The legend of the Jacksonville Dolphins grew all through the season. This was the college basketball team with not one but two 7-footers, and a fine scorer out of the funny papers named Rex Morgan. It was the team with no training rules and a young coach, Joe Williams, who scribbled scouting reports on the backs of envelopes, the team that stopped off in Hawaii and New Orleans for a little relaxation while running up a 23-1 record.
Jacksonville's good times were supposed to end in the NCAA tournament's toughest regional round, the Mideast, but the experts reckoned without Joe Williams' white, double-breasted, lucky sportcoat. For his 36th birthday his players gave him a gift certificate and he bought the coat because he thought "Artis would like it," and what 7'2" Artis Gilmore likes, Joe likes. Besides, as one friend pointed out, if the Dolphins were losing, Joe could always back up into the stands with that jacket and pretend he was a peanut vendor.
Between Artis and the jacket, Jacksonville beat Western Kentucky, Iowa and Kentucky in the regionals, got by St. Bonaventure in the semifinals (the Bonnies played without their injured star, Bob Lanier) and last Saturday found itself at College Park, Md. in the NCAA finals. There the jacket and Artis ran out of magic. The reason—of course, as always, inevitably—was UCLA. In a game marked by the extraordinary talents of Sidney Wicks, the Bruins beat the Dolphins 80-69 for their fourth title in a row and their sixth in seven years.
Yes, out of the 225 teams eligible for the championship, it was UCLA once again, without Lew Alcindor this time, but still with the best-looking uniforms and pompon girls, the best team and the best coach, John Robert Wooden, 23 years older than Joe Williams.
"My wife Nell was saying before the season started that maybe this year we could go back to the coaches' convent on and the Nationals and just relax," said Wooden. "Without any pressure at all. It didn't turn out that way, but of course I didn't really want it to."
If Nell didn't get to relax, at least she will have more bric-a-brac to put in the little museum she has set up in the Woodens' apartment in Santa Monica. This season John was named Coach of the Year by AP, UPI, the Coaches' Association and the basketball writers, not to mention Joe Williams, and those plaques will have to be squeezed in among umpteen Coach of the Year awards from past years and trophies proclaiming him California Father of the Year and King of the Morgan County Fall Foliage Festival.
The pressure wasn't really all that severe, either. UCLA beat Cal State Long Beach by 23 and Utah State by 22 in the West Regional. Then, after Jacksonville's flat, unimpressive win over crippled St. Bonaventure last Thursday night, UCLA had to get through what was supposed to be a difficult semifinal against New Mexico State. The previous two years the Aggies had been in the West Regional and were eliminated by UCLA. This year they got smart or lucky and de-toured to the Nationals by way of the Midwest Regional, hoping for a chance to get up some steam. "It's a grudge thing with us," said Guard Jimmy Collins. "I feel we've got our momentum going now, so maybe it's our turn to win."
It wasn't. Collins shot nicely (28 points) but his team stood around too much and the Aggie front line only matched the size but not the quickness of UCLA's 6'8" Wicks, 6'9" Steve Patterson and 6'6" Curtis Rowe. The Bruins won 93-77.
"You get a complex after a while," said the frustrated Aggie coach, Lou Henson. Asked about the Bruins' alleged mystique, Jacksonville's Williams said, "If anybody has a mystique, it's Coach Wooden." Even today, Henson and Williams could comfort themselves a little by noting that Wooden's teams lost nine of their first 12 NCAA tournament games. As recently as 1963 Arizona State beat the Bruins by 14 points. Of course, they haven't lost many since.
Last Friday was a day of rest and rumor: Artis Gilmore earned $75 a day as a Jacksonville playground instructor last summer (true); UCLA is going to get that tall white kid out of San Diego, Bill Walton (probably true). It was also a day for Coach Lefty Driesell of the host University of Maryland (whose ambition it is to make his school "the UCLA of the East") to announce-the signing of two New York City high-school stars. Lefty's press conference upstaged the team workouts at Cole Field House, workouts that illustrated some of the differences in philosophy between Wooden and Williams. Jacksonville was supposed to have the floor from 3 to 4 in the afternoon and its players straggled in late. Then they put on their Harlem Globetrotter warmup routine, which Joe allowed them to work up themselves. The Bruins sat in the front row and watched with amusement, Patterson saying facetiously, "Greatest thing I ever saw."
UCLA took the floor precisely at 4 o'clock and went through a drill devised by Wooden but there was no Prussian-style regimentation. Wooden passed out jelly beans to the writers and asked Patterson, "Steve, you ever have any practice against a 7-footer?" The ex-backup man for Big Lew allowed as how he had.
