It has been approximately 100 days and 14 games since the Bruins of UCLA awoke on a mid-October morning to what must have been a feeling approaching that of the young suitor in the movie Kings Row, who had his legs rather rudely amputated by the town doctor because the sadistic medic was disturbed that the man had dated his daughter. On awakening from the operation, the unfortunate swain stared down at the end of the bed and delivered the memorable line, "Where's the rest of me!"
That young actor's panic was only for the cinematic moment. The UCLA players' incertitude, on the other hand, lasted a while longer—or until they discovered, to a fellow, that the absence of a man named Lew Alcindor was not going to mean the loss of limb, the deprivation of food and clothing or as much forfeiture of their general habits as they had come to suspect. Indeed, now, after winning all of their first 14 games—albeit some by the fine hairs of a UCLA coed's natural cut—they no longer ask such questions of themselves and are becoming somewhat weary of answering to the similar doubts of others.
Last weekend UCLA concluded the nonconference portion of its schedule with a sluggish no-meaning victory over UC Santa Barbara 89-80 and a thunderous romp over Wyoming 115-77. Because, with a vastly dissimilar style, the Bruins are rebounding better, shooting better and scoring more than last year's national championship team, and because they are again, as the blue-and-gold buttons around campus would have it, "Number One," comparisons with the Alcindor years have yet to cease.
"Not everyone gets to play with Lew Alcindor in their life," says John Vallely, the blond beach boy who steadies the backcourt for UCLA. "But this year it seems like we're playing real basketball, the way we grew up playing it. It's difficult to make comparisons because Lew was such a great player. We all know this, though: it's a lot more fun now. I mean, we must be more fun to watch. With Lew, the way he is, once you've seen him hook two or three times, it's over. He used to hook it in a few-times and we'd win by 30. What a drag, huh? Now we're running and pressing and all of us are getting into the act—you know, just like in regular basketball.
February 2, 1970
"It's funny, though. People still ask about the challenge of playing without Lew and about the pressure of winning. I've never really thought of it in terms of pressure. Not winning just has never occurred to me. We've always been winners here, all of us from high school on. Winning is the only thing we know. There are no other options."
UCLA has won 102 of 104 games over the past 3½ seasons, but this year's version of the dynasty realistically invites comparison not with the triumvirate of Alcindor-led champions but with Wooden's teams of 1964 and 1965. Not so coincidentally, these contingents, whose time is lovingly referred to around Westwood Village as "the Hazzard and Goodrich years," also won NCAA national titles.
Walt Hazzard and Gail Goodrich, now stellar professionals both, were the swift-handed, quick-witted floor leaders who made UCLA so dominant. Though neither Vallely nor Henry Bibby, 6'1" and a brilliant shooter from long range, is as capable of generalship, Wooden believes his current team has certain potentialities above and beyond those of his former champions. Included among them are Bibby's shooting (which he used to practice under the North Carolina moon after picking tobacco all day) and team rebounding, a chore that is the vested responsibility of the Bruins' imposing front line of Steve Patterson, Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe, college basketball's musketeers of muscle.
Although UCLA's starters (with the exception of Rowe and Vallely) had to wait until this season to earn playing time of any consequence (you-bet-your-sweet Bibby is a sophomore), the five appear to get along famously in the high post offense that was the hallmark of the pre-Alcindor days. It is an attack that affords equal shooting opportunities for all but Patterson at center, and it puts a premium on balanced scoring, screens, cuts and teamwork. With it, all five are averaging in double figures and are shooting, as a group, almost 53%.
Early in the season, however, UCLA was depriving itself of its set plays simply by being so proficient in another phase of its offense: the fast break. The Bruins won six of their first eight games by 25 points or more, running their opposition out to the Santa Barbara oil slicks and back. Paradoxically, the other two victories were one-pointers (over Minnesota and Princeton), and it suddenly became apparent that to stop UCLA all one had to do was to slow the tempo and control the ball.
Since early in the month, as a consequence, Wooden has been resurrecting, piece by piece, his devastating zone press, still another strategic UCLA ploy that Alcindor, by his very presence, had transformed into a useless relic. The zone press forces a control team out of its patterns, makes it get moving to survive and, as the creator of chaos, is the quickest way yet devised to send a team unprepared for such activity to a psychiatric ward. With the bustling, acrobatic Wicks roaming the court with all of the abandon and most of the skill that Keith Erickson once brought to the position, the ZP saved the Bruins against Oregon State's slowdown—another one-point victory—and was the decisive factor in turning the game with Bradley all the way around.
Still, a walk with UCLA is preferable to a run, unless one has the bulls of Pamplona suited up, so Wooden undoubtedly will see countless zombielike offenses from now until the end of the season. The Bruins have yet to go on the road in the Pacific Eight, a conference so tough that the champion, some say, will have lost three games. And they express concern about away contests at California this weekend and Oregon State just before winding up the season with those backyard-to-backyard horror tests against Southern Cal.
