The biggest basketball spectacular in southern California history was staged beneath the Mediterranean-blue dome of the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena last Friday and Saturday nights, and if some of the production was predictably routine—the 22,000 screaming extras, the 50 musicians, the prop men with air horns and the bouncy, blonde cheerleaders—the casting of the handsome son of a Russian strawberry farmer as leading man was Hollywood inspiration at its dizziest.
On the successive nights, John Rudometkin, 6-foot 6-inch junior center from the University of Southern California, improvised new tricks and treats when his old ones wouldn't work and thoroughly frustrated a fine UCLA defense. Rudo the Russian shot right-or left-handed, with three men guarding him or none, from 30 feet or 30 inches, and showed why he is the best basketball player in the West. Still, Hollywood insisted on the happy ending for everybody. When Rudometkin was done, his team had only earned a split in the bitter basketball rivalry between USC and UCLA. USC won the first game 78-63, UCLA won the second 86-83. Which team is the Coast's best won't be decided until their final game on March 3. Both deserve ranking among the country's top 10. Either will go a long way as the Big Five representative in the NCAA national campionships.
It is a vagary of southern California basketball that the place to find a team and its coach before a game is in the shade of the palm and eucalyptus trees that surround the swimming pool of some posh hotel. This was a home game for USC, but Forrest Twogood still had his team in the Chapman Park, a Wilshire Boulevard hotel, where they were living what passes in the region for the monastic life. And it was at poolside Friday that he was saying, "I've never had a better team than this, and never a better player than Rudometkin. We have good quick shooters and a fast offense that can take care of itself." Lean, nervous, with clear blue eyes and light hair that grows as fitfully as an unfertilized corn crop, Twogood was once a left-handed pitcher for the Toledo Mud Hens of the old American Association. So it was his left hand that he waved before placing it on his stomach as if soothing a pain. "It's my defense that is really worrying me," he admitted. "These will be brutal, banging games under the backboards. We must stop their forwards by guarding them closely. This leaves only Rudometkin to guard that garbage man of theirs, John Berberich. He's 6 feet 8 and he picks up all the loose balls and stuffs them in the can. He's so strong that he almost sank an Air Force cadet who was hanging on his arm last week. Rudo's defense isn't the best, and I'm afraid that could kill us."
Twogood gazed at the sunlight reflecting off the pool, and mused about other facts of Los Angeles basketball life. "These UCLA and USC fans aren't coming to see games this weekend. They want to see vicious body contact. They're hoping for a fight, a bloody one. [The last time the teams met, the game ended in a riot up-court.] Still, the biggest problems for a California coach," he said, "are the pools, the beaches, the convertibles and the pretty girls. Some of our kids come from small towns and they see all this and it gets pretty hard to keep their minds on basketball. Of course, I'm not going to knock biology. You've got to live with it."
In his hotel room Rudometkin was curtly hanging up on a girl who had called and asked for tickets. "Just one of Rudo's many," a teammate kidded. A gracious and friendly farm boy, Rudo was raised in the coastal village of Santa Maria by his Russian parents, who emigrated first to Mexico and then to the United States. Deeply religious and reserved, they still speak little but Russian in their home. "They weren't really Americanized when I started playing basketball," says Rudo. "Dad thought it was a waste of time. Now they are wild fans. They see every game, so do my relatives. I've got 25 coming this weekend. That's why I'm out of tickets."
The scene was similar at the Bel Air Sands Hotel, where John Wooden was going over final strategy with his UCLA team. Wooden, a shy, primmish man, is as different from Forrest Twogood as Bernard Baruch is from Leo Durocher. He has a master's degree in English, holds a high school principal's certificate, is a church deacon, neither drinks nor swears. His most violent epithet: "Goodness gracious sakes alive." "Of course," he concedes, "I have told referees that I couldn't tell their tops from their bottoms, which is almost as bad as swearing." He schedules his practice drills to the minute, has records to show what drills he ran 20 years ago. He instills a sense of discipline and dedication in his players and, as Twogood does, he accents a tough defense.
"We must neutralize Rudometkin," he told his players. "We'll play two of their men loosely in order to keep three men near Rudometkin. He must not get the ball." Aside from that, Wooden's main worry was rebounds. If his team wasn't getting them, he said, "I might chide them rather severely at half time."
On Friday night UCLA was the home team, but the crowd of 13,300, a record for a Big Five game, seemed evenly divided between the two Los Angeles schools. The public-address announcer appealed for sportsmanship and asked that there be quiet while players were shooting fouls. He might as well have asked Marilyn Monroe to walk without a wiggle.
After the tip-off a strange combination of events occurred. Wood-en's defense was containing Rudometkin amazingly well, but the USC defense wasn't giving UCLA anything but the toughest of shots, and USC controlled the backboards. As a result, by half time, Rudometkin had only one basket, but USC had eight more rebounds than UCLA and led 35-31. "Goodness gracious sakes alive," Wooden was heard exclaiming.
Early in the second half UCLA's John Berberich drew his fourth personal foul while guarding Rudometkin, and had to be more careful. Rudo seized the chance to originate his own ballet beneath the basket. Twisting and whirling for seven goals, he finished with 27 points, and USC won easily.
Saturday night, before 8,000 and a live-television audience, Forrest Twogood brought USC back to the Arena for the clincher, only to have his worst fears realized. Rudometkin was even better offensively, but UCLA, shooting its best of the season, took advantage of every defensive lapse, and led at half time 54-45. Rudometkin kept USC in the game, scoring 37 points (an Arena record) before fouling out with two and a half minutes left. In another 90 seconds the rest of USC's starting lineup also fouled out, and the best the second string could do was come within one point. At the final gun the air horns blasted, the cheerleaders jiggled, and Old Pitcher Forrest Twogood walked slowly over to congratulate John Wooden. Two-good still had a one-game lead over UCLA in the Big Five standings, and he had the leading man for spectaculars to come, but he wasn't pleased. His hand was on his stomach; his left hand.