Richard "Duke" Llewellyn, the longtime executive of the Los Angeles Athletic Club who conceived of the John R. Wooden Award given annually to the country's outstanding men's and women's college basketball players, died early Friday of congestive heart failure at Hollenbeck Palms rehabilitation center in Los Angeles. He was 93 and died just hours before Wooden.
An outstanding athlete in his youth, Llewellyn joined the athletic club in 1956 and worked there for 54 years, first as director of athletics, then as executive vice president. Until he was hospitalized with heart problems earlier this spring, Llewellyn was working at the club two days a week. In 1996, the club turned its darts room into a cocktail lounge and named it Duke's Sports Bar in honor of Llewellyn.
"We are devastated to lose Duke," said Steve Hathaway, athletic club president. "Quite simply, he was the Wooden Award, and symbolized everything that is right about college athletics and amateur sports."
Llewellyn conceived the Wooden Award shortly after the legendary UCLA basketball coach's retirement in 1976. Concerned that the man whose Bruin teams had won an unprecedented 10 national championships in 12 seasons might fade from memory, Llewellyn persuaded the club to sponsor the award, then worked out a handshake deal with Wooden, who insisted that the award go to the best all-around player, not simply the top scorer.
The first John R. Wooden Player of the Year Award was given in 1977 to Marques Johnson, one of Wooden's former players at UCLA. Nominated players must have 2.0 cumulative grade-point averages, must have made outstanding contributions to team play and must be model citizens. Women were recognized in 2004.
A rift occurred in 2005, when Wooden withdrew his support from the club in an argument over the use of his name. In January of that year, a group known as Athletes for a Better World presented an award called the Wooden Cup to quarterback Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts. The athletic club objected, claiming exclusivity in the use of Wooden's name on athletic awards. Wooden and his family argued that it was his name, to be used as he saw fit. An agreement could not be reached and although Wooden lived up to his commitments regarding the award, he ceased making the annual presentations himself.
The split was hard on Llewellyn who, while officially representing the club, had a strong friendship with Wooden.
Wooden felt the same. "I'm confused that this happened," he told The Times at the time. " … I love Duke, he's worked his tail off, but I don't think it's right the athletic club wants complete use of my name."
Llewellyn was born March 31, 1917, in Bermuda and was brought to Los Angeles as a child. Best known as a football player, he was nonetheless a four-sport letterman and all-state athlete at Loyola High School and a three-sport athlete at USC. He served in the Army during World War II and, in pursuit of his duties as athletic director for the 6th Army, once boxed an exhibition bout with Joe Louis, then the heavyweight champion of the world. "Don't kill me, Joe," he implored as they laced up the gloves.
He played football professionally with the Los Angeles Bulldogs and Hollywood Rangers of the old Pacific Coast League and after the war, despite having injured a leg in a landmine explosion, with the Los Angeles Dons in the emerging All-America Football Conference.
Before joining the athletic club, Llewellyn served as director of municipal sports for the Los Angeles City Recreation and Parks Department, at that time the nation's largest sports program, and he had previously coached football and basketball at Banning High. He also officiated football and basketball games on the high school, junior college and college levels for 23 years.
Llewellyn is survived by three children, Mark, Michael and Deborah, seven grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and his longtime companion, Nancy Tew. Services will be private. The athletic club is planning a celebration of Llewellyn's life.
Kupper is a former Times staff writer.