The basketball coach of the Yugoslav national team has been flitting around the country for the past three months, cordially prying into the affairs of our college basketball coaches in hopes of picking up ideas that he can turn against us in the Olympics next fall. This is not altogether inconsistent because we are a magnanimous, unbegrudging people who just recently allowed The Beatles to infiltrate our lines, though Customs should be ashamed for that one.
In any case the Yugoslav, Aleksandar Nikolic, finally reached Los Angeles last week at the close of his tour. There, uncomplaining, he passed up Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm to spend his waking hours watching the UCLA Bruins of Coach John Wooden. UCLA is popularly credited as being the best team in the country. It is undefeated and likely to remain so until tournament time, which is fast approaching, even though it is a team of midgets that can look its opponents square in the Adam's apple and is coached by a seraphic gentleman who appreciates Kipling and Keats as much as he does a good hook shot—you cannot curl up on a rainy night with a good hook shot—and who does not smoke, drink or say purple things to officials. John Wooden cannot say "dad-burned" without lowering his voice, and when he quotes someone else he punctiliously abbreviates to denature the cuss words.
After watching the Bruins defeat Washington 73-58 and 88-60 on successive nights, for their 20th and 21st victories, Coach Nikolic, a compact man with quick eyes and a workaday Charles Boyer accent, said of UCLA: "Is small team. No big man, no big score like Nash of Coach Roop team in Kentucky. But ziss—pardon, my English very bad—ziss is best I see. Because is team. All five." He held up five fingers. "Team. You understand? Is best."
Naturally, no one with half a dream of getting to the NCAA tournament is willing to concede anything that conclusive this time of season. A Eugene, Ore. sports editor, Dick Strite, got up at a luncheon in New York the other day and said he didn't think UCLA, with a team whose tallest man (Fred Slaughter) is 6 feet 5 could possibly get past Oregon State in the West and therefore would never even see the lights of Kansas City for the finals. NYU Coach Lou Rossini said that might be true all right, but he had not seen a team that could run with UCLA; that the UCLA zone press was the exact equivalent of solitary confinement for an opponent's offense; that being puny didn't bother puny UCLA one minute; that its guards, Walt Hazzard and Gail Goodrich, were an extraordinary pair of ball hawks; and that Coach John Wooden was just great.
On the other hand, Michigan Coach Dave Strack was unconvinced, which jolly well proved his courage because UCLA beat Michigan by 18 points in December. "They don't look like any superteam," said Strack. "They were better on a better night, that's all. We must have missed 16 dead layups."
Strack is right and Strite may be—UCLA is no superteam. But it has super teamwork. Pass Master Walt Hazzard is the most unselfish man south of the North Pole, and his principal beneficiary is the baby-faced Goodrich, who averages 22 points a game and has even learned to pass off himself now and then. They comprise what is probably the best guard pairing in the country, though this is not surprising in a John Wooden team, because he long ago decided that it is what's out back that counts. It is also characteristic of Wooden's coaching that the Bruins have great speed—"we run," he says, "though sometimes we don't take the ball with us." UCLA can run with Kentucky, say, and it can outrun Michigan, Ohio State or Wichita. It is also a smart team, serene in its confidence, mature in the knowledge of having worked together as a unit two years in a row. It does not, however, have the might and height of Michigan's Cazzie Russell, Bill Buntin and Larry Tregoning. It does not have, as Nikolic says, a Cotton Nash or a Dave Stallworth or a Rick Barry in the front court, nor, by any means, a Gary Bradds at center. "I have been asked," says Wooden, " 'Don't you want taller boys?' Goodness gracious sakes alive!"
Neither are the Bruins always precise. They do not have the efficiency of attack of Villanova or the expert ball handling of Kentucky. They threw the ball away nine times in the first half against Washington on Friday. They gamble—sometimes too much—on the zone press, which has an unusual feature in that Center Slaughter plays up on the front line with Guard Goodrich, but more often than not they press a team into errors. "Pressure," says Wooden, "is the way to play the game." Most teams try to slow UCLA down, and most teams do not succeed. The Bruins are the shortest team in the Big Six, "but they sure don't play small," says a rival coach. They lead the league in rebounds. Oregon State Coach Slats Gill, who stole in to watch Saturday's game with Washington, was struck—thunderstruck—by their "fast hands, their fine balance." On offense, the Bruins dillydally, then score points in great confident gulps. Leading Stanford 63-60, they ran off 13 points in 80 seconds without retaliation.
