The new year came, but in basketball the old order—the top of the old order, anyway—remained the same. Stoutly challenged but replying with a renewed excellence, Bill Bradley of Princeton and the UCLA team established for 1965 the superiority that the year gone by had already witnessed. Their latest successes, in the two best of many holiday tournaments, differed only in the statistical denouements: that is, on the scoreboards.
UCLA performed at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, located, as the freeway flies, only 10 miles from Hollywood. And as in a celluloid finish—all kisses and picket fence—the Bruins romped to a deserving, happy win in the L.A. Classic final over Utah. Led by a surfer named Keith Erickson, who is even more renowned for his volleyball prowess—many consider him the best in the country—UCLA and its zone press whipped two undefeated teams and set scoring records to boot.
But separated by a continent and denied that sort of tidy script, Bill Bradley played a last act in Madison Square Garden that more resembled the dramas of neighboring Broadway, where playwrights frequently dare to conclude with the brutal crush of reality. In the Holiday Festival, against the nation's No. 1 ranked team, Michigan, Bradley put on as fine an individual performance as has ever been given on a basketball court. When he fouled out with 4:37 left, his team was ahead by 12 points. With him on the bench, Princeton lost it all, 80-78, though even in defeat Bradley salvaged what he wanted most of all. "We all felt he looked forward to this so much," teammate Ed Hummer explained. "He wanted to show that the Ivy League was better than they all said."
Bradley's personal dismantling of Michigan, followed by St. John's subsequent 75-74 victory over the Wolverines in the Festival final, further served to show that while UCLA has regrouped after the substantial loss of Walt Hazzard, Michigan's veteran personnel has failed to improve as a unit. The Wolverines still rely too much on muscle. Against Princeton, for instance, they did not make a basket except off a rebound for the first eight and a half minutes. They are also still given to lapses of shoddy defense and to long minutes of utter collapse, the nadir of which was reached against St. John's, when Michigan blew a 16-point lead. The team suddenly just stopped dead, scoring but a single basket and four free throws in the last nine and a half minutes.
Despite the fact that Coach Dave Strack has the considerable talents of Cazzie Russell to guide the attack, Michigan needs, as an option, a more disciplined offense to fall back on when it goes into those devastating spells of purposeless inefficiency. It was, of course, a thrilling victory for St. John's, especially since Coach Joe Lapchick is retiring after this season, but it was also somehow anticlimactic after Bradley's show. The second straight sell-out crowd (scalpers got $35 for tickets to the Princeton-Michigan game) was on hand just as much to see Bradley perform in a meaningless consolation match with Cincinnati as it was to see the championship game.
Despite his play in the Olympic trials and on the U.S. team, Bradley still came to New York with the stigma of supposedly weak Ivy League competition detracting from his notices. It took him exactly three minutes of Princeton's opening game with Syracuse to show that the Ivies can play as hard as they study. Syracuse set up in a four-man box zone defense, with Sam Penceal assigned just to Bradley. Penceal literally clung to him, clutching, grabbing, clawing. Suddenly, obviously furious, Bradley lashed back with an elbow that rocked the husky Penceal as hard as any elbow he had ever received on the Brooklyn playgrounds where he learned the game. The crowd gasped, then whooped in appreciation; the referee sent Penceal to the free-throw line. A minute later, Bradley finally broke away from Penceal and got the ball for the first time. Immediately, he sank a 20-foot jump shot. By the half he had 23 points, at the end 36, and Princeton won 79-69 in this battle of orange-and-blacks.
Against Manhattan that night, Michigan's Russell also scored 36, which set things up almost too perfectly for the already much-publicized head-on battle between the two best players in the nation. As it turned out, though, it was not to be Bradley vs. Russell, or Princeton vs. Michigan, but Bradley vs. Michigan. By the time he fouled out to one of the largest and warmest ovations ever given a performer at Madison Square Garden, Bradley was no longer being compared to any of his contemporaries but only to the other legendary collegians of basketball and to memories of their greatest nights.
"Hank Luisetti and Oscar Robertson came in here and they were unbeatable," former All-Pro Carl Braun said flatly, "but Bradley is the greatest."
