It was 25 years ago today, plus a week and a day
John Wooden taught the band to play . . .
It was March 21, 1964, when Wooden’s little UCLA team danced off that floor in Kansas City, having just won a wholly improbable National Collegiate Athletic Assn. title, thus carving for itself an even more improbable destiny: whether anyone realized it or not, the Bruins had just started big-time college basketball.
It was a different day all right, before Dick Vitale, Billy Packer, mercifully before Brent Musburger and Tom Heinsohn, before slam dunks (they were just called dunks back then), the Air Jordan Flight Series (sneakers or sneaks), TV timeouts, or in fact, TV.
You want to know how simple a time it was?
The Final Four had never had a network contract, and wasn’t televised nationally.
The championship game drew 10,864, which was all Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium would hold.
The Bruins couldn’t turn up their noses. Without a place of their own, they played home games at the Sports Arena on the edge of the USC campus. The new Santa Monica Freeway didn’t reach Westwood until January of that year, and until then, students drove west on Olympic Boulevard to get there. Once, star guard Walt Hazzard missed the team bus, got snarled in traffic, arrived late . . . and was suspended for the game.
What started in Kansas City that night was nothing less than the Bruin Dynasty, 10 championships in 12 seasons. By its end, the networks were fighting each other for rights, and moving the championship into prime time, and televising the preliminary rounds (Arizona-Robert Morris? Florida State-Middle Tennessee State?) and the announcement of the draw for the entire 64-team field, with round-table discussions thereof, ad infinitum.
And to think, this all started with a coach who had been at UCLA for 15 years without winning anything bigger than a conference title.
And seven Bruins, none of them taller than 6-foot-5, who among them may not have had three major college offers.
Who weren’t the closest team Wooden ever coached. They weren’t No. 2 either. In point of fact, Wooden says most of them didn’t seem to care a great deal for the rest of them.
Of course, no one believed they could do it.
After they did it, no one believed they could do it again, so a year later, they did.
Of course, no one in his right mind thinks it could ever happen again.
Not only were the Bruins small, they were leftovers.
It wasn’t that they’d come along before the days of recruiting. It was just that no one recruited them.
“A lot of these players,” Wooden says, laughing, “after they did pretty well, they’ll say they were recruited tremendously. . . . Not one of them was highly recruited.”
Walt Hazzard, his All-American?
“I didn’t recruit Walt Hazzard,” Wooden says. “Walt Hazzard recruited UCLA.”
From Philadelphia, Hazzard wrote Wooden, asking to come. He agreed to attend Santa Monica College first to get his grades up and arrived sight unseen. However, one look and Wooden knew he had his point guard.
“He was a good ballhandler,” Wooden says. “A little hotdoggish, which I didn’t like at all. But I thought I could take care of that. And did.”
Keith Erickson and Jack Hirsch were unsolicited local kids who opted for junior colleges, El Camino and L.A. Valley College, respectively. Erickson was so unimpressive in a game against the Bruin freshmen, Wooden took him only because the UCLA baseball coach wanted him, too, and promised to provide the scholarship if Keith kept looking unimpressive.
Keith looked better, playing the back of that 2-2-1 press, the key to it all in Wooden’s eyes.
Now, Erickson is a born-again Christian. Then, Wooden remembers him as “high-spirited.”
“He loved the beach,” Wooden says. “That was his wildness. He was one I had to keep on, to keep him going to class. He’d rather go to the beach. But really a great athlete. I think he could have been an all-star big-league shortstop. Or an All-NFL defensive back. I think he could have been the leading money-winner on the tennis circuit, on the golf circuit, or the volleyball circuit. Or a top skier. Name it.”
Fred Slaughter, the burly, 6-5, undersized-center-to-be, was from Kansas City and came on a split scholarship, half basketball, half track. The late Ducky Drake, having just developed the 1-2 Olympic decathletes, Rafer Johnson and C.K. Yang, thought Slaughter might be a prospect.
This was a bit more than Wooden thought of Slaughter.
“I didn’t figure he was a prospect, actually, to be honest with you,” Wooden says. “I checked with Kansas, Kansas State, Wichita, and none of them seemed to be interested in him. But we said, with Ducky, we’ll give him a scholarship.”
The other “national” recruit was sophomore Kenny Washington, who had the scars to prove it. He traveled the 2,440 miles between his Beaufort, S.C., home and Westwood on a Greyhound bus. Apparently, this was before the time when the program became afflicted by fat-cat boosters.
