Los Angeles, that bizarre city where slacks are sky-blue sharkskin and the air is gray flannel, is perpetually surprising. The weather gets so dry that 450 plush homes burn in brush fires. Then it gets so wet that mud slides hit the homes the fire missed. Dress is a casual matter; it has become necessary to put signs on escalators warning people with bare feet to stay off. Money is taken casually, too. A basketball coach who once let an avid fan sit on the team bench through a game was promptly offered a new house by the appreciative rooter. "Thank you, but no," said the coach. Whereupon the man signed his name to a blank check, handed it to the coach, said, "You fill in the amount," and left. (The coach, an unreconstructed Easterner in spite of several years in the Land of Oz, tore up the check.)
But even considering the locale, it seemed beyond suspecting that UCLA, a good bet for a poor fourth in the Big Five, could become a team capable of crushing all its classy western opposition.
Early in the season the Bruins did not look tough enough to mash a mango. By the first of January they had lost seven games, and won only four. Little Creighton had beaten them, and an ordinary Brigham Young team did it twice. The Bruins had no height, no center, no muscle, no poise, no experience, no substitutes and no chance. Since then the same team has won 12 of 14, taken a conference championship and become a strong West Coast representative in the NCAA tournament at Provo this week. "You might say," observes UCLA Coach John Wooden, "that I am pleasantly surprised." Everybody else is dumfounded.
Back in December teetotaling John Wooden was standing around at a Los Angeles cocktail party while the press was eagerly interviewing representatives of such national powers as West Virginia, Purdue, USC and Ohio State. When someone did happen to ask Wooden what he thought of his team he said, with hardly a trace of a smile, "We're a running club, you know. Of course we don't always bring the ball with us when we run. Yes. I have a guard who is an excellent passer. He may not throw the ball where someone can catch it, but he throws it beautifully." Wooden is a native of Indiana with a sense of humor as dry as straw in a barn. He is a licensed high school principal, holder of a Master's Degree in English, abstainer from the use of the slightest profanity and a church deacon. He is also an excellent and observant basketball coach. "We're not actually as bad as we look," he said quietly a couple of times. Nobody listened to that.
No wonder. At one forward UCLA had Gary Cunningham. Just over 6 feet 5 and just under 190 pounds, Cunningham is frail as corn silk at his best and at that time he was recovering from preseason flu. He had a fine jump shot, but he also had a lot of trouble getting clear to take it. He seemed so light that when he charged in for a rebound, somebody had to rebound Cunningham.
At the other forward was Pete Blackman, an intelligent, peace-loving English major who made Cunningham seem like a broad-shouldered tiger. Blackman weighs a mere 180, stands 6 foot 5, is aptly nicknamed Spider and writes poetry. He started the season with a three-page epic in a Camelot mood on how Sir Spider and his friends would beat the freshmen. After UCLA was thrashed at Houston he composed an ode on why it is hard to be a visiting team using Negro players in the Southwest. He noted he had a tough time, and it was only his name that was "half-Black." This effort ended up with Blackman exulting, in masterful meter, over the Mexican victory at the Alamo. Blackman's verse was strong, but his play was not.
At center was a sophomore, Fred Slaughter, who at 6 feet 5 was a midget for the position and an overweight, underenthusiastic midget at that. He should have started the season weighing 220. Instead he weighed 250. Playing one guard was Walt Hazzard, a sophomore who made the UCLA team go, on those rare occasions that it went. Willie Naulls, an NBA star who had played at UCLA, saw Hazzard in a Philadelphia high school game and told him he would be perfect at leading Wooden's fast break. Hazzard wrote to Wooden, who had never heard of him. Wooden wrote back, trying to discourage Hazzard. Nothing has ever discouraged Walt Hazzard. He talked his way to UCLA.
A pass in the stomach
Hazzard can, has and still does dribble the ball behind his back or between his legs. He shoots passes through holes where you couldn't throw a golf ball. The trouble in those first weeks was that nobody else believed what he could do. He would drive down the floor and jump as if to shoot. "Showboat," the fans would mutter. "Showboat," his teammates would sniff, hands at sides. And wham! A sizzling pass would hit one of them in the stomach and bounce out of bounds. He hadn't shot after all. "Hazzard takes some getting used to," says Wooden. "The boys had never seen anything quite like him." But the boys began to like what they saw. They called him "East Coast." He, along with Slaughter, was the sympathetic subject of Blackmail's Texas verse. At a training table meal one night Blackman announced he was studying Africa so he could learn about Hazzard's background. "Coach," called out Hazzard, "I think we've got a candidate for Little Rock here." The laughter was rich and real.