Said Joe Lapchick, "I always thought Oscar was the greatest, but Bradley is only a half-step behind him. Right now, if the Knicks could get him, he'd be worth $100,000 to them."
The Knicks, of course, cannot get him, Bradley having committed himself to a Rhodes scholarship for two years at Oxford. Then he plans to enter law school. Too bad for the Knicks, and for all basketball fans.
In the Michigan game, Bradley was the underdog—Michigan was favored by a dozen points. And as he began to dominate all the action—not just for himself, but obviously inspiring his teammates—the whole Garden came alive for him. A conclave of Princeton students began to cheer "Go, Tiger, go!" which is how they cheer at Princeton, an affected use of the singular that originated, presumably, when there was only the Princeton Tiger and no Detroit Tigers or Clemson Tigers or Dick Tigers or tiger-in-the-tank tigers. But at the Garden the chant was picked up and carried, and the spectators—Madison Ave. and Lenox Ave. alike—made it the idiomatic plural, "Go, Tigers, go!"
Bradley scored 12 straight points for his team near the end of the first half to put Princeton in front 39-37. That gave him 23. Russell, bothered by a shoe that did not fit and a fine defensive job by Princeton's Don Rodenbach, was held to six points. But Rodenbach picked up two quick fouls at the start of the last half, and Bradley was moved to the back-court in his place.
Complete court majesty
Now Bradley also had to bring the ball up in addition to his other chores of scoring and rebounding and ball-hawking, which meant he was doing everything. The crowd began to cheer whenever he got his hands on the ball. He eventually finished with 41 points, nine rebounds and four assists, but his play-making and general floor skill—the man he guarded made one point and Bradley had several steals—were as outstanding.
"I didn't think that any one fellow on any club could dominate a game against another team," Michigan's Dave Strack said later. "I knew he was great—Cazzie had played with him in the Olympic trials and told me he was. We were willing to give him even 35 or 40 points, but I just never thought that one man could control a game like that."
But the effort tired Bradley. He actually missed two foul shots. Seconds later he was called for traveling, and shortly after that he reached around Oliver Dar-den—a foolish, tired man's move—and fouled out. There was 4:37 left and Princeton led 75-63. At 3:44 Princeton Guard Gary Walters drove through to make it 77-63, and the upset still seemed possible. But then Princeton collapsed.
Like a thwarted ghost out of Shakespeare, Bradley sat towel-shrouded on the bench and watched the undoing of his accomplishment. Michigan, which can be so overpowering, thrust out with irresistible momentum. Led by Russell, George Pomey and John Thompson, the Wolverines started scoring—three baskets in one stretch of 24 seconds—while allowing Princeton only one shot in the last three minutes of play. Michigan tied it with 51 seconds still to go and then, when Russell tossed in the winning basket from the left corner with three seconds left, it was a mercy killing of Princeton that kept the game from overtime.
Bill Buntin, the Michigan center, rushed to Bradley and hugged him—not in the exuberance of victory, but in admiration. Bradley hardly seemed to recognize the gesture, however, and hurried out, past where his mother sat and past where a few ordinary fans were crying for him. Strack came up in the gloomy hallway outside the Princeton locker room, where Bradley slumped against the wall, and put a hand on his shoulder and complimented him. "We didn't deserve that," Strack said. As he moved off, he repeated it, louder, so anyone could hear: "We didn't deserve that."
A few moments after her son ran by her, Mrs. Bradley said, not at all in tears, but proudly and enthusiastically: "It was a good game. It was a very good game, wasn't it?" It was that and much more. It may be the last of the great games they will reminisce about after this old Madison Square Garden is torn down two years from now and the new Garden rises on top of the Pennsylvania Railroad Station.
While UCLA was scrambling to a perfect 30-0 season and the undisputed national championship last year, California Athletic Director Pete Newell cracked: "Whenever they're in trouble they go to the insurance man." In Newell's vernacular the insurance man is the pressure player, the money player, the player any coach wants to have holding the ball in tense situations. The man who filled the bill for UCLA last year was Walt Hazzard, the gone-but-not-forgotten guard who brilliantly directed the Bruins' offensive efforts. At last week's Los Angeles Classic it was clear to see UCLA had found a 1965 model of the insurance man: Keith Erickson. With his fundamental help, the team won the tournament for the third straight, embarrassing time—and he was justly acclaimed the tournament's Most Valuable Player.
