A shelf above Ray Shovlain’s desk at Lee Lohman Arena contains a number of mementos collected over his 37 seasons as the men’s basketball coach at St. Ambrose.
Among the most cherished is a basketball Shovlain has had for more than three decades, the front covered with “To coach Ray, best wishes’’ written above the signature of John Wooden.
Shovlain passed the career win total of the legendary UCLA coach last week, earning his 665th victory of his career on Tuesday when the 20th-ranked Fighting Bees defeated St. Xavier to become the last remaining unbeaten team in Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference play.
The milestone held a special meaning for Shovlain, who admired more than the success Wooden had while compiling a 664-162 record in 29 seasons of work at Indiana State and UCLA.
“The type of person he was, the values he stood for and how he worked to extend those traits to those around him, to me those are the impressive things about John Wooden,’’ Shovlain said. “Those are things we’ve tried to emulate in our program at St. Ambrose.’’
Shovlain grew up watching Wooden-coached UCLA teams play, recalling that his brother Joe was a big fan of Bill Walton at that time.
“They were the best in that era, and they did it the right way,’’ Shovlain said.
That respect was reflected nearly more than three decades ago in a situation that resulted in Wooden unexpectedly sending the autographed basketball to Shovlain at St. Ambrose.
And that ultimately led to a phone conversation between the coaches that gave Shovlain the chance to express his gratitude for the gesture.
“It was a great conversation that to this day means a lot to me, to have the chance to speak with a great man who was in this business for all the right reasons,’’ Shovlain said.
It was a conversation that would have never taken place if a young coach hadn’t talked to a friend and fellow St. Ambrose alum, Ned Bergert.
Shovlain has never been one to shy away from a challenge when putting schedules together for his basketball team.
In preparing for the 1985-86 season, a holiday trip to California was in the works.
Shovlain had talked with USC coach Stan Morrison about the possibility of the Fighting Bees playing the Trojans in a nonconference game during the trip.
That idea eventually fell through, but St. Ambrose did ultimately play games against high-scoring Loyola Marymount coached by Paul Westhead, San Diego and Cal State-Los Angeles during its trip.
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“We’ll play anybody. I’ve probably scheduled myself about 70 losses over the years taking that approach, but we’ve played some great teams and created some great memories for our players,’’ Shovlain said.
“When we were putting that trip together, I contacted just about everybody on the West Coast. I think we were really close with USC, but Loyola Marymount was big at that time with Paul Westhead coming in from the Bulls. It was a big-time trip.’’
The only program Shovlain did not approach was UCLA.
“I figured there was no way,’’ he said.
What Shovlain didn’t know was that Bergert, a St. Ambrose graduate who was working as an athletic trainer for the California Angels at the time, was acquainted with Wooden.
“Ned offered to reach out to coach Wooden, who reached out to the administration on our behalf,’’ Shovlain said. “A couple of weeks after I had talked with Ned, I received a call from an associate athletic director at UCLA who indicated that coach Wooden had called but they would not be able to accommodate a game on their schedule.’’
The St. Ambrose team was able to attend a UCLA game at Pauley Pavilion during their trip, players unaware at the time that Wooden had spoken to school officials about the possibility of a regular-season game against the Bees.
“It was an incredible experience for our guys just watch a game there,’’ Shovlain said.
By then, the basketball that has become a conversation piece in Shovlain’s office had already arrived in Davenport.
“It showed up a couple of weeks after I had heard from the administrator at UCLA. I was floored when I opened it, something totally unexpected,’’ Shovlain said.
Wanting to thank Wooden for the gift, Shovlain secured a phone number for the UCLA coach from Bergert, reached out and had “a good conversation’’ with the coach.
“Coach Wooden was a very private person, a very humble person, and he said he felt bad that a game with UCLA couldn’t be arranged for our team,’’ Shovlain said.
“For him to go to that trouble to try, to do it as a favor to Ned on our behalf, and then to go to the trouble to send the basketball, that speaks to his character.’’
The basketball catches the eyes of visitors to Shovlain’s office.
Parents of recruits who remember Wooden’s legendary UCLA teams and even an occasional recruit from a new generation have asked Shovlain about the ball.
“It’s special,’’ Shovlain said. “It’s a reminder of a good man who did things the right way and worked to bring out the best in people. That’s something we try to do every day.’’