Editor's note: I covered 21 NCAA Tournaments from center-court as a journalist for the Los Angeles Times. Over the next week or so I will unveil my top-10 coverage moments
The first national game title I covered involved UCLA celebrating another championship with John Wooden.
Wait a minute, you say, how old is this journo geezer?
Answer: not THAT old.
I was still in high school when Wooden claimed his 10th and final NCAA title in 1975.
A year before, UCLA’s run of seven straight titles had been rudely snapped in the national semifinals by North Carolina State.
Wooden made amends the next year by crowning his legendary career with a win over Kentucky in 1975.
History’s greatest college basketball coach had announced his retirement after beating Louisville in the national semis.
Wooden knew he made the right decision after beating Kentucky in the championship game. As he walked off the court in San Diego that night a fan screamed “Great job, coach, this makes up for last year.”
My first Final Four came 20 years later, 1995, when UCLA defeated Arkansas, 89-78, at Seattle’s Kingdome (May it Rest In Pieces).
Wooden took the Final Four out of his yearly spectator rotation after the 1985 death of his beloved wife, Nell, but he made an exception in this case.
“I told myself I wouldn’t come unless they got to the final,” Wooden said said of 1995.
The Wizard of Westwood (an alliterative moniker Wooden did not particularly like) watched UCLA defeat Arkansas and then quietly slipped out so as to not take attention from coach Jim Harrick’s shining moment.
I was one of a team of reporters assigned by the Los Angeles Times in the days when great newspapers, led by greater editors like Bill Dwyre, threw blanket coverage at big events with local teams involved.
This game served as a career prelude as the next year I would begin a 20-year run as National College Football/Basketball columnist.
But there was nothing, though, like the first time. I remember the buzz and churning of thick traffic surrounding the Kingdome before the game.
Tim Kawakami, our UCLA beat man at the time, was so nervous about the traffic holding him up he jumped out of the car at a red light and ran the rest of the way to the Dome.
At the point in the game when we knew UCLA was going to win, as per custom, we huddled to divvy up the post-game assignments.
I lobbied hard for back-up guard Cameron Dollar, forced into the game early when star point-man Tyus Edney was forced out with a wrist injury.
Edney was, and remains, the heart-and-soul of the 1995 Bruins. There would have been no title-appearance had Edney not gone baseline-to-baseline, in 4.8 seconds, to beat Missouri in the second round.
What people may forget is that Edney had virtually no role in the title-win over Arkansas, leaving the game with 17:23 left in the first half with a wrist injury suffered in the semifinals against Oklahoma State.
Nolan Richardson’s Arkansas team, the defending national champions, must have licked its chops when Dollar subbed in for Edney.
“Maybe they thought that,” Dollar said. “Their All-American guard goes out. If I was on the other team it would make me more confident.:
No way Dollar was going to withstand Richardson’s “40 Minutes of Hell” pressure. Right?
Dollar turned the ball over the first time he touched it and then almost had to leave the game early with leg cramps.
Dollar pushed on through the pain, though, remembering an adage burned into his basketball brain, "The time will come when winter asks you what you've been doing all summer." He held steady at the point in 36 minutes of play under intense pressure, finishing with six points four steals and only three turnovers.
After the game, Dollar sat at his locker in sweat-soaked exhaustion.
His contributions to UCLA’s 11th, and last, NCAA title, are mostly forgotten except by teammates and history’s eye witnesses.
“When opportunity knocks, you’d better be able to answer,” Dollar said all those years ago. “Thank God I was able to answer.”
Where are they now? Dollar is back in Seattle, of all favorite places, serving as an assistant coach for the Washington Huskies.