A favorite ploy of early Hollywood dramatists was to weasel their way out of their own insoluble plots by abruptly transferring the good guy from Troublesville to Sunshine Square, and never you mind how improbably it was done. Last weekend one of the zaniest West Coast basketball races that anybody cared to remember came down to its chaotic climax in Los Angeles, and the outcome was enough to make any old scriptwriter proud. UCLA, the team that had hardly any hope at all, was handed—almost gratis—a last chance at the Big Six championship. And Stanford, the team that had come south with rosy prospects, had been summarily bounced off Sunshine Square.
When the conference race began this season, UCLA was the defending champion, but no favorite to repeat. Its coach, Johnny Wooden, admitted the team's ball handling was good—largely because of the best passer in college basketball, Walt Hazzard—and its speed was adequate. But the object of the game involves putting something through a hoop, and UCLA's men weren't much at this. "My guards can't hit from anywhere past 15 feet," said Wooden. "On the other hand, my forwards can't hit from 10." UCLA promptly went up to Seattle and got upset by Washington—twice. When it went to Stanford it lost to the Indians—twice.
This should have made the race a Pacific breeze for favored Stanford, but that team insisted on falling into unlikely ambushes at the hands of California and USC. Still, as the season went into what should have been its final two days last Friday, Stanford had a comfortable margin. It was two games ahead. This meant that for UCLA to even get a tie it had to win its last two games—Stanford and California—while Stanford had to lose to UCLA and USC.
UCLA and Stanford are not necessarily intense rivals. There has been no bad blood spilt between the schools, but there has been some glass. At Stanford last month a sizable bottle was thrown from the stands and crashed into a million pieces on the floor during play. A UCLA editorialist said a Stanford student was responsible and called it disgraceful. The Stanford Daily blamed a UCLA student, and called it disgraceful.
Stanford is a gentlemen's team with a gentleman coach, Howie Dallmar. "The trouble with Stanford," said a man on the eve of the UCLA game, "is that too many of its players come from unbroken homes. They are too nice. Stanford is a prestige school that attracts a lot of mama's boys."
"Bull," answered Dallmar, respectfully.
The Indians are nevertheless a gloomily serious team, not given to levity. They also have a phobia—Fridays. They had lost four times this year on Friday night. "If you think about it long enough maybe you could make believe it's Saturday when it's Friday," said Stanford's best player, 6-foot-8 Center Tom Dose.
"Be reasonable," said Dallmar of the Friday fixation. "No one stops to think what day it is once the ball goes up."
The Friday night game was at Santa Monica City College, one of UCLA's "home" courts. Coach Wooden's plan to beat Stanford was to rattle the Indians with a full-court press. "We figure we can get away with a tight press on our home floor," he said, which is especially valid reasoning when home happens to be a gym the size of a beach cabana. The press didn't stop Dose, who hit eight straight shots before missing, but it—and perhaps the awareness that it was Friday night—unraveled the rest of the Stanford team. It lost the ball 24 times on errors. That is a whole seasonful of mistakes, and UCLA won easily, 64-54, cutting Stanford's lead to one game.
The next night Stanford moved crosstown with great relief to play USC at Los Angeles State College (big schools don't seem to have basketball courts in L.A.), while UCLA stayed in Santa Monica to take on California. "The pressure is on UCLA," announced Dallmar hopefully. Privately he was less positive. "On the outside I am an optimist," he said. "Inside I am a pessimist."
"Today is Saturday," Dose said on the bus to the game. "We are more relaxed. We always come back on Saturday."
It seemed that way. Stanford passing was sharper, its shooting was better, Dose was as good as before and soon the Indians had a 12-point lead on USC. In the gym 20 miles away at Santa Monica, UCLA fans huddled around transistor radios to pick up the Stanford game on Station KNX. There were even two radios on the UCLA bench.
UCLA was having no difficulty with Cal, but at LA State, Stanford was suddenly in big trouble. Dose had acquired his fourth foul with 13 minutes to play and Stanford leading by only seven points. Dallmar took Dose out, and with him went Stanford's composure. Of necessity back in again with 9:39 to play, Dose became fair game for USC attempts to foul him out. USC's Pete Hillman took a Jackie Gleason pratfall at Dose's feet and screamed in dismay when no foul was called. A USC guard plowed into Dose and was himself charged with a foul. Still safe. Finally, with six minutes to play, Dose brought about his own demise with a reckless defensive move. The score then was 52-45, Stanford. But at Santa Monica heads jerked up from little radios. "Dose fouled out," yelled a UCLA rooter.
Then KNX went dead.
"What happened! What happened!" Walt Hazzard shouted as he trotted past the UCLA bench—the Bruins were still having no trouble with Cal.
An interminable KNX musical interlude followed. UCLA fans sat agonizing. Finally there was a crackle, and the announcer broke in with the score, 59-59. USC had overcome a four-point Stanford lead in the last minute, and the game was in overtime.
UCLA by now had beaten Cal 72-53. The Bruins were in the dressing room, and the suspense had become so great that Hazzard asked the manager to take out the only radio. So messengers brought the score. Stanford was behind 61-59, then 63-59, then 64-59.
"We're backing in," said Wooden. "I never thought we'd do it." The final score was 67-61. Stanford had lost again, and the Big Six was tied up tight.
Inside the tiny gym the UCLA band had not moved since the conclusion of the game with Cal. Now it struck up a victory march—USCs. Men and boys and women, too, came charging into the UCLA dressing room. Hazzard grabbed for his pants. "My goodness gracious sakes alive," he said, imitating his coach's most violent profanity.
"Walter," said Coach Wooden, "I'll have none of that bad language here."
In the Stanford dressing room at LA State the quiet was broken only by the occasional hiss of the water fountain. Alone by his locker, a Stanford player said, "We choked. We just don't have any poise. And now we've got to play them again—back there in Santa Monica." For a long time, Coach Dallmar stood off to himself, staring plaintively at a set of scales and wondering what kind of ending had been contrived for this strangest season of all: Sunshine Square or Troublesville?