APPLE VALLEY, Calif. “”mdash; Ron Gray carefully opens up a box that he has just brought from the garage. A dozen emerald-tinted 7UP bottles are inside. Each has its own personal compartment, surrounded by Styrofoam peanuts and protected in a white sock.
Ron lifts one of the glass soda bottles from the box and slowly removes the sock, careful not to rub against the glass neck where Coach John Wooden has signed. The original price sticker that reads 35 cents is visible as he proudly shakes the bottle to show that the 37-year-old soda still has some fizz in it.
One side of the glass is printed with a bright yellow label, listing the national championship games UCLA had won between 1964 to 1975. The other side, titled “A Legend’s Legacy,” displays the win-loss record of every season John Wooden had ever coached basketball.
The signed 7UP bottles were meant to bring in some extra retirement money, but Ron has not sold a single one, preferring instead to give them away. A couple years back, he gave several to a close friend dying of cancer who was an avid basketball and John Wooden fan.
“I decided to hold on to them for a while, you know what I am saying?”
The search for the 16-ounce glass bottles began as soon as Ron laid eyes on that first one. Already a collector of stamps, knives and coins, they became a temporary obsession.
It was 1975.
7UP bottling company had designed a commemorative bottle in honor of John Wooden’s recent retirement. The bottle didn’t hold any special significance to Ron but it caught his eye.
He spent the next few weeks buying as many of the soda bottles as he could find.
“I went to stores for a few weeks. I would actually go to 7-Eleven and ask the people whether I could look through their stock in the back to see if I could find this special bottle. And they would let me.” Ron collected a total of 40 bottles, which he then packed and stored away for the future. For nearly 20 years, they sat in boxes gathering dust.
When he started collecting the 7UP bottles in 1975, Ron had heard of John Wooden but was not specifically a fan of UCLA, basketball, or any sports in general.
“I was never much of a sports person because when I was growing up, my dad taught us how to work, not how to play sports,” said Ron, who was born in a tiny Pennsylvania coal-mining town in 1935. “Back in those days, there weren’t blacks in sports anyways.”
His wife Slim had much closer ties to UCLA basketball during Coach Wooden’s time in Westwood.
“I was a fan of UCLA although my husband was playing for USC,” said Slim, who was previously married to Trojan standout Bill Hewitt, a first-round draft pick in 1968. “I would go to some of the (UCLA-USC) games. I like the way (Coach Wooden) operated. … It was his rapport with the players that I admired.”
His wife thought he was crazy when Ron came up with the idea of having Coach Wooden sign his 7UP bottles,
“I said he is a big coach at UCLA, why would he sign these bottles for you, a heavy equipment operator from the airport? He is not going to do that,” Slim said. “That was my attitude but (Ron’s) persistence, won out.”
Ron first tried contacting Wooden by calling the phone number for a senior basketball camp that he heard Coach was teaching.
After calling several times to no avail, he rang up the UCLA athletics department, asking whether they would forward his handwritten letter to Coach Wooden.
Only three days after mailing his letter, Ron received an unexpected message on his voicemail.
“Hello, Mr. Gray, this is Mr. Wooden. I would be more than happy to sign all of your bottles for you and I don’t want any in return. But you have to get in touch with me. Here is my number and my address so that we can make a date and a time so that you can bring your bottles so that I can sign them,” said Ron, recalling every word without hesitation.
He could not believe that Wooden had agreed to sign the bottles.
“I sat down on the chair by the phone and I thought, “˜How do you like that Ronnie?’ It just helped to reinforce the fact that you just have to do what comes into your spirit.”
Ron pulled up to Coach Wooden’s Encino condominium slightly before 10 a.m. on a crisp February morning in 1994. In his pickup truck there were three boxes filled with the 40 7UP bottles he had painstakingly collected almost two decades ago.
For nearly two hours, they both sat in the Den as John Wooden individually signed each bottle, refusing Ron’s offer to take half the collection in return.
“He says, “˜Mr. Gray, what are you going to do with those bottles?” I told him I was going to save them for the future to help me out when I retire. He thought that was cool,” Ron said.
Ron remembers how Wooden spent the whole morning talking to him, taking his time with the bottles.
“We sat lollygagging for probably about two hours. What he did is he opened it up for me because he saw that I was a talker. … I just filled up the whole morning by sitting there.”
After his visit with Wooden, Ron says he would call to check in on Coach about every six weeks for the next six years. The familiarity with which Coach Wooden would greet Ron always surprised and touched him.
“I would say, “Mr. Wooden, this is Mr. Gray. How are you?’ And he would always say, “˜Oh, Mr. Gray, it is so good to hear from an old friend.’ That is what he would always tell me. For him just to have let me have met him for that one little short period of time, that is the way he always answered the phone.”
Ron has been trying to pass on his story ever since John Wooden died about two and a half years ago. He wanted people to remember that Wooden was not just an extraordinary coach but also an exemplary person who, despite his fame, was willing to reach out to an average “Joe Blow” with no connection to sports.
“The story to me is so much my grandfather,” said Greg Wooden. “My grandfather was just a friend to everyone. He never ever did anything for anyone and expected anything in return. That was just how he lived his life.”
Greg Wooden first heard about Ron’s story through the UCLA athletics department. Ron sent them an email in September, offering to donate a few bottles to the university.
Currently, there are two 7UP bottles in UCLA’s Hall of Fame, although neither were donated by Ron. One is in a showcase and another among Wooden’s belongings in the Den exhibit.
Greg Wooden, who also has several of the commemorative bottles but admits that he wasn’t “smart enough to get them signed,” believes that the bottle in Coach Wooden’s Den was one that the 7UP company gave to his grandfather.
Although UCLA did not accept any of Ron’s signed bottles, he is content with knowing that his story has been told. He was not going to stop until it had.
“I was going to go a little bit further. I was going to pack up a bottle and send it to (UCLA Athletic Director) Dan Guerrero. I was going to send him a bottle,” Ron said laughing. “You just keep going. I would send President Obama one too.”
Ron recognizes that the connection he shared with Wooden was brief and one that made a much larger impact on his own life than on Coach’s, which is fine by him.
“It’s not who loves you but it’s who you love. You just make sure you love people. I believe it was designed in my life for this to happen to me and happen the way it did.”