father said on it, the card with his advice.”

A man and a woman paused to look at the tribute at Wooden’s table as they passed.

“It seemed sad when we came in,” said the woman, who gave her name only as Margaret. “We’ll miss him.

“I talked to him a lot. He was very interesting, very kind. He was always a one-woman man. He had a great love for his wife.”

Nell Wooden died in 1985, and Wooden often spoke of being reunited with her when he died.

“My heart breaks,” Ma said. “I knew some day this day would come, but I really could not accept it. It is a big loss for the whole country.

“He made the world more beautiful.”