Not even the occult can put a finger on the specific point in time when the Bruins of UCLA (see cover) took over the game of college basketball—when they nursed it, rehearsed it and gave out the news. When, in fact, they took it and reduced it to an exact science. A concept, if you will, rather than a contest. However, a fleeting glance at history might reveal that the precise moment probably came sometime after Elvis Presley but before Vietnam, making the dominance of the UCLA program appear at once both younger and older than it really is.
On the one hand, the program is bright and shiny new in its adaptation to the mod age, prevailing every year as it does whether hair or skirts go up or down. And yet the beginnings of its success go way back, a tracing that starts before all the national championships. Certainly then, when considered from this point, the UCLA reign seems much more venerable, almost as if college basketball never had anything else, as if there had never been any Oklahoma A & Ms or Kentuckys or San Franciscos or Cincinnatis. No Tom Gola, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson or Jerry Lucas. There were, of course, but those legacies are gone from the college game, dulled by the sweeping consistency of the UCLA effort. Most of the anticipated dynasties have faded, and the individual names now mean something else. Gola is Philadelphia politics, Russell is Boston and the pro game. Oscar is the quintessential holdout, a traded relic. Lucas is Beef "N" Shakes.
Only UCLA remains, such a tower in the game that not even the three most publicized college stars of all time have been able to make a mark on its preeminence. Bill Bradley of Princeton and Pete Maravich of LSU came to fame in years of UCLA championships and were forced into bit parts. Even Lew Alcindor, who was of the program and thus had no chance to overcome it from the outside, never quite seemed larger than the whole.
Perhaps, in retrospect, this is because the coach, John Wooden, won before Alcindor and has now won after him. But it is much more than that, too. The UCLA system—Wooden's system—is founded on the simple basics of conditioning, fundamentals and teamwork, which, admirable qualities though they may be, are only goals elsewhere. At UCLA they are necessities.
November 30, 1970
The all-encompassing authority of the team in recent years has tended to becloud the fact that only since 1962 has UCLA been much of a factor in the national college picture. Wooden came to the Westwood campus in 1948 from Indiana State, and in his first year of major college coaching transformed what was considered to be a last-place team into a running, hustling outfit that never seemed to tire as it won 22 games and the championship of the Pacific Coast Conference's southern division. Right away Wooden was offered the head coaching position at his alma mater, Purdue, where he had been an All-America for three years in the 1930s. He graciously declined.
A few years later, after winning a couple of league titles with his zippety-whirl style of play, he was again approached by Purdue as well as other Big Ten schools. At the time Wooden was anticipating the emergence of Willie Naulls, a development that would make him a contender for the national championship. Again he remained at UCLA. Bill Russell and San Francisco halted Wood-en's drive to the top at that time, and Pete Newell's disciplined, defense-oriented teams at California stopped him later. After three trips to the Western Regional in 12 years and only one victory in a consolation game to show for it, UCLA and John Wooden entered the 1960s with speed, quickness, a fast break and a grand reputation, which, with a dime, got the coach a cup of coffee down at Hollis Johnson's fountain.
Then, in 1962, UCLA won in the West and made it to the national semifinals in Louisville only to meet a Cincinnati team that had won the championship the year before and was to win again that weekend. The Bruins kept the game close and went into the last minute tied, holding the ball for a final shot that would win the game. With time running out, an inexperienced sophomore named Walt Hazzard was called for a charging foul. Cincinnati gained possession, and the Bearcats—not the Bruins—got the final shot and the victory. To this day Wooden believes that had UCLA held onto the ball and made the shot, his team would have beaten Ohio State and an injured Lucas in the finals and won its first championship.