A contented amalgam as a team, the Bruins take their individual neuroses two for a dime. Wooden has had to handle them carefully. Forward Keith Erickson, a fine safety man in the 2-2-1 zone press and the team's leading rebounder, considers criticism subversive. Slaughter is president of the senior class but must be prodded to be equally industrious on the court. Goodrich's passion is shooting—he once advised a high school group that "if your girl asks you to walk her home, tell her, 'I'm sorry, I gotta go shoot baskets' "—and has to remind himself now and again that there is more than that to the game. The champion hand wringer, however, is Forward Jack Hirsch, who also leads the team in solvency—he drives a blood-red 1964 Pontiac Grand Prix and has a third interest in one of his dad's bowling alleys. Hirsch believes if something isn't wrong something is wrong. "Embarrassing, that's what it is," he said when he got an A in physics recently. "I'm making Cs in physical education." He says basketball is "a lot of aggravation. Sometimes when I'm on the road I feel like chucking it and going home to my wife." Misgivings notwithstanding, Hirsch developed into an excellent left-hand shooter, a tough rebounder and a dedicated defender. He limited Michigan prodigy Cazzie Russell to 11 points.
Hazzard still a showman
All-America Hazzard, with 1,226 points, is now UCLA's alltime scoring champion, having passed Willie Naulls. It was Naulls's recommendation that got him to UCLA from Philadelphia in the first place, and as a sophomore his showy behind-the-back, between-the-legs, out-of-a-dream passes flew unerringly to the temples, chests and tender places of his unsuspecting teammates. Tamed just enough so that he is not quite a show-off, but still a showman, he is raved about unceasingly: "He could play in the pros right now," says Bill Sharman. "If there is a better guard in college basketball, show him to me—quick," says USC's Forrest Twogood.
A winner every one of his 16 years at UCLA, John Wooden rules with a fatherly concern, a fatherly discipline ("don't let that professorial manner fool you," says one coach, "he can be meaner than two snakes when he wants to be") and a catch-all collection of epigrams like, "I'd rather command respect than demand it," and, "It's what you learn after you know it all that counts." He has no equal as a pamphleteer. His mimeographed material covers practically every subject from dribbling to tying a Windsor knot, and his favorite, the John Wooden Pyramid of Success, is a must for every player's locker.
"He makes you believe you can do anything. You become surprised when you lose," says a former player. His players go to great lengths to be with him—sophomore Kenny Washington, for example, came 2,440 miles on a Greyhound bus from Columbia, S.C., just on the chance he could stick at UCLA. Jerry Norman, a keen-tempered guard, was kicked off Wooden's team in 1952 but could hardly wait to apologize to get back on. He is now, after some refinement, Wooden's No. 1 assistant.
Wooden has the qualities for being a regular loser—he hates to recruit, he scouts at a minimum and he thinks success and winning are not one and the same. Strange, nonathletic-looking books line his desk—As a Man Thinketh, Immortal Poems, Wise Sayings of the Orient. He loves poetry. "I wanted to write my master's thesis 18 years ago on why kids don't like poetry, but I got turned down. They made me write it on basketball." He got a flat-out A.
Wooden, at 53, admits to a weakness for sugar-orange candy wedges and to an occasional superstition. He follows this unalterable formula before a game: he sticks a piece of gum in Hazzard's mouth, he winks at his wife Nell sitting behind the bench, taps Assistant Norman on the arm and leg, he spits, discreetly, on the floor and he pulls up his socks. The other night at Trader Vic's he foraged through a bowl of fortune cookies, discarding the inapplicable—"Your help will be needed in an embarrassing situation"—and when he found one that suited he plunged it into his pocket. Not even Nell's urging could make him reveal the magical contents.
Wooden does not credit fortune cookies with his good fortune this year, of course, but, he says, neither is he working harder or longer at his job than ever. He thinks he might be a better coach than he was last year, "but you have to improve in this business or you're dead." He does not think his team will continue undefeated, because few teams ever do. Well, then, does he believe this is really the best college team in the country?
Wooden smiled modestly, as if to pocket the question with his fortune. "Umm," he said. "Well, yes. Yes, I would be willing to agree that this is the best team in the country.
"Fooled you, didn't I?"