The big recruit, in a manner of speaking, was Gail Goodrich. At least, he was the only one Wooden scouted while still in high school.
Goodrich, however, was 5-7, 135 as a junior at Los Angeles Poly, so there wasn’t a long line--or any line at all--behind Wooden.
“I went to the city tournament when he was a junior, to see another player,” Wooden says. “I turned to a friend who was there, one of my closest friends from my church, and I said, ‘I believe he’s the smartest on the floor. He may grow. I’m going to watch him.’ Shortly after that, someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Coach Wooden, did you really mean what you said about that?’
“I said, ‘Yes, I did.’ It was his mother and father. Within a week, they were over with his transcript and whatnot.”
Goodrich’s father played basketball for USC, and even after the Trojans warmed up on Goodrich in his senior year in high school, he stayed committed to UCLA. You can see what a kind word at the right time is worth in this world.
Irony of ironies, this smoothest-meshing of units was composed of players who weren’t close off the floor, or even, according to their coach, particularly friendly.
“They were not close off the floor, but you’d never notice it on the floor,” Wooden says.
“It was a hodgepodge of people, really. The personalities were entirely different: outspoken, brash. Jack Hirsch would say all kinds of things that you’d think would really cause problems, like, ‘You’re the tightest guy I’ve ever known, you never spend a nickel.’ Or to a black player, ‘They moved out of the area because your people started moving in.’ ”
Hirsch was wealthy, already married, a fine player . . . and a full-time test.
“You know, he’s smart,” Wooden says. “Never a problem with his classes. It was just his nature.
“He was always abrasive--and he might be to me. Maybe one of the few I ever had as a player who’d call me John. Well, I never asked the players to call me Coach or Mr. Wooden, but he’s the only one who ever did.
“I had a time with him at the training table. One time, he made the statement, ‘I’m not going to eat this slop.’
“I said, ‘Get out.’
“He said, ‘I’m going to.’
“I said, ‘Well, get going. Get out and don’t come back.’
“He said, ‘Well, I can go have a steak.’
“I said, ‘I know Jack, you’ve got a lot of money. You can buy a nicer car than I can, you can live in a nicer home, you can have tailor-made suits. You can have a steak every day. The rest of us think this food’s pretty good, though.’
“Well, he left. About 10 days later, he came in my office. The door was wide open but he knocked--and that wasn’t normally his thing. If the door was closed, he’d normally just open the door and come in.
“He came in and said, ‘I’m sorry.’
“I said, ‘About what?’
“He said, ‘What do you want me to do? Go back in the hall, crawl down the hall on my hands and knees and come in and beg your forgiveness? You know what I want. I want to come back to the training table.’
“Now he’s serious. He’s upset. I can hardly keep from laughing, but I didn’t. He came back to the training table and there were no more problems. The players used to ask him, ‘How’s the food, Jack?’ ”
Further irony: the one strong intra-personal alliance on the starting five was between Hirsch, the rich kid from the suburbs, and Hazzard, who came from more modest means in the inner city of Philadelphia. It was a bond that lasted through their days as students and 20 years later, to their terms as coach and assistant at Compton Community College, Chapman College and UCLA.
“These players all went their own way,” Wooden says. “I don’t think there was friction, just because you don’t like each other. Many of them didn’t like each other. The two sophomores, I don’t think anyone didn’t like Kenny (Washington) or Doug (McIntosh). But I don’t think that was true of a single other member of the starting five.
“But they really played together well. It’s amazing. I’ve had teams that were very compatible off the floor and really all liked each other, that never played that well as a team.”
As sophomores, the Hazzard-Slaughter-Hirsch nucleus helped the Bruins go 18-11 and make the Final Four in Louisville, Ky., where they lost in the semifinals to Cincinnati, and in the third-place game to Wake Forest.
A season later, with Goodrich and Erickson, they went 20-9, but were beaten in the regionals by Joe Caldwell and Arizona State.
It was in that 1962-63 season that Wooden began full-court, full-time zone pressing, and everything else was soon to be history.
“I don’t know why I didn’t use it sooner at UCLA,” Wooden says. “I’ve always second-guessed myself a little for that, because I had had success at high school and at Indiana State. But somehow I felt, maybe, that I was up another notch and it wouldn’t work as well. I think I was wrong. I think it even works well in the pros.”
