When UCLA and USC compete in anything more explosive than shuffleboard it is usually only tempers that are held (with difficulty). But last month, in a basketball game before 14,417 at the L.A. Sports Arena, it was the ball that was held, while the tethers on tempers snapped.
Undefeated UCLA had a lot going for it in that game. It ranked first in both wire-service polls, and it had the ultimate weapon in Lew Alcindor. All season long its beautiful new Pauley Pavilion had been sold out, but now the unlucky multitudes who had only been able to watch the Bruins on TV could see Lew and his adroit teammates in person against crosstown-rival USC, which already had been beaten twice by UCLA. Everything pointed toward a gala evening, until Trojan Coach Bob Boyd decided his players were not going to be the hors d'oeuvres. They went into a game-long stall, did not shoot for as much as two or three minutes at a stretch, led 17-14 at half time and forced the probable national champions into overtime before losing 40-35.
Many spectators, who had paid up to $3.50 to get their only in-the-flesh look at Big Lew (and saw him stand around looking bored, or occasionally bend down, with legs straight, and touch his palms to the floor), screamed for their money back. Coach Boyd was cursed loudly, and a police escort after the game did not prevent him from being spat upon. The Great Stall Debate, somewhat dormant since the college days of Wilt Chamberlain, was on again.
In the UCLA dressing room Coach John Wooden was asked if he thought other opponents would try stalling. "Yes," he said, "but I don't think most coaches will try it. Too many coaches think too much of basketball to do it." Although Wooden insisted he did not mean it that way, it sounded like a knock on Boyd.
March 13, 1967
At the following Monday's basketball writers' luncheon, USC Athletic Director Jess Hill followed Wooden to the podium. "There's a certain amount of accusation that he [Boyd] doesn't think that much of basketball," said the irate Hill. "I've known Bob Boyd for a long time, and he has character, integrity and complete love of basketball.... Bob had my support in everything he did. Any team that attempts to run against UCLA is doomed for devastation. You learn by experience. I don't see much difference in stalling in the last four minutes of the game—all coaches do it—or at the beginning."
Oregon Coach Steve Belko, usually a fast-break exponent, did not want to be devastated, either. When the Bruins came to Eugene two weeks later the Ducks refused to shoot unless they had safe-conduct passes to the basket. UCLA had an 18-14 lead at half time, and Wooden, with his athletic director's permission, decided to fight lack of fire with lack of fire. For the first time that he could remember in 32 seasons of coaching (other than end-of-game situations), he ordered his team into a stall, and the contest became as exciting as a nap in the sun. More than nine minutes went by without a shot fired in anger or any other way. The game finally livened up with about five minutes to go, and UCLA won 34-25. Big Lew scored 12 points, his lowest total of the season.
UCLA has not been the only target of the stall, which goes under such aliases as slowdown, control ball, freeze, letting the air out of the ball, modified slowdown, delay game, conservative style, disciplined offense and, classiest of all, deliberate and selective attack. Disgusted run-and-gunners might add beach-ball, stallball, keepaway or hide-and-seek. Anyway, Princeton, a tall, hot-shooting power in the East, has faced it twice. Early in the season Princeton beat Dartmouth by 74 points, so the Indians stalled in their second encounter, hoping to be within striking distance at the end. They lost by only 14, which was progress of a sort. Last week Penn tried a freeze and was only one point behind, with 1:04 left, when Princeton pulled away and clinched the Ivy League title 25-16. Georgia Coach Ken Rosemond, a frequent staller, benched his second-leading scorer for one game, because the player had told newspapermen that stalling hurt his chances to play pro ball.
The stall is far from a new phenomenon. Back in 1932 USC held the ball for the last 15 minutes of the first half against UCLA as the Bruin band played a funeral dirge, fans threw pennies and peanut shells on the floor and Trojan star Jerry Nemer calmly read a newspaper. The second half was a relatively normal basketball contest, and UCLA won 19-17, which does not say much for shooting abilities in those days. That same year Kansas clogged up a Missouri star's favorite shooting area, so the Tigers retreated to their backcourt and sulked. The two teams casually stood around at either end of the court. Finally four Missouri players sat down and four Kansas players did the same, leaving one Jay-hawk standing watch. "Phog Allen loved the game too much to continue the travesty, and we went after them in the second half," a Kansas player remembered. "Missouri won 26-22." Those two 1932 games were instrumental in getting a rule passed, beginning the next season, that the ball must be brought across the half-court line within 10 seconds.
Even the pros have had stalls. Western Kentucky Coach Johnny Oldham played for the Fort Wayne Pistons in 1951, the year they dillydallied at Minneapolis and beat the mighty Lakers 19-18. "But we had to fight our way to the dressing rooms after that game," he said. "I was the high scorer with five points, and I got taken out of the game by the coach because I tock a 15-footer. Even though I hit the shot, I was told that it was too far.... We played the stall because we maintained that Minneapolis was using an illegal zone defense."
