The final week of the year is traditionally a time of wine, roses and football hoopla in southern California. But last week the 50,000 fans who rooted and roared at the four-day Los Angeles Basketball Classic could well have argued that the most exciting sports spectacular in their town this holiday season took place on a basketball floor instead of a gridiron, and roses be damned.
Rarely, if ever, has a college basketball tournament had such an impressive field. Of the eight teams playing, five were among the country's best: Ohio State, Southern California, Utah, West Virginia and Purdue. These teams had lost a total of only four games this season, while winning 33. What's more, the four top college centers, Jerry Lucas, Billy McGill, John Rudometkin and Terry Dischinger were on hand to do violent and personal battle with each other. A violent battle it was, too, and by the time Ohio State had overpowered Southern California 76-66 to win the championship Saturday night, even envious opposing coaches were agreed that two things were clear: in Lucas Ohio State has a player in a class by himself; and thanks to its frantic and terrifying defense, the Ohio State team also is almost in a class by itself.
In spite of the summery temperatures that greeted their arrival on Tuesday, none of the visiting coaches were overjoyed to be in Los Angeles. The competition was obviously going to be hotter than the weather. "A man could lose two games here before he knew what hit him," said George King, coach of West Virginia. Forty-eight hours later West Virginia had lost two games.
Even tall and tense Fred Taylor, the Ohio State coach, was thinking of a lot of places he would rather have his team. "By golly," he said, as he wandered fitfully around his hotel room in a pair of parsley-green pajamas the midnight before his opening game against Washington, "we don't know enough about them, and I don't like it."
Lucas was feeling more confident. He was amused to read for the nth time that his knees hurt so badly he couldn't play. He also read that the tournament record for rebounds was 25 in one game, and he made plans to change that. Somebody said that he had taken everything but the paint off the backboards in a recent game at Wake Forest. "Maybe I'll get the paint here," he said.
Wednesday morning the Ohio State team visited a movie studio. Wednesday night it played as if it had stars in its eyes, making a horrid 13 errors on offense against Washington. Few teams could have survived this, but the Ohio State defense, led by tigerish John Havlicek, worked so hard that it repeatedly got the ball back before Washington could score. One phase of this defense is called "The Rat," a full-court pressing maneuver that gives the harassed rival player with the ball about as much chance as a steak in a wolf pack. The Buckeyes used The Rat to advantage and won 59-49.
But Fred Taylor wore his anti-movie-studio look after the game. At heart he doesn't like such distracting things as tours. "We set basketball back 30 years," he said. "We kept fiddling around on offense and bouncing the ball on the floor." It is a Taylor axiom that you should run on a basketball floor, not bounce a ball on it. Pass. Don't dribble.
Chastised, Ohio State came back the next night to crush UCLA 105-84. Lucas made it a one-man show. Tearing the ball off the backboards as if he were ripping down walls, he got 30 rebounds, equaling his own career high. That was more than the entire UCLA team could get. He made eight of eight free throws and 11 of 13 shots. Only four of his shots came following passes from teammates. He chose instead to set them up with return passes virtually every time they threw him the ball. Lucas received a standing ovation as he left the game. Minutes later, UCLA's John Wooden, a coach for 15 years, appeared in the Ohio State dressing room and introduced himself to Lucas. "I want to tell you that you are the most unselfish athlete I have ever seen," he said. "Our team played its very finest," he continued as he walked away, "but Lucas was magnificent. It was a pleasure to lose to such a man. I have never said such a thing before. I never expect to again."
Someone more immediately concerned with Lucas was Forrest Twogood, coach of the USC team that was now to face Ohio State in the finals. Twogood was as dazed as Wooden. "The greatest performance I ever saw," he said. "Most star players always want the ball, but Lucas is like a man who gets drunk without drinking; he scores 30 points without getting the ball. We'll all have better teams for having seen him play."
USC's trip to the finals had been more testing than Ohio State's. Like Ohio State, the Trojans are strong at center, where their wondrous Russian, Rudometkin, pirouettes his way to seemingly impossible baskets. They also have a strong defense led by Ken Stanley, an intensely competitive counterpart to OSU's Havlicek, and an outstanding guard, Chris Appel, who drives for the basket like a lion charging through a forest. This combination brought USC victories over Purdue and Utah.
The final game figured to be a stunning defensive battle, and if Ohio State's offense stuttered, as it occasionally does, USC had a chance. Twogood knew his team couldn't stop Lucas, but he hoped Lucas wouldn't shoot much. He had reason to hope. Lucas averages only 12 shots a game, compared, say, to Mc-Gill's 25. ("Do you wish Lucas would shoot more?" a local reporter naively asked Fred Taylor. "Is Los Angeles big?" answered Taylor.) If Lucas didn't score excessively, perhaps the good USC defense could stop the rest of the team, as Cincinnati did last year in giving Ohio State its only loss in 42 games.
Five minutes after the final game began in the beautiful and packed Los Angeles sports arena it was obvious that Twogood's fond hope was merely a dream. This was the night that Lucas decided to shoot. In a five-minute stretch early in the game he gently arched in five consecutive shots from more than 15 feet out. Then he moved in for a hook and three straight layups, giving Ohio State a 14-point lead. USC's Appel cut beautifully through the Buckeyes, and Rudometkin twirled his level best, but the closest the Trojans could get was two points. Though the rest of Ohio State's offense did have trouble against USC, its defense was as grudging as ever, and Lucas' 38 points carried the team to victory. In taking 26 shots Lucas equaled his all-time high as a college player. He had shot often enough to win a classic classic. When 38 sports-writers cast their ballots for the tournament's most valuable player, every vote was for Lucas.
The win left Ohio State one of only four major undefeated teams in the country, but that same Saturday night, a continent away, Cincinnati, the national champion, was winning another holiday tournament in most impressive fashion in New York. It was beginning to look like the NCAA championship would have the same finalists as a year ago. Basketball fans would trade all the roses in California to see that match.