In the latter part of the next season another good UCLA team that was to lose in the regionals (to Arizona State) came upon a little number known as the zone press, and everything began to draw together. When the same men returned in 1963-64—Hazzard and Gail Goodrich at the guards, Fred Slaughter at center, Keith Erickson and Jack Hirsch at the forwards—this is what followed:
1964. The first NCAA championship. An undefeated season, 30-0, with no starter over 6'5".
1965. The second NCAA championship. The first team to win back-to-back titles without a dominant big man.
1967. The third NCAA championship. An undefeated season, 30-0, with four sophomores and two juniors.
1968. The fourth NCAA championship. The first school to win back-to-back titles twice.
1969. The fifth NCAA championship. The only team to win three straight.
1970. The sixth NCAA championship. The only team to win four straight.
Many basketball people—not all of them from Los Angeles—also suspect that had UCLA's 1966 team not been decimated by illness and injury to most of its starters at key points during the season, it would have won still another national championship for Wooden. The defending champions are, of course, the choice for the title again this season and—since the 1970 Bruin freshman team, featuring 6'10½" Bill Walton along with impressive balance and scoring talent through the first six men, has more potential than the Alcindor team—UCLA may be the favorite for years to come. The beat, as they say, goes on.
Whatever the future holds, Wooden remains the only man to have coached two teams to perfect 30-0 seasons, an implausible statistic in itself, and at UCLA he has now won 477 games (a .774 winning percentage), including 24 straight NCAA tournament games. His position as a coach—in terms of sheer winning success—is assured; indeed, it has now advanced beyond comparison with any other man in his field.
Moreover, for a true measure of Wooden's accomplishments, it is well to consider the parallel in college football. With the hue and cry about No. 1 in that other big-time campus sport, it is an established fact that a rating there is both less accurate and infinitely easier to attain—if only because in football you win No. 1 in a poll; in basketball you win it on the court. Thus, it is interesting to note that in 46 years of modern-day poll taking only three college football teams have been unanimous No. 1 picks more than once (Notre Dame, Texas and Army—each just twice) and only three other teams have been named No. 1 (not unanimously) three years in a row (USC, Minnesota and Army). When this is compared to the UCLA basketball team's record of six national titles and four in a row—all "undisputed" and all directed by one man—the dynasty takes on added stature. Any objective interpreter then could understand a UCLA man's throwaway line at lunch recently that "I'm only having a sandwich with the greatest coach of any sport who ever lived." Which may be similar to saying that a John Wooden is worth a handful of Bear Bryants, Woody Hayeses and Darrell Royals any day. One-on-one, it is no contest.
There are indications that UCLA is less appreciated than it deserves to be in Los Angeles. Though 12,800-seat Pauley Pavilion is sold out every game and the newspapers provide good coverage, nobody in the Southern California basin ever seems excited when UCLA wins another championship. "The only time this town really went crazy over a sporting event was after one of Sandy Koufax' no-hitters," says one Los Angeles man. "It's better that we're not fawned over," says Wooden. "If they made too much of it when we did well, they might make too much of it when we do poorly."
Wooden understands only too well that his basketball program has reached a point where any season in which he brings home something less than a national title will be considered a total washout. Such an awareness would seem a terrible burden to carry, but as always his sense of values sustains him. "Some of my most successful teams have been the ones that didn't win," he says.
Perhaps a blasé attitude is to be expected from any community that has to look out for the Rams, the Dodgers, the Angels, the Lakers, the Kings, USC track and field and various other college teams plus about 8,000 Mexican boxers, as well as find time to swim, sail, surf, golf, fish, play tennis and go for a drive in the car. A recent sports luncheon featured, in addition to representatives of all these, a man who had floated around the world in a boat, the world champion flycaster, two Globetrotters, Miss Alaska Airlines on 20-foot stilts and a member of Weightlifters for Christ. "There is a lot to do and see in Los Angeles," says Wooden.
On campus, reaction to the basketball success is mixed. Some of the zeal for the team has naturally subsided in direct proportion to the boredom caused by winning so regularly. After the first two UCLA national championships, bonfires were fanned in parking lots and sit-in celebrations were staged at the corner of Westwood and Wilshire, but nothing of the sort has occurred lately. With a student enrollment of 29,000, the fact that announcements proclaiming a campus speech by Dan Rowan, a party with "Band, Wine and B.Y.O. Dope (Sorry)" and an intramural contest between "Krud and Dog Puke" have taken the place of basketball advertisements is not surprising. But when it counts—as last March, when the team returned to Los Angeles airport from Maryland with its fourth straight NCAA title—the students are there, 2,000 that time.