The other guard was John Green, an extravert who relishes crashing through opponents or leaping high in the air to shoot over their heads. A prolific scorer and shooter, he too was having trouble adjusting to Hazzard's play. "The Mouth," his teammates have called the effervescent Green, and he doesn't mind at all. "He is somewhat of an enigma to the coach," said Wooden recently, lapsing into the third person. "Watch the warmup drill before practice. John will be out there trying to bounce the ball into the basket. I tell him I don't really think he's going to need that shot. He'll laugh, and the next time you look he is doing something sillier. He takes a lot of shots in games. You'd think the boys might mind, but they don't."
"Coach," said Blackman the other day in a stage whisper Green could easily hear. "From nose to chin Green is the best bowler in school, but could you find me somebody who might talk less and bowl better?" Clearly, the Mouth was liked, from nose to chin and then some.
That was UCLA's starting team. Now add John Wooden. Wooden, 53 and an honor graduate of Purdue, is an extraordinary coach. He has the reputation of getting more out of his players than is in them, and in a sport where the hard-driving coach is often the most successful, Wooden's lower-key approach is rare. He coaches, not surprisingly, like a sedate school principal. He can be found each morning in his small UCLA office referring to records that show exactly what he did in practices on that same date in past years. Using this curriculum as a guide, he sets the day's practice routine. Around him, the office walls are covered with poems, epigrams, pictures of his grandchildren and a large chart of his own devising called "The Pyramid of Success."
No talk of winning
"It is what you learn after you know it all that counts," says one sign.
A poem goes:
A careful man I want to be.
A little fellow follows me.
I do not dare to go astray
For fear he'll go the self-same way.
Wooden is careful in that sense. He has, for example, never mentioned winning to his players. "I sometimes tell them before a game," he says, "that regardless of the score we are going to walk out of the dressing room with our heads up because we are going to know we have done our best. If I have a coaching technique, this is it: getting across the idea that you are successful when you do your best." All this may sound dreadfully like Jack Armstrong, but at the same time it is somehow refreshing.
Wooden will admit to being a disciplinarian, but rightfully claims he is "no ogre." "There are lots of things I suggest my players do, and a few things that I demand they do," he says. "They learn that I stick by my demands."
His displeasure is best avoided. It is sure to be icy, succinct and possibly, in the rarest of cases, spiced with his strongest blasphemy, "Goodness gracious sakes alive!" He once made Willie Naulls, who was trying for the conference scoring title, sit out a whole game because he had been late getting to the field house. And this year he didn't start Hazzard against Army because East Coast had been tardy for a training meal.
"I had to be stern with Blackman, too," Wooden said recently, and then promptly changed the subject. He was pressed for details. "Well," he said, and there may or may not have been just the faintest smile at the corners of his thin lips, "it was about his latest poem. It concerned USC, and I felt it wasn't in good taste." Thwarted poet Blackman has not published a work since.
Discovery amid defeat
It was the last week of December, when UCLA played Ohio State to a standstill for 30 minutes before collapsing, that the team discovered for itself what Wooden had secretly suspected. They weren't so bad. When conference play began they started winning, defeating nationally ranked USC, and powerful Stanford and Washington. There were several reasons for the change. Slaughter had now lost 30 pounds and could get both feet off the floor at the same time. This meant that Cunningham—feeling better himself—didn't have to waste so much of his energy in fruitless rebound attempts. Blackman, meanwhile, was moved up into a less punishing forecourt position on defense, with shorter but rugged John Green rebounding under that basket. Suddenly Blackman and Cunningham stopped wilting late in games. In fact UCLA used only five men recently in beating USC, though Wooden normally prefers to use a lot of substitutes.
But most important, everybody got used to East Coast. They changed from not watching Hazzard at all to watching him in self-defense, to finally watching him and expecting to get impossible passes. They got them. Green, convinced Hazzard would get the ball to him whenever possible, began playing the whole game at top speed to get clear—a pace which has enabled him to average 20 points a game.
The team shooting average improved to well over 40%, and the scoring was balanced. The rebounding was well balanced too. Because it has no big man, UCLA has four players who converge on the basket after a shot, while the fifth—whoever is farthest out—shouts "safety" and stays back. Finally, though two starters were sophomores, UCLA's freewheeling and happy bunch developed unexpected poise. They consistently came from far behind in crucial games, undismayed by their own bumptious errors, and won. They even clinched the championship in typical fashion. Twelve points behind to Washington, at Seattle, with 12 minutes to play, UCLA went into a good zone press. The rattled Huskies made three errors, UCLA broke away for three of its patented fast-break baskets, and Johnny Green won the game with a driving lay-up.
The remarkable Bruins from remarkable Los Angeles were boyishly exuberant in the dressing room after the game. They wanted to throw John Wooden into the shower. Wooden was wearing a reserved frown and a good suit. "I wouldn't do that, boys," said an assistant coach. They didn't. They were feeling just great, and they had just jolted the whole West Coast. But who ever heard of throwing a high school principal into a shower?