Soon after that, the National Basketball Association ruled that the offensive team must take a shot within 24 seconds or lose possession of the ball, and the league installed easily visible, neon-numeral clocks to tick off the precious time. College coaches who want to put some antifreeze into the NCAA basketball rules are now in favor of a clock, too, although not necessarily for the same time period that the pros use. "We need rules that will prevent inaction more than anything else," said UCLA's Wooden, who indicated he favors a 30-second clock. But he added that any such rule change probably would not be passed while Alcindor is at UCLA. He was no doubt correct. Rules are passed to handicap basketball's giants, not to aid them.
No other college coach has anyone as tall or as effective as Alcindor, yet Wooden is not alone in wanting a clock (one set for 30 seconds already is required in international amateur play). Kentucky's Adolph Rupp does, too, but "only after a team has made no attempt to score within one minute. And the clock should stay in effect only until the last three minutes. That would give a team a chance to protect its lead." Oldham of Western Kentucky agrees. Surprisingly, slowdown artist Lou Henson of New Mexico State wants to be a clock watcher, too. "We've been holding the ball a lot this year because we're so small, and maybe you'd expect me to favor the stall," he said. "But actually I don't. We're trying to make a favorable impression on the public, and I don't believe fans enjoy a slow game. We believe it's up to us to get the boys to compete."
"I'm certain some coaches use the stall merely to keep the margin respectable," said Fred Taylor of Ohio State, another advocate of the 30-second clock, "They know, going into certain games, that they have little or no chance to win, and they further know that if they get into a baseline-to-baseline chase they'll get run out of the place."
The roster of coaches who favor some sort of clock also includes Vic Bu-bas of Duke, Ray Mears of Tennessee, Roy Skinner of Vanderbilt and Ken Norton of Manhattan. But for the present, at least, they will have to depend on their own wristwatches. The stall will stay—or at least be available. A SPORTS ILLUSTRATED survey of officials, coaches and ex-coaches showed that there is overwhelming antipathy toward any sort of time limit on freezing the ball. There were 15 for some type of clock, seven undecided and more than 60 against. "I'm the area representative on the rules committee for coaches," said Villanova's Jack Kraft, "and I can tell you now that of the 130 or so schools in the area there was only one coach who suggested a time limit."
One reason is that stall games are relatively rare, and most coaches feel their shooters are too quick on the trigger already. Dr. Edward Steitz, athletic director at Springfield College and top researcher for NCAA basketball coaches, has statistics going back to 1956, which show that at the college level the ball has changed hands within 10 seconds (back-court and front-court, shots and turnovers) 94.3% of the time. Within 30 seconds the ball has changed hands 99.68% of the time. "Change without research is fallacious," said Dr. Steitz. "Our figures show that since 1960 field-goal attempts are up two-and-one-half shots per game."
In addition there already are rules concerning "lack of sufficient action," and if they were properly enforced there would at least be less standing around in stall games and some thawing of the freeze. There would be running, chasing and attempts at ball stealing. Rule 10, Section I says, "A team shall not delay the game...by allowing the game to develop into an actionless contest." Teams must be "reasonably active" in trying to get the ball if on defense, or advance the ball if on offense.
"Under our present rules you can't stall," said John Benington of Michigan State. "If you hold the ball, the rules say the defense must come out and force you to advance it. So there can't be a 30-16 game unless the defense doesn't come out."
Norvall Neve, commissioner of the Missouri Valley Conference, disagrees slightly: "It's perfectly possible to stall by moving the ball from the midcourt area into the front-court area and then back out. No rule violation is involved. But the lack of action rules do enforce movement of the ball. A man can't just stand out beyond the free-throw line, holding the ball or dribbling it. So a team may not do much shooting, but it can't refuse to move the ball."
Most coaches do not want college basketball to emulate the nonstop NBA teams, which race up and down the court and fire at will. The coaches want to keep the variety of defenses (including the zone) and keep their own hands on the gearshifts—drive, reverse, low and even park. "The pro teams play so much alike," said Houston's Guy Lewis, "that a player can be traded from one team to another between halves and never miss a pass."
"If they put the 24-second rule in, UCLA won't lose a game in three years," said Michigan State's Benington. "Upsets would be something of the past. The teams with the big recruiting programs would win, and the little guy wouldn't have a chance. And if they took the 24-second rule out of pro basketball, Philadelphia and Boston wouldn't win all the time. They've got Chamberlain and Russell to get the ball for them, so they just fire away."
"If a 24-or 30-second law was adopted, I imagine everybody would play a zone defense," said Belko of Oregon, "and force the offense to take the 20-foot shot. When everybody adopts a zone to force more outside shooting you have then taken the driving shot out of basketball. You can't drive against a good zone."
Ray Meyer, the veteran DePaul coach, sympathized with UCLA and other "have" schools, but added, "When we had George Mikan we had the same thing happen to us. We just had to go out and get the ball."
"A team not prepared to do a good job of pressing is inviting a stall, or delay, game," said Tex Winter of Kansas State. "Today a team should be prepared with half-and full-court man-to-man and zone presses. If you are not so prepared, then you don't deserve to win."
UCLA, of course, is so prepared, but if it chooses to counter a freeze with a freeze of its own, fans better prepare to wear their thermal underwear until Alcindor turns pro.