The UCLA name does not go unappreciated on foreign fronts, of course. Large-scale paydays for the basketball program in recent years included, during the Alcindor era, two single-game appearances in Madison Square Garden, four Chicago Stadium dates and a colossal gate at the Astrodome in Houston. Athletic Director J. D. Morgan will not release exact figures, but he estimates that the UCLA basketball program brings in as much revenue as do the football teams at many major schools. In the two years that NBC has held the rights to the NCAA tournament UCLA has collected upward of $90,000. Since UCLA's Bruin Classic at Christmastime is only held in alternate years, the team will now be traveling to such tournaments as the Steel Bowl as well as repeating its regular trips to Chicago and Notre Dame, all places where it picks up attractive guarantees.
To maintain a standard of excellence, the school's recruiting system must pay off. Wooden has always insisted that his staff does not spend much time in this endeavor, and it is true that he himself takes little interest in that part of the job. Ninety percent of his players over the years have been from California, most of those from Southern California. Furthermore, Wooden says he has never seen an out-of-state boy play and "we never contact out-of-state players first." Jerry Norman, his former assistant coach and now a Los Angeles stockbroker, disagrees. "Coach tends to forget some of that because he isn't as involved as I was," says Norman. "You have to contact the good ones now or they'll think you're not interested."
The fact remains that, usually, Wooden will not talk to a prospect until the boy makes his first campus visit. The principal element in that first discussion is Wooden's sincere desire that education come before basketball. "I don't want to sell a boy on our school," says Wooden. "The program speaks for itself." The glorious weather and glamorous image of Tinsel Town are intangibles that do not hurt the recruiting program either.
"One thing I remember about his talk with me," says Steve Patterson, the current center, "is that he didn't bad-mouth the other schools. Everybody else said, 'If you don't come with us, above all, don't go to UCLA. It's no fun there.' "
"It takes a lot of guts to tell a recruit he won't start as a sophomore," says Kenny Heitz, a swing man of the Alcindor era and now a student at Harvard Law School. "Most guys sit there and tell you you're the greatest in the history of mankind, 25 a game in your sophomore year, All-Conference. Wooden says, well, if you work hard, you'll be a swing man for me. Wow! It's a challenge all of a sudden."
It is often pointed out that UCLA's success with out-of-state recruits has been limited to black players. The school has never had a white player of star quality from out of state simply because the coaches don't look far away very diligently. They don't have to. Despite the claims of Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania, only New York City matches Southern California in high school basketball talent. Wooden does not miss much of the home product. Three years ago he did miss on Paul Westphal, who attended Wooden's own summer camp for four years. Says Westphal, now a junior and a budding superstar at Southern Cal, "It would have been just another championship at UCLA. If we win here, it will be unique. It's more of an achievement to beat Coach Wooden than to win for him."
Upon entering UCLA a young man comes more under the tutelage of assistants Denny Crum and Gary Cunningham for the first year than under Wooden. Both former UCLA players and in their early 30s, the two assistants are the perfect meld—Crum, a fiery, aggressive type who heads up the recruiting program and figures in game strategy; Cunningham, the tall, silent one whose patience is more conducive to the direction of the freshman team and to helping players with their class schedules and study load. When he was there, Norman handled most of this work, endearing him to Bruins both past and present. Almost to a man, they credit him with much of the UCLA success. "The most moving force when I played was Jerry Norman," says Fred Slaughter. "He related to us." Norman's departure two years ago was somewhat surprising but not unrelated to his frustration at not being able to move up. The mandatory retirement age at the university is 67, and Wooden was just 58 at the time. Now any talk of retirement has been delayed due lo the brilliant freshman team, but speculation exists that Wooden's successor will be a name coach rather than one of his former players.
