His USC team stood around and waited to beat UCLA
Mack Calvin says he never felt so silly on a basketball court.
The game as he had always known it was a hodgepodge of ceaseless motion, neither the players nor the ball stopping in one place for long. But there he stood near midcourt, the ball cradled in his arms and his feet virtually cemented to the floor.
Forty years ago next month, Calvin and his USC teammates played a gripping game of keep-away against top-ranked UCLA and its All-American center, Lew Alcindor.
Two nights in a row, they brilliantly executed a slowdown strategy conceived by Coach Bob Boyd and pulled off the upset of the 1968-69 season -- and almost did it twice.
In an era of college basketball that predated the shot clock, which would have required them to attack, the Trojans virtually sat on the ball for long stretches of a 61-55 double-overtime UCLA victory on a Friday evening at the Sports Arena and a 46-44 USC victory the next night at Pauley Pavilion.
With UCLA sitting back in a zone defense, the 6-foot Calvin and his teammates dictated the action . . . by taking no action.
“It was an uncomfortable feeling,” Calvin admits. “It really felt pretty strange, but it worked. We made history.”
Even shot-clock advocate and UCLA Coach John Wooden had to applaud the Trojans, telling reporters afterward, “I was surprised they could execute the stall as well as they did.”
Though he was no fan of the clock-milking strategy employed by the Trojans, Wooden said recently, “I certainly understood the reason for using it against us. I didn’t think it was good for the game, but I think I would have done the same thing if the shoe were on the other foot. It was a good strategy on Bob’s part.”
In March 1969, the UCLA basketball dynasty was in full flower. After their Friday night victory over USC, the Bruins had won 41 consecutive games since losing to Houston in the famous Astrodome game 14 months earlier. A perfect 25-0 to start the season, they’d won 45 in a row in Pacific 8 Conference play and 17 in a row against USC. They were 51-0 in Pauley Pavilion.
Calvin, later a five-time American Basketball Assn. All-Star and a short-time Laker, says the thrill of defeating Alcindor and the Bruins in his final college game was never topped.
“It was the single greatest thing that happened to me in basketball,” says Calvin, a Long Beach-based real estate developer who played 11 pro seasons and later coached the Clippers for two games. “I’ve always been a positive guy, but I never thought we could beat those guys. And from a psychological standpoint, we were really down after that Friday night game.”
With seconds left in overtime, USC seemingly had the Friday game won before UCLA’s Lynn Shackelford converted a long, last-second jumper, tying the score. UCLA pulled away in the second overtime, dropping USC’s record to 14-11.
Calvin, 61, recalls an agonizing late-night bus ride back to the Wilshire Hotel, where the Trojans gathered for a postgame meal. The silence was so pervasive and the disappointment so acute, he says, “you could almost hear a rat licking ice.
“No one said a word.”
Earlier, he says, the Trojans had all been crying, believing they had squandered their one realistic chance at an upset.
So when Boyd told his dispirited troops, “Guys, we’re going to beat them tomorrow,” Calvin was more than skeptical.
“I thought he was drunk,” Calvin says, laughing. “I said, ‘This guy is whacked.’ There was no way in hell we were going to beat them at their place after what we’d been through.”
Says Boyd, “I had to say something.”
Before the rematch in Pauley Pavilion, which had opened its doors only four years earlier, UCLA fans unfurled a banner proclaiming, “Stalls are for Horses.”
Undeterred, the Trojans mimicked their Friday night plan. In a tense, dramatic game that was almost a carbon copy of the previous night’s nail-biter, they attempted only 20 shots but made 12, going eight for nine in the second half. Alcindor was limited to only four shots, made three and scored 10 points.
And when Ernie Powell made the game-winning shot from the right side with six seconds to play, the arena fell silent -- except for the ensuing party in the visitors’ locker room.
Roared Boyd, whose teams had been 0-7 against the Bruins, “They’re damned lucky we didn’t beat them twice.”
While UCLA went on to claim its third consecutive NCAA championship and fifth in six years, wrapping up the Alcindor era with an 88-2 record, USC ended its disappointing season on a high note -- and with a memory to last a lifetime.
Calvin says he and his teammates were later ribbed about their strategy, but they weren’t about to apologize.
“It was a very unorthodox way to play and, depending on which side of the table you sit, some would say it was a chicken way to play,” Boyd says. “But I think a coach is responsible for devising a plan that, if executed, could win the game.”
Which is what he did, of course.
Says Calvin, noting the bottom line, “We took the greatest player in the history of the NCAA out of the game and beat probably one of the top five teams in the history of college basketball.”
And almost did it twice.