Notre Dame's old field house, parts of which were built before 1899, is still standing, or perhaps teetering is a better word. It is a gloomy eyesore that looks, from the inside, like an abandoned World War I blimp hangar. No self-respecting rodent would want to infest the place. For years Fighting Irish basketball teams played their home games on a portable floor at one end while 3,200 students crowded around and did their best hyena imitations, often with loud musical accompaniment.
Demolition can start any day now, because Notre Dame has a new $8.6 million double-domed sports palace that is so handsome it is featured on the cover of the current South Bend telephone directory. It is a big, cheerful place with, among other things, eight handball courts, a hockey rink, a track, tennis courts and a basketball floor surrounded—but not too closely—by comfy theater seats of gold, blue, purple, brown, red-orange and green.
Cleverly, Notre Dame Coach Johnny Dee assembled what is potentially the school's finest basketball team for the first season under the south dome. Dee is a lawyer who has been admitted to practice before the Supreme Court, but his most persuasive arguments in Washington, D.C. have been before high school hotshots. Three of his starters, including senior All-America candidate Bob Whitmore and a fabled sophomore guard named Austin Carr, are from that talent-rich city. One preseason forecaster got so swept up in the double-dome excitement that he picked Notre Dame No. 1 in the nation over UCLA.
All of which made it extra interesting when the Irish launched their home season last Saturday night against that very same UCLA and its awesome center, Lew Alcindor. Well, Whitmore and Carr were terrific, as advertised, and Notre Dame was good—very good—but the Bruins won the inauguration game 88-75 and convinced a lot of spectators that if there was a team anywhere near South Bend capable of stopping them it would have to be the Chicago Bulls.
December 16, 1968
It also should be reported that the Notre Dame student body yelled just as loudly, and sometimes as obscenely, as in the old hangar but with less effect on the sanity of the visiting team and referees. For all the vituperation, there was less reverberation. As further evidence of change in South Bend, 101 newsmen plus national television and seven radio stations covered the opener, more than were at either the Pitt or Georgia Tech football games this fall. The crash you just heard was Knute Rockne's picture falling off the wall.
Johnny Dee took over the coaching job for the 1964-65 season and had a rough couple of years. The bottom was a miserable 5-21 record in 1965-66, after which he said: "I've had some pretty successful times—19, 16, 12, 10 victories in a row—but I've never gone through anything like this before. Sometimes I just sit back, look at my law degree and reflect on how easy it would be in back of a desk."
Dee's game plan for UCLA was daring. Besides being a coach and an attorney, he is a budding magnate in sporting goods and he has his athletes racing around in Johnny Dee MVP socks and Johnny Dee MVP shoes, flipping basketballs through Johnny Dee MVP nets. They do it all so well that he decided to a) run with the Bruins and b) defend against them man-to-man, with 6'8" sophomore Sid Catlett (from Washington, D.C., naturally) guarding Alcindor, an awful thing to ask of a fellow in his second varsity game, particularly one who did not play as a freshman.
Dee was not completely out of his mind The Irish were beaten by 51 points at UCLA last season, the most lopsided defeat in the school's history, so why not change strategy? And he thought his team was as good or better in four positions, so why not give Alcindor his points, outplay the other four guys and, maybe, start life under the dome with a startling upset?
For UCLA Coach John Wooden, seeking his fifth NCAA championship and third in a row, it was a bit of homecoming. He coached Central High in South Bend for nine years and was familiar with the old field house from his coaching days at Indiana State and before. He has a couple of theories, too. One is that nobody can stop Alcindor, man-to-man, without a stepladder and the other is that "we can just beat anybody who'll run with us." A capacity crowd of nearly 12,000 people was there to see what happened and Dee was so stoked up he said, "I'd give ten thousand dollars just to play 10 minutes."
Notre Dame won the tip and Bob Whitmore, guarded not very closely by Alcindor, hit a jump shot and the Irish were not to give up the lead again for 18 minutes. That glorious period must have brought back fond memories for both Whitmore and Catlett, who played on the DeMatha High team that beat Alcindor's Power Memorial Academy in the University of Maryland field house almost four years ago. Alcindor and his New York buddies had won 71 straight. That night Whitmore played in front of the giant and Catlett behind and Lew Alcindor made only 16 points.
Saturday night it was Catlett by himself, with Whitmore coming over to help if Alcindor received a pass near the hoop. The strategy was of no help. Alcindor, never shooting more than arm's length from the basket, scored 20 points in the first half. Still, the Irish, led by Whitmore and Carr, stayed ahead and led by as much as nine points. Then, as Carr admitted later, Notre Dame relaxed too much.
"We blew it," he said. "We had 'em. A couple of bad passes and we blew it. We should have gone into the locker room at the half winning by 10. You just start to relax. Instead of concentrating on what you're doing, you start freewheeling."
Certainly that happened, but UCLA was substituting often and Notre Dame was not and UCLA's press started working near the end of the half. Whereas Notre Dame had been zipping through it occasionally for some fast-break baskets, the Bruins began intercepting a few passes and zipping back the other way. And always UCLA kept its poise, shot well and lofted the ball in to Alcindor ("You just look and think they're throwing the ball up to the ceiling," said Whitmore, who is 6'7", "and actually it's to him").
With slightly less than two minutes left in the half, Don Saffer's layup put UCLA ahead 41-40 and from that point to the buzzer the Bruins outscored Notre Dame eight to four. They left the court with a five-point lead.
UCLA came back out and proceeded to break open the game for good, holding Notre Dame to one field goal in the first five minutes of the second half while hitting six. When the Bruins got the lead up to 19 with 5:13 left, Wooden took Alcindor out shortly after. He finished with 29 points.
Judging from performances in this game, UCLA's future opponents have quite a catalog of horrors to study. Alcindor is as good or better than ever, despite the fact that the last time he faced a man-to-man defense for any length of time (Washington State when he was a sophomore), he scored 61 points. Sophomore Forwards Curtis Rowe and Sidney Wicks are tough rebounders and potentially high scorers.
The Bruin guards were not supposed to be much, yet even with Wooden's best backcourt man, John Vallely, out because of the Hong Kong flu, UCLA did quite well. Terry Schofield, a little-known red shirt last season, came off the bench to score 14 points and take eight rebounds, only one fewer than Alcindor. Saffer and Ken Heitz also looked good. Even in the old gym these guys would be no fun.
Whitmore and Carr scored 27 and 26 points, but senior Forward Bob Arnzen, who has averaged 21 points for two straight years, managed only nine against UCLA. He was bothered by an injured Achilles' tendon but apparently did not feel that was excuse enough and came into the plush Irish locker room with tears in his eyes.
Dee placed most of the blame for the loss on poor shooting. Notre Dame put the ball through the MVP nets on only 39% of its shots. UCLA, thanks in part to 14 short-range jumps and hooks by Alcindor, hit 55%.
"If somebody had told me we were going to get 18 more shots than they were, four more rebounds and Alcindor was only going to get 18 shots," said Dee, "I would have got together everything I own and bet that we were going to win."
"No doubt they're a great team," said Austin Carr, "but they can be had. The season has just started. From now on each one of our games is a stepping stone to get back."