There were some good omens for Jacksonville. The last time the NCAA finals were held in College Park, a little-known independent, Texas at El Paso, defeated a prestige basketball school, Kentucky. Jacksonville was assigned to the same motel where UTEP once slept, just up the street from the Maryland campus. In the motel lobby Gilmore showed how nervous and anxious he was about the whole event. Some of his teammates were late gathering for the first practice on Wednesday, so he plopped into an armchair and fell asleep.
Although not all the Dolphins were as relaxed as Artis, the UCLA players were even less so. Unable to sleep the night before the championship, Wicks and Rowe went out at 2 a.m. to get sandwich makings and sat up most of the night talking with Henry Bibby, John Vallely and two subs. Then they all slept through most of the morning.
Jacksonville filled its allotted 1,000 seats with folks from Florida wearing "JU can do" badges. It used to be that the Dolphins couldn't even get a thousand people to watch games at home in Swisher Gym. UCLA not only had its cute pompon girls and 1,000 fans but all the rooters from St. Bonaventure, who felt their boys had been rooked by the officials in the game against Jacksonville and who persisted in calling the Dolphins tunas, as in "You're a tuna, Gilmore. You're a stiff."
Wooden waited until just before the game to tell Wicks he was guarding Gilmore, who is so tall that he can stand flat-footed and touch the rim with the ball. "I thought I was going to guard anybody but him," said Sidney. The original strategy was for Wicks to stay at Gilmore's side, like a Siamese twin, while the other Bruins pressured the passers. It didn't work. Artis scored three times from in close (he never scores from anywhere else) and Jacksonville had a quick eight-point lead, 14-6, when UCLA finally woke up enough to call time-out.
Wooden moved Wicks around behind Gilmore and had Patterson and others ease off their own men a little to help out. "If Gilmore did get it inside," said Wooden later, "it would be in close quarters and difficult for him to get the shot. With men all around you with their hands up, it's just not that easy."
The important hands belonged to Wicks, "the most intimidating man in basketball," according to one West Coast coach. Gilmore had replaced Alcindor as the premier shot-blocker in the country, but Wicks, giving away six inches, blocked Artis' shots four times. "I couldn't move him no kinda way," said Sidney, whose famous glare did not have much effect, possibly because it only reached Gilmore's collarbone. "So I tried to make him get the ball six or seven feet from the basket and I'd back off him. Then I had room to jump between him and the hoop."
It's hard to say whether Wicks' defense intimidated Gilmore, but for whatever reason Artis had a horrible shooting night—nine for 29—and was out-rebounded by Sidney 18 to 16.
Playing better defense and keeping their poise, the Bruins fought back to a small lead on clever fast breaks and the shooting of Vallely and Rowe. With a sudden spurt in the last minutes, they left the floor at halftime ahead 41-36, despite 14 turnovers and an excellent defensive job on Bibby by JU's little Vaughn Wedeking.
"We knew the first couple of minutes of the second half would determine the outcome," said Patterson. "They were down by five and could catch us, or we could move out by 10. We moved out. They weren't used to playing behind teams—they don't play the kind of rough schedule we do. I think Gilmore was surprised to see a 6'8" guy go up and block his shot, but I've never seen anybody better than Sidney this year."
Gilmore missed his first five shots of the second half and the Bruins steadily increased their lead to eight, 11, 16 points. Joe Williams and his assistant, Tom Wasdin, took it calmly when the game was obviously lost. They did not try to fade into the stands disguised as peanut vendors. When Gilmore fouled out with 1:50 left, Wooden ran in his subs and the final margin was 11 points. UCLA not only won the point battle against the country's tallest team but the rebound battle, too—50-38.
Gilmore's below-par performance should not be repeated next year because he is a good athlete and no tuna. He is only a junior and he did not have the good high-school coaching or competition that some other giants, notably Alcindor, had. Wedeking and Artis and the other 7-footer, Pembrook Burrows III, will return for Jacksonville, too. The trouble is that guess who will be right there waiting. Yep. Inevitably. For UCLA loses only Vallely. The 1971 title game could be between the same schools (Wicks vs. Gilmore again) and this time it will pack the Astrodome. The one question mark may well be the attitude of the Bruin juniors—Wicks, Rowe and Patterson—who already feel they have proved themselves. "Everybody was looking forward to playing without Lew," said Rowe in the crowded UCLA locker room. "Right now if Alcindor was on the team who would the reporters be talking to? Look around the room—the reporters are with five people and that's beautiful.
"Every time somebody mentions the three in a row they say Lew did it. Now we just proved that four other men from that team could play basketball—with the best of them."