In those days, before players were weaned on pressure defense, the breakdowns the Bruins caused were fearsome to behold. Teams might go two minutes without getting the ball over the midcourt line, while UCLA ran a layup drill with their mistakes.
“I didn’t trap much on the press, really,” Wooden says. “All we’re trying to do is get the man with the ball to lob or bounce a pass forward, and then when a lob pass is thrown, we had a man make a play for it.
“Our players absolutely got to expecting that sometime we were going to get a run for 2-3 minutes at a time, when we’re going to outscore our opponent maybe eight to 12 points, something like that. It would happen in a real spurt. They’d make a couple mistakes, then they’d make a couple more.”
But once it was out in the open, couldn’t opponents figure out how to beat it?
“As a matter of fact, you’ll find an old issue of Sports Illustrated, in which they interviewed a lot of ‘name’ coaches about how to break the press,” Wooden says, laughing.
“I said after looking at the article, ‘Boy, this is good. Because they can’t agree on how to break it.’ ”
One thing everyone agreed on: Wooden’s runts were too small to worry about. Despite consecutive trips to the Final Four and the regionals, the team wasn’t ranked at all in several preseason top 20s.
The Bruins started 3-0, including a victory at Kansas State, which would make it to the Final Four. They were 6-0 when they played host to the Los Angeles Classic over the Christmas break and met mighty Michigan.
The Wolverines were led by Cazzie Russell, a 6-5 guard who was as big as any Bruin, plus a beefy front line of Bill Buntin, Oliver Darden and Larry Tregoning, the so-called “Anvil Chorus” in from the Big Ten. Russell spent the night watching the Bruins take the ball every time he dribbled it and Michigan fell with a shuddering crash, 98-80.
The Bruins were 26-0 after the reguar season, then survived close games over Seattle (95-90) and USF (76-72) in the regionals at Corvallis, Ore.
They got past Kansas State again in the semifinals, but this time they had to rally from a 75-70 deficit in the last seven minutes with an 11-0 run . . . which began just as the UCLA cheerleaders, whose flight was delayed, arrived in the gym brandishing their pompons.
Meanwhile, Duke polished off Michigan in the other semifinal, thought to be the unofficial championship. The Blue Devils had All-American Jeff Mullins plus an early twin-tower tandem, 6-10 Jay Buckley and 6-10 Hack Tison. Another future pro star, Jack Marin, came off the bench.
Wooden says he was never afraid; though in Kansas City, he managed to fake a healthy respect. Asked before that game how he looked at Duke, he said, “Up.”
Says Wooden: “Maybe people felt we were underdogs, but I didn’t.
“It was a Friday-Saturday tournament then and the headquarters was the Muehlebach Hotel. I was in the lobby of the Muehlebach Hotel the next morning, visiting with the other coaches. They were talking about the game that night, Duke and UCLA, and the general feeling would be, ‘Well, UCLA is a fine little team, it’s amazing they’ve won 29 games in a row. But Duke’s a fine big team.’
“You could just tell by the inflection, by the looks, by the knowing nods--'Fine little team, though, you’ve got to give them a lot of credit, but . . . ‘
“And then it’d be ‘ but ' " . . .
Do you get the impression that the always genteel Wooden did a slow burn that morning in the lobby of the Muehlebach?
It was Duke that was put to the torch that night. The first time UCLA put the press on, the well-drilled Blue Devils threw over the top, and Buckley shot an uncontested layup at the other end.
Mullins knocked in some jumpers in the open court after breaking the press. Duke flew out to an early lead.
And then the Bruins’ press claimed the Blue Devils, too. This time the panic lasted 2:33, in which Hirsch had two steals and blocked a shot as UCLA scored 16 consecutive points. Washington came off the bench and started throwing in jumpers out of the corner, one after another, finishing with a career-high 26 points. Goodrich went for 27. The Bruins led, 50-38, at halftime, by 19 in the second half and, 93-80, at the end.
Of course, no one in his right mind believed it.
A year later, the Bruins met Michigan in the final at Portland, the rematch Coach Dave Strack said he had been dying for, ever since the Christmas wipeout of the season before.
Michigan died, period. Goodrich went for 42 and the Bruins triumphed again.
After that, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar arrived and then Bill Walton, so if the Bruins were still gutty, they’d never be little again.
Nor would college basketball. The band plays on.