In 1948, when Johnny Wooden came from Indiana State Teachers College to coach UCLA basketball, the Bruins played their home games in a 2,000-seat Turkish bath disguised as a gymnasium and accurately nicknamed the B.O. Barn. The dirty old gym was abandoned in 1955, much to the relief of the fire and health departments, and since then the team has wandered to a Hollywood exhibit hall, a high school, two junior colleges and the downtown Sports Arena, which is next door to the campus of arch-rival USC. Still the Bruins have almost always won. They were the NCAA champions the past two seasons, and in a preseason poll this year a board of coaches overwhelmingly selected them No. 1. Last Saturday night Wooden brought his highly rated nomads home again for "A Salute to John R. Wooden" in the beautiful new 13,000-seat Pauley Pavilion on the Westwood campus. It was a remarkable homecoming and a crazy beginning for the college basketball season.
Before a near-capacity crowd and a local TV audience, the No. 1 team in the nation was beaten by 15 points. The upset was not pulled off by Michigan or Vanderbilt but by the best freshman team in UCLA history and maybe the best freshman team in anybody's history. The Brubabes, as they are called locally, may become the substitute stars in a soon-to-start weekly color television program, Johnny Wooden's Champions in Action.
The game was more than a housewarming for the campus sports palace, more than a preview of a national contender and, despite three standing ovations for him, more than a tribute to John Wooden. The feature attraction amid all the hoopla was the collegiate debut of 7-foot-1 freshman Lew Alcindor, the most publicized Los Angeles newcomer since Vivien Leigh was picked for the female lead in Gone with the Wind.
Alcindor went to a private high school in New York City and was carefully shielded from reporters by his coach. UCLA is following the same policy—so intently that the L.A. press is debating whether Big Lew can really talk. A Los Angeles Times photographer snapped a picture of him watching a football scrimmage, and when the picture Appeared UCLA authorities scolded the paper. Reporters are allowed to watch him practice but are asked not to interview him. A staff member explained that the university was merely complying with the boy's wishes for privacy, or as much privacy as is possible for someone 7 feet 1.
To provide tough preparation for his agile giant, Wooden hired 6-foot-8 Jay Carty, a former Oregon State player conveniently studying for an advanced degree at UCLA. Jay tries to shoot against and guard Lew in practice sessions, usually without success, but he at least offer-s some competition. So, mum was the word as Lew hung around West-wood, wearing a sombrero and working hard against Carty every afternoon. Whether he talked or not the clippings piled up, and they sometimes hardly mentioned the fast company he was keeping on the freshman team. There was 6-foot-2 Lucius Allen, a high school All-America from Kansas City, Kans., reportedly the finest prep prospect ever developed in that state; Lynn Shackelford, 6-foot-5 high school All-America from Burbank, Calif., so deadly a left-hand shooter that his teammates call him The Machine; 6-foot-3½ Kenny Heitz from Santa Maria, Calif., still another high school All-America, and a good-shooting, non-scholarship boy from Texas, Kent Taylor. Any coach would give up his driest crying towel for a freshman team like that.
From the start of the game Saturday night, the freshmen paid no attention to the TV cameras, the big crowd or the prancing pompon girls. They had so much poise they barely paid attention to the varsity's fabled and feared zone press. One way they beat it was to station Alcindor in the middle of the free-throw circle. If no one else was clear for an inbounds pass, the pass-in man could always toss the ball into the rafters for Lew. He then passed off and hurried to center court for duty in case somebody else got stuck. (Coaches without an Alcindor on their squads may refer to page 77 for ideas on beating the press.)
The varsity was sloppy at first and inaccurate in its shooting throughout, despite the presence of lettermen Kenny Washington (twice an NCAA tournament star), Edgar Lacey, Mike Lynn and Doug McIntosh. The latter two often draped themselves around Alcindor like human shawls. Part of the elder team's trouble was the absence of senior Guard Freddie Goss, who watched the game while on leave from the hospital, where he has been undergoing treatment for a mysterious internal ailment. There have been at least four scrimmages since Goss was hospitalized, yet he still has the most points in the cumulative practice statistics. The loss of his scoring hurt against the freshmen and will hurt even more against such rough early-season foes as Ohio State, Duke and Kansas. When he will be able to return is uncertain.
Alcindor completely missed the hoop on his first shot, but that was the end of such behavior. He tipped in shots, whirled around McIntosh to stuff in others and displayed a good, short-range, turnaround jumper, all the time dominating the defensive backboard. Lucius Allen was a fine ball handler, leaper and shooter, and the two of them, with sharpshooting Shackelford, led the Brubabes to a 36-31 half-time lead. They played even better in the second half, calmly and slowly setting up their plays, and won 75-60. At one point they led by 18. Alcindor had 31 points and 21 rebounds and blocked seven shots. Allen had 16 points, Shackelford 12. Lynn led the varsity with just 12.
Afterward, Coach Wooden admitted he used his varsity subs more than he would have in a conference game. This was a factor, but the freshmen's big spurt at the start of the second half was against the varsity starters. He also said he was "disappointed but not surprised" at the varsity performance. On the other hand, he was tickled. "I was impressed by their poise," he said of the Brubabes. "They looked more like the varsity than the varsity."
The impression made on everybody by Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor was best demonstrated near the end of the game, when a tall UCLA sub, a bit harried, yelled to his teammates, "I've got Alcindor." The crowd heard it and laughed, as if to say, "That's what you think, buddy."
Johnny Wooden joined in with a grin—and who could blame him?