A blue streak: When UCLA won 88 consecutive games


Dwight Clay stood alone in the right corner, the Notre Dame guard waving feverishly for the basketball.

A day earlier it had been quiet in the near-empty Athletic & Convocation Center when Notre Dame’s brash young coach, Digger Phelps, surprised his players by bringing ladders onto the court to practice cutting down the nets.

Now a wildly partisan crowd was on its feet in the sold-out arena on the Notre Dame campus. The Irish, in the midst of a frantic rally, had scored 10 consecutive points to pull to within a point of the seemingly invincible UCLA Bruins — the seven-time defending national champion UCLA Bruins — with less than a minute to play.

Notre Dame was close to turning make-believe into reality.

Teammate Gary Brokaw finally spotted Clay in the corner and passed him the ball. And Clay, hesitating not a bit, even though he had the poorest shooting percentage among the Notre Dame regulars, lofted it, his arching shot eventually settling into the net and deflating the Bruins’ mystique.

The Bruins still had 29 seconds to reverse their fortune on that winter day in 1974, but nearly half a dozen shots and tips fell harmlessly away. John Shumate at last pulled down a rebound for Notre Dame, ensuring a 71-70 Irish victory.

UCLA’s record 88-game winning streak was over.

But the final half-minute of the streak, in which the fates seemed to conspire against the Bruins, only served to underscore the magnificence of UCLA’s run: For nearly three years, encompassing parts of four seasons, the Bruins did not lose a game, its unfathomable winning streak under coach John Wooden remaining to this day one of the most enduring and mythical achievements in team sports history.

It began with a victory over UC Santa Barbara after Notre Dame’s Austin Carr had scored 46 points in an 89-82 victory over the Bruins on Jan. 23, 1971. And it lasted long enough that none of the UCLA players who started it were around at the end, when Clay’s shot capped an Irish rally from 17 points down on Jan. 19, 1974.

“It’s the continuation thing that makes you proud,” Wooden said. “It’s not something one team could do all by itself.”

Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe gave way to the younger Bill Walton and Keith Wilkes as UCLA’s linchpins and the winning continued, resulting in perhaps the most sanguine stretch in a 12-year run of Bruins excellence.

Steve Gietschier, senior managing editor for research at the Sporting News, later called it “probably the greatest team streak of all time.”

For Walton, however, the streak is not fondly recalled, serving instead as a reminder of what might have been. In his opinion, the streak should not have ended under his watch, instead continuing right through his final game.

“It should have been 105,” said the 6-foot-11 redhead, the dominant college player of his era and a senior when the streak ended. “The sad, disappointing thing is that the year we lost was the year that we had the best team. We had the most talent, the most experience. We had the most maturity, and put that ‘maturity’ in italics or quotes, please.

“But I stopped listening to the coach. I stopped my dedication to the team goals that made us undefeated champions the previous two years and I let John Wooden, UCLA, the NCAA and the game of basketball down. I didn’t get the job done. We had a chance to do something really special at UCLA. It’s my fault we didn’t.”

UCLA would lose three more times in the 1973-74 season, the most disappointing defeat inflicted by North Carolina State in double-overtime in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament, ending UCLA’s quest for an eighth consecutive national title.

But before their midseason trip to play Notre Dame at South Bend, Ind., the Bruins had pieced together something special.

Their streak, which bettered by 28 games San Francisco’s previous major college record, included 12 NCAA tournament games. Victories No. 15, 45 and 75 were scored in national championship games.

They won their last 15 games in the 1970-71 season, ran the table at 30-0 the next two seasons after the so-called “Walton Gang” arrived, and won their first 13 games in the 1973-74 season.

So dominant were the Bruins that Marvin Barnes of Providence said at the time, “You beat those guys and you’ve beaten history, an institution and the gods.

“You’re famous for life.”

Clay could attest to that.

The Bruins’ average margin of victory during the streak was a staggering 23.5 points. In the 1971-72 season, it was a record 30.3. When they won the national championship game in 1972 by only five points over Florida State, Walton told reporters afterward, “I felt like we lost it.”

Six of the streak’s first 13 games were decided by four points or fewer, four by two points or fewer. But only one of the next 75 was that close, a 65-64 victory over Maryland that ran the streak to 77 on Dec. 1, 1973, at Pauley Pavilion.

“Let’s just say not a lot of time in practice was dedicated to last-second out-of-bounds plays,” said Greg Lee, a guard who was part of the class that included Walton and Wilkes.

As the streak unfolded, Wooden never mentioned it.

“Not once, which is one of the testimonies to his greatness,” said Lee, adding that the Bruins’ players were unaware of the streak until they were on the verge of eclipsing USF’s record in January 1973. “Coach Wooden created an atmosphere where pressure was not the issue. No one was mentioning numbers.”

When UCLA surpassed USF’s mark with an 82-63 victory over Notre Dame, Lee said the record wouldn’t last long because the Bruins would break their record the following week. For another year, they continued breaking it.

Walton, asked by reporters after the record-breaking 61st consecutive victory if he’d remember it forever, said prophetically that the only game that would stick in his mind would be the one that UCLA lost.

“Jan. 19, 1974,” he would say more than three decades later. “We had a massive lead with just moments to play. This was an era that predated the shot clock; it predated the three-point shot. Coach Wooden told us every day, ‘Don’t beat yourself. It’s the worst kind of defeat you’ll ever suffer.’

“We thought that was even sillier than, ‘Be quick but don’t hurry,’ or, ‘Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.’ Little did we realize that we were the silly ones. Everything he told us ultimately came true. Sadly, I learned too slowly and too late that it all made perfect sense and I’d like to tell Coach Wooden that I’m sorry.”

Notre Dame’s Clay, of course, has fonder memories.

“My 15 minutes of fame,” he said, “has lasted 30 years.”