All of the talk about the "new look" rivals across town, by the way, does not bother the men of UCLA. They quiet such conversation by mentioning a scheduled plane flight to Portland last season on which the USC team was booked in tourist. When Trojan officials discovered that UCLA was on the plane in first class, they quickly switched flights. "I bet the USC players don't know yet why they were changed," laughs Patterson.
Local backbiting aside, vultures everywhere would be wise to snap at the champions while they may. The Bruins are a young team (Vallely is the only senior), they are getting better and now all the ingredients of the past are back for the Kentuckys, New Mexico States and St. Bonaventures of the land to think about.
Before the season began, it was generally assumed that UCLA would have a strong first five and no depth, but in two of UCLA's close decisions it was a substitute who played the major role. Against Princeton, 6'4" swingman Kenny Booker, a defensive specialist, came in with 12 minutes left for the express purpose of stopping the Tigers' Jeff Petrie, who had scored 26 points up to that time. Booker shut out Petrie from the floor as UCLA won at the buzzer on a shot by Wicks. Moreover, in the game that the Bruins look back on as their most important of the year, John Ecker, a willowy forward without much experience, was sent in for a jump ball when Wicks fouled out with 16 seconds to go and UCLA was trailing Oregon State by one point. Ecker not only controlled the tip but got loose underneath and converted a perfect pass from Patterson for the basket that won the game.
If nothing else, that play may have been the one final stroke that brought to this year's team a certain sense of itself in the largely esoteric terms of identity, morale and relationships, and the force that unlinked it from the dark rumors of dissension that surrounded UCLA during the past three seasons.
"When Ecker won that game for us," says Vallely, "it gave us a special lift because he was a substitute who did it. It meant he contributed something that none of the starters could. It was better that way. I remember last year's championship, and a lot of guys didn't feel anything about it because they didn't think they had contributed. And they hadn't—it was all so easy. This year everyone is helping each other a lot more—not just saying 'too damn bad' if another guy makes a mistake—and, if we win again, they're all going to have contributed. I want to win the NCAA again for guys like Booker and Terry Schofield and Bill Seibert. We'll all be a part of it this time."
Patterson, who is called the "Cat Man" because of his unique sleeping hours that cause him to be victimized by Wooden's sharp tongue during practice ("I am not catting around at night," Patterson says, "I am reading"), agrees with Vallely's assessment. "The esprit de corps was, frankly, not good last year," he says. "This wasn't because of Lew. He wasn't a detriment; there will never be a better team player than Lew. But we were all too concerned with points and playing time, not with winning. We would win. The main thing was contending with each other to get into games. We're so much more together this year."
Probably no player on the Bruins better exemplifies the new image around Pauley Pavilion these days than Sidney Wicks, one of the truly outstanding mimics of the Western world. A loquacious, animated and genuinely clever soul, Wicks came to UCLA as a local junior-college star but, unable to break into the lineup very often last year, he sulked and repeatedly clashed with Wooden. On the court the 6'8" 220-pounder is a physical marvel with the potential to be UCLA's finest cornerman ever, but in competition he is like the little girl with the curl—alternately very, very good and then horrid. This season he is beginning to fulfill his capabilities, and he leads the team in scoring and is second in rebounding. Off the court he plays just as important a role.
"We are much more open this year," says Wicks, in his breathless way. "And it is because of me—WOW-ooo." Wicks laughs in a marvelously high pitch, says WOW-ooo a lot and constantly entertains his teammates by dancing his "funky chicken," giving renditions of Midnight Cowboy's Ratso Rizzo and, his specialty, repeating word for word with accompanying fast draws and mannerisms the entire conversation of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on their flight through South America.
Wicks' amiability may come as a surprise to those opponents who, on occasion, are fixed with his glare and could be excused if they went screaming into the night. But his comic routine is mainly responsible for the team's happy-go-lucky looseness. Wicks is on record as having been rendered speechless only once—last season in a practice when he kept mumbling something about "taking Lew's hat" (blocking Alcindor's shot). Subsequently Alcindor almost "took" Wicks' neck by practically jamming him through the basket, whole. "Lew just smiled," says a teammate of the incident, "and Sidney walked away babbling incoherently."
All of this joviality is not lost on Wooden, a considerate man who is enjoying—indeed reveling in—his team after three years of storm and controversy that took its toll on his health, if not his peace of mind. Without ever appearing to relax his devotion to inner discipline and strict attention to detail, which he firmly believes help win ball games, he will accept a gibe from a Wicks in the spirit in which it was intended.
Now 59 and the only man to win five NCAA basketball titles, he sat in his office last week surrounded by the memorabilia of 22 years at UCLA. He snuck a jelly bean from the giant-size glass jar he keeps stocked on his desk, and he thought about his current team.
"I'm like any fan, I guess," he said. "It's more fun now, sure, and I'm even enjoying the tight games. It used to be that in close ones, well, we'd be O.K. Lewis was there, and we'd work things out. There didn't seem to be much to it. Now I feel like I have something to do. I feel more alive. It's been a long time."