Trouble Is, When You Hang ‘em High, They’re Out of Reach
They hang on the wall high above the court, several stories above the spectators, like priceless paintings displayed at eye level to the gods.
But they are merely hunks of flannel, 10 blue and yellow banners, one for each of the 10 National Collegiate Athletic Assn. basketball championships the UCLA Bruins won in 12 seasons, from 1964 to 1975.
Each banner is 12 feet long and 6 feet high. The first was commissioned to decorate the podium for the team banquet after the 30-0 season of 1963-64.
The Bruins won the NCAA title again the next season, so another banner was ordered. After the banquet, this banner, like its predecessor, was rolled up and stored away.
Then the Bruins got their own arena, their own art gallery, Pauley Pavilion. The two banners were taken out of storage and hung on the canopy near the rafters. Like rabbits or mushrooms, the banners proliferated.
Soon they were ringing the canopy in a nearly continuous blue halo, an appropriate symbol for a team and a program that could do no wrong.
The banners were a great source of pride. At the beginning of each season, the NCAA championship banner won the previous season would be unveiled in a special pregame ceremony. Bruin players would tug on a rope hanging from the scoreboard, undraping the latest blue flannel masterpiece.
Every off-season, workers would climb the catwalks in the rafters, lean over the canopy and gently remove the banners so they could be sent out to be dry-cleaned.
If the banners were art, the gallery was lively. Two or three nights before a game, students would begin camping in line outside Pauley Pavilion to secure coveted tickets and then to rush for good seats.
Once ticketed, the students were allowed to stay inside the gym the night before the game. Free coffee and doughnuts were served. Students passed the hours studying or playing backgammon, peaceful in the presence of their beautiful, blue-flannel security blankets.
The games were magical. Under the blue halo, the Bruins won their first 50 home games, and once they won 98 games in a row at Pauley Pavilion.
Then one day the banners stopped reproducing themselves. The huge art gallery that had been a combination Camelot, Mecca and Roman Colosseum, became just another gym for the home team.
Now, no students camp out. Those who do attend games can easily buy tickets minutes before tip-off. Most games, there are many empty seats, and the fervor of UCLA fans is a memory. Now the Bruins have a home-court disadvantage.
The banners no longer serve their former functions of inspiration and intimidation. A sensational guard on the Bruin team that won the very first banner is now the coach of the team, but he cannot re-create the magic, or at least hasn’t been able to so far.
The Pavilion, built for $5 million in 1965--about what you would pay today for a fixer-upper in nearby Bel-Air--is still clean and elegant. Now it is the basketball program that is a fixer-upper.
And the banners are growing old and fragile.
Nine of the banners were stolen in 1975 and held for ransom, more a prank than a crime. After a few weeks, with no ransom money forthcoming, instructions were left by the artnappers. Go to this phone booth. Now this one. The banners, left neatly folded, were recovered and re-hung in the gallery.
A Pauley Pavilion worker tried to move one of the older banners a year or so ago, to make room for the basketball National Invitation Tournament banner, or the women’s basketball or men’s volleyball banners.
The flannel almost crumbled in the worker’s hands. He left the banner in place. No longer are they sent out to be dry-cleaned.
Still, they are not forgotten.
Almost daily, someone knocks on the office door at Pauley Pavilion and politely asks to be allowed to come in and have a quick look around. They enter as if coming into a holy temple or shrine. They usually look at the court, then immediately up at the banners.
Tours come through the building regularly, but a lot of people from out of town, usually on vacation, simply drop by. They say they had to see this place. Some say that a big reason they have come to Los Angeles is to see Pauley Pavilion.
One might think the tourism would be declining as the glory years fade and the banners begin to rot. But the tourism does not decline, not a bit.
The tourists point their little flash cameras heavenward and try to take photos of the hanging art, but the banners are too high above the court. The tourists settle for snapshots of the center-court circle.
For the Bruin players and fans, the banners have an increasingly abstract meaning. They no longer dominate the atmosphere of the building.
They are not out of sight, but for the moment they certainly are out of reach.