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HARDCOURT HARDWARE HAND-DELIVERED.

Byline: Jill Painter Staff Writer

John Billings packed 414 trophies in his diesel truck and accompanying trailer, then relaxed with his brothers and a bottle of champagne.

Another year's worth of award-making was complete. Now it was time for Billings' annual trek to Los Angeles. He drives from his home in Ridgway, Colo. - population 760 - and personally delivers the John R. Wooden Award and Grammy awards.

There's no such thing as shipping in Billings' world.

He makes the trophies himself, with the help of his two brothers and a friend in a studio down the street from his house. The Grammys each have a protective case and are stacked in a stuffed trailer.

His two Wooden Awards, given annually to a top men's college basketball player and a legendary coach, get special treatment in the back seat of his truck. They're protected by seat belts.

It's not silly if you're Billings, who takes his craft - but not himself - seriously. The old-school trophy maker - who makes the figurines of players from 40-year-old molds and uses cast-iron metal - is a perfect fit in Los Angeles this time of year.

"We're still doing things the old way," Billings said. "To be able to do something that honors people is so fulfilling. I don't need the spotlight. This comes from the heart."

Billings could rest in a swank hotel and attend today's Wooden Award ceremony at the downtown Athletic Club but he's been to only one. After all, he's scheduled to be back in his workshop, starting another round of trophies when the winners are announced live on national television today.

"You know they'll be done right," said Mike Solum, the director of the Wooden Award. "Each is unique. I've been here eight years and every year they come in a little different. Maybe the wood might be a little different color. It's just the personal touch. He's part of the family here."

Billings grew up in Van Nuys, not far from neighbor and award maker Bob Graves. As a child, Billings used to sit in Graves' garage and watch him craft trophies, including the Wooden Award. After graduating from Van Nuys High School, Billings worked at the University of California, Los Angeles, for 10 years. He started as a clerk in the mailroom of the student union and worked his way to manager of shipping and receiving.

He met Wooden there. And even Lew Alcindor when he was on his recruiting trip from New York. He remembers Alcindor, who changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, ducking his head under the door.

Billings was a big basketball fan and attended UCLA games. Then Graves asked Billings to take over his trophy-making business since he was nearing retirement. He completed a seven-year apprenticeship and after Graves died, Billings bought the company in 1983.

He's made the Wooden Award since 1983 and the Grammys for about 30 years. He's affectionately known as the "Grammy Dude." Eventually, he'd like his son to take over the business.

In his line of work, there are usually no contracts. He and Solum have a handshake deal. Two years ago, Billings signed his first contract to make the Grammys, 28 years after he started making them.

Billings, who will turn 60 this year, works 14-hour days but has time to practice with the two-person Harry Harpoon Band every night. He takes most Sundays off and finds time to play his bass guitar and drums in the local saloon.

Sam Lagana, the former director of the Wooden Award and still a committee member, admires Billings.

"I always want to start singing 'Rocky Mountain High' as he enters the room," Lagana said. "I just see him pulling up and I get a huge smile on my face. It's like Americana. You're like digging into the West. He's someone who cares. It's his workmanship, his passion. He cares about his product and hand-delivers it.

"He's a guy who decided to get back to simpler times, in a way. A time when workmanship and integrity and just doing the right thing is most important. I just love that guy."

Just about everyone is enamored of Billings, although his late mother-in-law wasn't sold on him. As Billings recalled, she didn't like the idea of her daughter, Alice, marrying a man who worked out of a shop behind his house. She wasn't sure if it was a stable job.

It wasn't until years later that she changed her mind about Billings. The family was at the University of North Carolina campus at Chapel Hill for a wedding. Billings wanted to see how the Wooden Awards he made for Michael Jordan and Phil Ford were displayed, but he couldn't find the awards in the athletic department's trophy case.

He asked a secretary where it was. She unlocked then-coach Dean Smith's office to reveal them. They were sitting on his desk. His mother-in-law was impressed.

After the nearly 14-hour drive to Barstow, where his sister lives, Billings has a meal, visits and spends the night. Just before he gets there, he drives through Las Vegas and has a good laugh to himself. He knows they're taking odds on the Wooden Award and he has the answer in the back seat of his truck.

It's a name that means nothing to him, since he doesn't have time to watch college basketball any more. Only Billings and Deloitte and Touche, the firm that counts the ballots, know the winner.

Billings hops out of his truck outside his friend's house in Granada Hills, where he stays after delivering trophies. He forgot to call them to tell them he'd be there. As if they'd miss the truck and trailer - with the name Billings Artworks - on the side.

"My cell phone went dead somewhere in Utah," Billings chuckled.

Billings went to Hacienda Heights on Thursday morning to pick up a ton of custom-made metal and drove back to Colorado. His three-day vacation was almost done.

Then the process beings all over again.

"You can't believe what an honor it is to make this award," Billings said. "John Wooden is a man I grew up idolizing. I've really come full circle."

Jill Painter, (818) 713-3615

jill.painter@dailynews.com

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo:

(1 -- color) John Billings holds one of the Wooden Awards he made in his Colorado studio. Billings drives the bronze-plated trophies to California for the awards ceremony.

(2 -- color) John Billings, a graduate of Van Nuys High School, has been making Wooden Awards since 1983 and drives them from Colorado to Los Angeles for the annual basketball ceremony.

Andy Holzman/Staff Photographer
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 8, 2006
Words:1101
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