UCLA is back!
Making one of the great efforts in the glorious history of Bruin basketball and making non-believers eat their words, the irrepressible players of Coach Jim Harrick began their own championship era Monday night, returning to the top of the college basketball world, where they belong.
Dick Vitale picked Arkansas. Digger Phelps picked Arkansas. Eighteen of the 23 college basketball coaches polled by a Seattle newspaper picked Arkansas. The President of the United States called Arkansas “our team” and called UCLA “their team” and concluded his halftime television appearance with the words: “Keep your fingers crossed.” For the Razorbacks, he meant.
This night and this season belonged to the Flying O’Bannon Brothers and to Foreign Country Zidek and to Dollar-Five and to the Freshman Princes of Bel-Air and to the little guy who couldn’t be by their side, except to clap with one hand, Tyus Edney. Together they kicked the incumbents out of office, probably earning themselves a visit to the Rose Garden in the process.
What a going-away party this was for easy Ed O’Bannon, the king of the Kingdome. Never mind those 30 points or those 17 rebounds or those few gasps of breath he got, playing every minute against a relentless Arkansas team that ran a dozen different players at him. Eddie O won this game before the game.
Rallying his teammates in a hallway outside the Bruin locker room, huddling tightly and locking hands, O’Bannon sent them out there with a speech worthy not only of John Wooden, but of Knute Rockne.
Knowing full well that the guy who makes everything go, Edney, was going to try to play but probably couldn’t, O’Bannon nevertheless said: “This is our night! This is our game! I want you guys to go out there tonight and play like you’ve never played before. Don’t worry about a thing! This is just a pickup game! Now go out there and show them who we are.
“Now give me ‘Bruins’ on three!
“One, two, three!”
“BRUINS!” his teammates yelled.
And out they ran, into a bubble-top dome jammed with 38,540 people, to play a game of basketball in front of tens of millions of television viewers all over the globe, including Mr. Jiri Zidek of Prague, the Czech Republic, who wished he could have been here in person to see the final Americanization of his son.
George Zidek was “a mountain out there,” to use his coach’s words, in his final game for UCLA. The amiable 7-footer and academic turned in one of the most splendid performances of his life, occupying the paint beneath the basket as though he owned it, holding his ground against the strong young Hogs who kept straining against him. The Bruins outrebounded the Razorbacks by a whopping 50-31, as big a statistic as there was in this game.
And all around him, like a maypole, the other UCLA players were swinging and swaying. Toby Bailey went absolutely wild, establishing himself once and for all as a Star of Tomorrow. Visibly nervous at first, the basketball squirting through his fingers, Bailey began crashing through heavy traffic to the hoop, hovering high above it, tapping in missed shots and doing a reverse dunk that almost brought down the Kingdome ceiling tiles.
His fellow freshman J.R. Henderson couldn’t quite get his game in gear and knew it, once reporting for duty by banging his temples with his own fists, as though trying to wake himself up. On many other occasions Henderson had been there for the Bruins, so he can be excused if this night wasn’t his best. Be looking for many more big nights from J.R.
Relying on virtually six players in the biggest game of his life, Harrick was totally in command. He rotated his players in and out beautifully, giving them brief rests, even gambling boldly at one point by giving Dollar a much-deserved breather and going with Bailey, Henderson, Zidek and the O’Bannons, none of them smaller than 6 feet 5.
Peers and strangers alike left Seattle praising the UCLA coach. For both of his Final Four games here, matchup boxes in the morning newspaper gave the edge in coaching to Harrick’s opponent, first Eddie Sutton and then Nolan Richardson. He outcoached both of them. Jim Harrick outcoached everyone this season, and don’t you forget it.
And let us not let this moment pass without mentioning Lorenzo Romar, not only Harrick’s right-hand man but a future headliner of the profession himself. Romar, Mark Gottfried and Steve Lavin were the assistants that counseled Harrick through thick and thin, but only Romar had to do his job Monday night knowing that his father was in a nearby hospital, seriously ill after collapsing in the stands two days before.
One by one, the members of this team overcame whatever challenged it, hardship and adversity, disappointment and disrespect, opponents as diverse as Florida International and Kentucky, anything and everything.
John Wooden had 10 great teams.
Westwood now has 11.