A Grand Opening : Pauley Pavilion and UCLA’s Best Freshman Team Made Their Debuts Together 25 Years Ago
Twenty-five years ago tonight, UCLA’s two-time defending national champion and top-ranked basketball team played its first game in Pauley Pavilion . . .
And was blown out, 75-60.
It was bad enough for the losers that the winners ran off the court in front of 12,051 with their index fingers raised, chanting in unison on their way to the locker room, “We’re No. 1! We’re No. 1!”
It was worse knowing that the winners wouldn’t leave. They would be around all season to remind the losers of what transpired that night.
The Bruin varsity, winner of 58 of 60 games in the preceding two seasons, was overpowered by UCLA’s freshman team.
In the West Coast debut of freshman Lew Alcindor, a 7-foot-1 center from New York City who would later change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Coach John Wooden’s varsity was simply overmatched.
Alcindor scored 31 points and grabbed 21 rebounds in a performance that was not totally unexpected.
“Not at all,” Wooden said.
Wrote Mal Florence of The Times on the morning of the game: “Two structures will be unveiled tonight on the Westwood campus--one more enduring, but both awe-inspiring.”
Alcindor’s presence in the lane repeatedly daunted the varsity, which made only 35% of its shots. And the varsity’s full-court press, so instrumental in bringing NCAA championships to Westwood in the previous two seasons, was rendered ineffective by the towering Alcindor.
His teammates merely passed the ball to him and he relayed it to guards cutting up the floor on either side.
The rookies’ lead at halftime was only 36-31, but they opened the second half with a 10-0 run and continued to pull away.
Abdul-Jabbar later said that an assistant coach, Jay Carty, told the freshmen before the game that they would win by 15 points.
“That was an easy game for us,” Abdul-Jabbar said.
So easy, in fact, that winning Coach Gary Cunningham actually cleared his bench with 1:40 left and the freshmen leading, 62-44.
He wanted to hide.
“I remember after the game, I felt really badly,” said Cunningham, a former Bruin player who had defeated his mentor, Wooden, in his first college coaching assignment. “It was a night for Coach Wooden. A lot of his former players were there and they formed a human tunnel for him to walk through (in a pregame ceremony). It was the dedication of Pauley Pavilion and then . . .
“We took something away from his night. After the game, there was a reception in the student union and it was just kind of a downer for me to go up there. I was very embarrassed.”
But Cunningham had no reason to feel chagrined, Wooden said.
“You never feel like you’re losing an intrasquad game,” Wooden said. “The public might, but you’re looking at the overall picture. I would have been more disappointed if the varsity had (badly defeated) that group. If the varsity could run away from (a team with Alcindor), I could see he wasn’t going to be as good as I thought.
“But when you saw (what happened), you said, ‘Ah, the freshman. He looks pretty good.’ ”
Even at that age, Wooden said, Alcindor was so dominant that, had he and the other freshmen been eligible to play for the varsity, UCLA probably would have won a third consecutive NCAA championship that season.
“I definitely think so,” Wooden said. “He’s the one who I think very definitely could have brought the championship to us.”
Wooden believed that, even without Alcindor, the Bruins had a good chance to repeat as champions in the 1965-66 season. UCLA had three starters back from the previous season, along with key reserve Kenny Washington.
Injury and illness, however, hampered the Bruins and their 18-8 record was the worst in Wooden’s last 12 seasons. They finished second to Oregon State in the Pacific 8 Conference and failed to reach the NCAA tournament, which at that time was limited to conference champions.
“What I thought would probably be an outstanding year turned out to be not a bad year, but not nearly as outstanding,” Wooden said. “There were people who felt that because the freshmen won that game, it hurt the varsity for the rest of the season. It had nothing to do with it.”
The freshmen cruised through their schedule with a 21-0 record, crushing junior college and other freshman teams by an average of almost 57 points in preliminary games that brought crowds out early to the Bruins’ new arena.
They beat MiraCosta College of Oceanside by 103 points; they won by 28 points each over Fullerton College and the USC freshmen in their two closest games.
Wooden had recruited a group that would complement Alcindor:
--At one forward was 6-5 Lynn Shackelford from Burroughs High in Burbank who had a distinctive, high-arching jump shot.
“I knew he could shoot out of the corner, and I knew that would take some of the pressure off of Alcindor under the deep post, where we would be playing him,” Wooden said. “But without Alcindor, Shackelford wouldn’t have been that fine a player. In a sense, Alcindor helped make him.
“I would say there might have been better all-around players in the L.A. area, but no one that I felt would complement Lewis as well as he would at that wing position. He was left-handed and I envisioned playing Lewis primarily in the deep post on that (left) side of the basket.”
--The other forward was Kenny Heitz, a 6-3 defensive specialist who was a center at Righetti High in Santa Maria. An A-student in high school, Heitz caught Wooden’s eye with his quickness and intelligence.
“With Alcindor in there, we could go with a player of Heitz’s size on the other side,” Wooden said. “If you don’t have the dominant Alcindor in there, it would be tough to play with 6-5 and 6-3 forwards--one of whom, Shackelford, was not a good rebounder.”
--In the backcourt, Lucius Allen of Kansas City, Kan., was the most highly touted of the group, other than Alcindor.
“He had physical qualifications to be as good a guard as we ever had,” Wooden said.
The fifth starter on the freshman team was Kent Taylor, a 6-2 walk-on from Texas who later transferred to Houston.
Alcindor, Shackelford, Heitz and Allen all moved into the starting lineup as sophomores, leading UCLA to the first of three consecutive national championships. With Alcindor and Shackelford remaining in the starting lineup for all three seasons, UCLA lost only twice in 90 games, winning championships in 1967, ’68 and ’69. Its victories in the championship games those seasons were by 15, 23 and 20 points.
On that November night in 1965, Allen had 16 points and eight assists and hounded sophomore Mike Warren into two-for-14 shooting. Shackelford had 12 points and seven rebounds, and Heitz had four points and seven rebounds.
Taylor scored 10 points.
Junior forward Mike Lynn led the varsity with 12 points and 12 rebounds, but made only five of 14 shots.
And against Alcindor, the varsity’s front line of Lynn, Edgar Lacey and center Doug McIntosh made 12 of 36 shots.
Alcindor made 13 of 22.
“What do I remember?” Warren said recently. “Getting our butts kicked and wondering if our regular-season opponents would be any tougher than they were. It was like having a younger brother and one day he kicks your butt.
“If they’d had Kareem by himself, they wouldn’t have defeated us, but they also had Lucius and they had Heitz and they had Shack. They were all great players in their own right, and we just didn’t have enough ammunition.
“I remember going into the locker room (afterward) and not really knowing what to think. It was my first experience up on the varsity. I’d been a freshman (the year before) and we’d gotten killed by the varsity, so it was a very strange feeling to lose.
“I remember sitting there with head bowed, not knowing where to look and, all of a sudden, what sounded like 2,000 feet came running past our locker room yelling, ‘We’re No. 1! We’re No. 1!’
“It was the frosh.”
That subject was never again broached, Warren said.
“They knew they were better,” he said. “There was not much argument. It was not a situation where we could play three out of five or four out of seven. It would have ended up the same way.
“They were just better. Now, without Kareem, we would have killed them. And without the supporting players, we would have beaten him. But, collectively, they were just awesome.”
They made that clear on opening night at Pauley Pavilion.