Sharp observers of basketball figured out long ago that 7'1½" Lew Alcindor (see cover) was going to be one of the great net-straighteners of all time. They were so right.
For four years at UCLA, where the New Yorker toiled on a grant-in-aid under Coach Johnny Wooden, one way or another Alcindor was always straightening out nets. When they were tangled he stood flat-footed under the basket and, with that patented nonchalance of his, reached up to fix them. When they were empty, why, he filled them—with 56 points in his first varsity appearance three years and 90 games ago and with more than 2,300 points in all. In between, he helped draw the biggest indoor basketball crowd in history, led the Bruins to 88 victories against two losses and, last Saturday afternoon in Louisville's Freedom Hall, was the man most responsible for UCLA's becoming the first team ever to win three national championships in a row.
The latter feat was Lew Alcindor's biggest thrill and probably will rate as such until he gets his first paycheck for signing a pro contract. His brilliant final performance against Purdue virtually guarantees that it will be the reported $1 million—or perhaps much more. But it was not easy in Louisville. While Purdue did not cause much trouble in the final game, upstart Drake from the corn country did in the semifinals. UCLA, in fact, almost did not make it past Drake.
The Bruins had come into the last two games of the NCAA tournament with so many honors pressing about them that they hardly could keep track of them all. Wooden, for example, was congratulated one afternoon by Jeff Prugh of the Los Angeles Times. Wooden's wife Nell looked startled and said, "What for?" "Well," said Wooden sheepishly, "I got another coach's award." Coach of the Year, as voted by his colleagues, is what he meant and he had not bothered to tell his wife.
March 31, 1969
Drake, on the other hand, felt slighted by the fact that it had received little attention despite its 24-4 record, its Missouri Valley playoff victory over Louisville and its Midwest Regional championship. The Bulldogs had not made it into the AP poll until the final week. They took out their anger on UCLA.
Drake Coach Maurice John had said he would play the Bruins man-for-man, the veteran net-straightener in the pivot notwithstanding. That is what he did and, not only that, he started 6'5" Al Williams on Alcindor, which is something like asking an elf to chop down a redwood with a fingernail file. The strategy worked. While Drake's fine guard, Willie McCarter, and a substitute guard, Gary Zeller, were doing most of their team's critical scoring, Dolph Pulliam led a defense that so harassed the Bruins they could not see Alcindor well enough to get the ball in to him. Only Guard John Vallely's hot shooting late in the second half saved the game for the Californians. Because of him UCLA still led 83-74 with one minute 12 seconds left, but Drake scored eight straight points, slashing the lead to one just before Lynn Shackelford was fouled and the buzzer sounded almost simultaneously. Shackelford's two free throws made it 85-82.
"I feel like I've had a reprieve," said Wooden.
Purdue got into the finals by embarrassing North Carolina 92-65. Rick Mount and the clever 5'10" Bill Keller, who moved in and out of Carolina's pressure defense like a speedy windup toy, were simply overwhelming. It was such a bad tournament for North Carolina, in fact, that the newly installed blue-green Scor-Tron scoreboard, manufactured in North Carolina and featuring "metal ceramic electroluminescent panels" instead of bulbs, balked in the finals and refused to show the score properly. Mount had 36 points, mostly from the parking lot, and Carolina had 26 atrocious turnovers.
Because Purdue is much the same kind of team as Drake, there were those in Louisville who thought the Boilermakers had a good chance of getting Alcindor. They did, too—down their own throats. Playing 36 minutes, Alcindor scored 37 points and took 20 rebounds. Purdue, never in the game, did not have the quickness of Drake, and its man-for-man coverage of Alcindor was a disaster. The final score, which might have been anything, was a prosaic 92-72.
Almost as important to UCLA in this game as Alcindor was the play of Kenny Heitz, guarding Mount. The Rocket scored 28 points, but he hit on only 12 of 36 shots, and most of those came in the second half when they did not mean much. "I feel that every point that Mount scored under his average [33.8] before the game was decided should be counted for Kenny," Wooden said.
The third straight title, and fifth in six years, was a personal triumph for John Wooden, who might be the first man to make the basketball Hall of Fame as a player and coach. Five different schools, including UCLA itself, had won two NCAA titles in a row, but they all lost their electroluminescence somewhere on the way to a third. Only San Francisco in the middle '50s and Cincinnati in the early '60s really came close. USF, coached by Phil Woolpert, finished third after its two title years. Cincy, under Ed Jucker, reached the finals against Loyola of Chicago and went into overtime before losing its third try.
Alcindor was the first "big man" Wooden ever had, and the ardent champion of the fast-break attack was happy to have "the challenge of a change," to show that his Bruins could not only frug but also dance sedately when they had the right Maypole.
"It was not as easy an era as it might have seemed to outsiders," said Wooden. "But it's been a tremendous era, I think. I've heard it said that any coach would have won championships with Lewis. That might be true, it really might. But they'll never know. I do."