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About Utah: Utahn brings sports legends back to life

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 4 2015 4:00 p.m. MDT

Sculptor Blair Buswell applies finishing touches on his sculpture of basketball coaching legend John Wooden. (Lee Benson, Deseret News) Sculptor Blair Buswell applies finishing touches on his sculpture of basketball coaching legend John Wooden. (Lee Benson, Deseret News)

PLEASANT GROVE —

Buildings can't shout and cheer, but Pauley Pavilion, UCLA's iconic basketball arena, might give it a try today.

Because John Wooden is returning.

Rolled-up program in his left fist and all.

It's not Wooden himself — that would be too much to hope for — but two years after his death at the age of 99, a larger-than-life statue of the larger-than-life man who brought 10 national championships to UCLA and is generally considered the greatest college basketball coach of all time is coming to the arena steps.

A ceremony is scheduled for this afternoon, when Wooden's family, the UCLA chancellor, members of the athletic department and John Wooden fans from all walks of life will join Utah sculptor Blair Buswell for the unveiling.

Surrounded by his sculptures, Utah native Blair Buswell at his studio in Pleasant Grove. (Lee Benson, Deseret News) Surrounded by his sculptures, Utah native Blair Buswell at his studio in Pleasant Grove. (Lee Benson, Deseret News)

Shortly after Wooden died, Buswell's phone rang. It was from UCLA. After conducting a nationwide search for the best sports sculptor in America, UCLA informed Buswell it had selected him.

It wasn't the first time he was asked to bring a legendary figure into his studio in Pleasant Grove.

When he was in junior high school and "I realized that people made a living out of doing what I did for fun," Buswell knew for sure he would be a sculptor when he grew up. But years before that, he knew it subconsciously.

When he'd go to church on Sundays as a child, his mother would bring along a small Sucrets can with clay and toothpicks inside. If Blair behaved himself, she'd slip him the can, he'd open it and in no time he'd have his own cowboys and Indians to play with.

"I made my own toys," says Blair.

Sculptor Blair Buswell, himself a former football play at BYU, poses with just a few of the 80 busts he has made for the Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Steve Young is in the middle center, flanked by John Madden and Dan Marino. (Lee Benson, Deseret News) Sculptor Blair Buswell, himself a former football play at BYU, poses with just a few of the 80 busts he has made for the Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Steve Young is in the middle center, flanked by John Madden and Dan Marino. (Lee Benson, Deseret News)

In addition to being a gifted artist, he was also a gifted athlete. After starring in football and track at Weber High School, he played on the football team at Ricks Junior College before serving an LDS mission to Washington, D.C. Upon his return, he turned down a football scholarship at Utah State University and walked on as a running back at BYU because the school had a sculpting program. He wound up playing football during a memorable era for the Cougars. He was teammates with Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Marc Wilson and Robbie Bosco and played in BYU's first bowl win, the famous 1980 Miracle Bowl in San Diego.

All the while, his art teachers cringed. "They thought I was crazy to play football, and the football coaches thought I was crazy to do art," Buswell remembers.

The BYU team physician at the time, Dr. Brent Pratley, came up with a compromise of sorts. He designed protective hand pads for Buswell to use while he was playing football, plus he commissioned him to sculpt bronzes of McMahon and basketball star Danny Ainge while he was yet a student.

In his Pleasant Grove studio, Blair Buswell stands next to his sculpture of basketball coaching legend John Wooden. The bronze statue that was cast from the clay was unveiled today at Pauley Pavilion on the UCLA campus. (Lee Benson, Deseret News) In his Pleasant Grove studio, Blair Buswell stands next to his sculpture of basketball coaching legend John Wooden. The bronze statue that was cast from the clay was unveiled today at Pauley Pavilion on the UCLA campus. (Lee Benson, Deseret News)

Those sculptures and others by Buswell wound up in a display at the school's sports awards night his senior year, where the guest speaker for the event, Bill Walsh, head coach of the Super Bowl-winning San Francisco 49ers, had a chance to look them over.

That led to Walsh hiring Buswell to do a sculpture of Walsh and 49er owner Eddie DeBartolo,Jr., which in turn led to DeBartolo getting Buswell a commission to sculpt the busts of players elected each year to the Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Buswell has sculpted more than 80 of them over the past 30 years, starting with Sid Gillman and including John Madden, Tom Landry, Don Shula, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Howie Long, Ronnie Lott, Emmitt Smith, Deion Sanders, his old teammate Steve Young, and most every other NFL great you've heard of over the past three decades.

He's also sculpted Mickey Mantle, Jack Nicklaus, Oscar Robertson, Bear Bryant, Tennessee football coach Robert Neyland and, most lately, Merlin Olson. Olson's statue stands at the entrance to Romney Stadium in Logan. Mantle's is in front of the ballpark in Oklahoma City. Nicklaus' is at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia. Robertson's is at the University of Cincinnati basketball arena. Neyland's is at the University of Tennessee football stadium that bears his name. Bryant's is at the Paul W. Bryant Museum on the University of Alabama campus. You could make a road trip of the country just gazing at Blair Buswell sports sculptures.

All sorts of celebrities, including football great Merlin Olson, can be found at Blair Buswell?s studio in Pleasant Grove. (Lee Benson, Deseret News) All sorts of celebrities, including football great Merlin Olson, can be found at Blair Buswell?s studio in Pleasant Grove. (Lee Benson, Deseret News)

He's not one-dimensional. He's sculpted people ranging from Charlton Heston to Norman Rockwell to LDS Church Presidents Harold B. Lee and Thomas S. Monson (their busts are in the Conference Center in Salt Lake City). And he's currently working on a 10-year project that when finished will be a full-size block-long wagon train in Omaha, Neb. (You can see his range of work at www.blairbuswell.com).

But it's sports where he began his professional sculpting life and it's sports where he still feels as comfortable as Wooden's Bruins running the fast break.

"I like doing players and coaches, I know that world well," he says. "I try to get beyond eyes and ears in the right place and get the essence of the person through their gestures, their mood, their expression. You can have a likeness, but it can still feel stiff."

He's spent the past year in Pleasant Grove bringing Wooden's essence to life. Today, accompanied by his wife, Julie, son Weston and daughters Savannah and Jocie, he's in Los Angeles to present the coach to the place he called home.

All sorts of celebrities, including basketball great Oscar Robertson, can be found at Blair Buswell?s studio in Pleasant Grove. (Lee Benson, Deseret News) All sorts of celebrities, including basketball great Oscar Robertson, can be found at Blair Buswell?s studio in Pleasant Grove. (Lee Benson, Deseret News)

It's not the Wizard of Westwood in the flesh, but it is the next best thing.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday.

Email: benson@desnews.com

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company