Erickson is no newcomer, for it was he who last year so capably called signals for—and backed up—Coach John Wooden's tricky zone-press defenses. Wooden's presses cling to opponents like a wet sheet. "The first problem you've got to solve," says a UCLA rival, "is how to get the ball in bounds." But if the offense can ever squirm through the zone-press net, it can often find clear sailing ahead. It can, that is, if there is no Keith Erickson waiting up court as safety man. Erickson can squirt hither and yonder so quickly that even if it is two-against-one he is rarely the under-dog. Says Minnesota Coach John Kundla ruefully: "UCLA can afford to let you break through now and then. Erick-son's going to block your shot anyhow."
This year Erickson, taking over Walt Hazzard's role, has become the offensive ignition of the team as well. As a sort of cohesive force and inspirational leader, he is the man they all turn to when trouble arises—and more times than not he can handle it. Not cut from the same blue-serge cloth as the earnest, understated John Wooden, Erickson is cocky and given to drifting indifference in the tedium of practice. But Wooden admits he can tolerate a little insouciance if the man can rise to the occasion at game time. "And Erickson gets better as the pressure gets higher," says Wooden.
That does not mean Herc (for Hercules) Erickson waits for things to happen. He is the kind of player who manufactures his breaks, and such induced opportunity was evident as the Bruins worked their way through Arizona, Minnesota and Utah last week. UCLA was not pressed by Arizona and coasted to a 99-79 victory. But next night, against unbeaten, third-ranked Minnesota, the opposition stiffened; at the half, UCLA led by a mere three points, two of them made by Erickson just before the buzzer. Erickson got things moving with more vigor in the second half. Not only was he floor boss, he also had the dangerous job of guarding the Gophers' Lou Hudson, as fine a forward as can be found on campus. This job Erickson discharged wickedly and with wit: once he came diving in like a shortstop (which he has been in his day) to make a steal from Hudson. Moments later he came zipping around Hudson's back and deflected a Minnesota pass to teammate Edgar Lacey for an easy layup. Utah Coach Jack Gardner, taking it all in and trying to divine what it was to mean to his Utes, groaned: "UCLA destroys you—physically, mentally and morally." Shortly thereafter, wisps of smoke rose over what had been Minnesota—93-77.
Still, Jack Gardner may have thought he had overestimated the Bruins for, the following night, Utah itself was only three points down at the half. Indeed, Utah had been tied with UCLA 11 times, and Gail Goodrich, the Bruins' excellent playmaker, was in foul trouble and on the bench. With that, John Wooden tightened his zone press and Utah, bending under the awful weight, committed seven major ball-handling errors in the first six minutes of the second half. What had been anybody's ball game was suddenly UCLA's all the way—104-74 at the finish.
Hercules Erickson had been everywhere: sometimes on the prowl down-court like Joe DiMaggio floating through center field; sometimes picking up the first man loose on Utah's fast break; sometimes intercepting passes; and other times catapulting into the air under the backboards as if the floor were a trampoline. Seeing Erickson heading up, up and away, it is easy to understand why he was on the U.S. Olympic volleyball team last fall. When he spikes a volleyball, the only defense is to dive for cover.
After UCLA lost its opening game this season to Illinois—the first defeat in 31 games—everybody aha-ed, sure that the Bruins were not of the championship caliber of last year. But now they look even better than they did last time around and must be rated a favorite for the national title all over again. So some of the sports were picking the brains of Jack Gardner after the Classic, trying to make sense of what they had seen. "What have they got?" one man wanted to know. "What haven't they got?" blurted the Utah coach, a shade too hotly for humor, perhaps. "Oh, I admit Gail Goodrich has a weakness; he can't dribble very well with his left foot. Otherwise, they have balanced board power. And great speed. Also great shooting. And fantastic jumping. Don't overlook great depth. And—and don't ever forget it—Keith Erickson."