Whenever the change does come, Wooden's devotion to discipline, conditioning and fundamentals will be virtually impossible to match. There is a UCLA Way that is hammered into a new player almost from the very first day. In practice and games a player must acknowledge a good pass from a teammate. If he doesn't do this, he doesn't play. Among Wooden's other "normal expectations," which are presented to each player at the beginning of the season, are: he must never criticize, "nag or razz" a teammate; never be selfish, jealous, envious or egotistical; never "grandstand, loaf, sulk or boast"; never "have reason to be sorry afterward." There are other expressions of the UCLA Way, too.
Shooting: Wooden determines the area from which a player is accurate, and he is restricted to that area. A Henry Bibby, for instance, can shoot from 25 feet but not from 10 feet after a cut inside, where a John Vallely can. Wooden will change a man's form if he either cannot get the shot off or cannot hit it when he does shoot. This can sometimes result in bad feelings—as it did between Wooden and Edgar Lacey, who felt the coach had ruined his game forever by tampering with his shot.
Passing: UCLA players look not for the man but for a spot on the man—his shoulder, his extended arm. Also, to avoid blindside fouling, they screen spots on the floor instead of opponents.
Rebounding: Wooden teaches his men to 1) assume any shot will be missed; 2) get their hands up the moment any shot is taken; and 3) step in front of the opponent and go for the ball. "Blocking out is negative rebounding," he says. "We charge the ball."
In addition to everything else, the Bruins are constantly running. All conditioning drills are competitive, and UCLA teams work just as hard on fundamentals during the last week of a season as in the first. Wooden still preserves the practice plan for each day that he has coached at UCLA and he brings to the daily sessions a three-by-five-inch card with notations of what to do each minute in order that he not forget. "His cards," mutters one current player. "He drives me crazy with his damn cards."
Despite their perpetual moaning, UCLA players know they are ready after a week of seemingly endless drills. "They are ready for the pros, too." says Mike Warren of the '67 and '68 champions. "That's why UCLA guys get through rookie camp so easily. They've got the fundamentals down. If a man wants to play pro ball, there's only one man to play for in college—Wooden."
"Wooden is not the game coach everybody thinks he is," says Jack Hirsch from the 1963-64 team. "He doesn't have to be. He's so good during the week he sits back, relaxes and has fun watching the game." Wooden puts little credence in scouting reports. "If we do what we have learned correctly," he says, "it doesn't matter who the opponent is or what he does. UCLA will win."
Erickson, now a Los Angeles Laker, remembers playing Minnesota and being burned time and again by one particular player. "This guy is jumping through the moon and putting the ball up from everywhere and Coach Wooden never mentions anything about him," says Erickson. "When he jumps over me a couple of times, I realize this is a great player. You got it? We have no scouting report on Lou Hudson."
It is most definitely man's nature that a dedication to perfection in one area brings one up short in another. While Wooden places much faith in team principles and pays steadfast attention to "doing one's best," he sometimes fails, according to his players, in the man-to-man relationships desired, nay demanded, by present-day student standards. "He associates with his players just as much as he wants to or has to," says Slaughter, now a special assistant to UCLA Chancellor Charles Young, "and that's where it stops. I think he probably should get more involved with other aspects of a player's psyche. Perhaps if he were more active in this regard, some of these complaints would not exist."
UCLA has always had a reputation as an ideal spot for the black athlete, but various comments by recent graduates, Alcindor among them, have indicated this might not be the case. Though many of Wooden's publicized differences have been with black players, it is hardly fair to attribute all of them to color. Lacey resigned from the team after the famous game in the Astrodome in 1968 because Wooden would not publicly retract a statement he had made to the effect that he had not put Lacey back into the game because the player indicated he did not want to return. Wooden will not be quoted on the matter, but a player who sat next to Lacey on the bench that night insists Lacey shook off Wooden's motions to reenter the game. Another player on the same bench says Wooden's reaction "was the worst thing he could possibly do to a guy like Edgar." Although most observers say Lacey was not the same player after a knee injury following his sophomore year, the man himself still believes he was mistreated throughout his career. If, in fact, race never seemed a surface factor in the case, some other background is revealing.
When Lacey, a legend of the L.A. playgrounds, was originally recruited by UCLA, he told Slaughter, also a black, that he wanted to average 35 points a game. Slaughter, a big scorer himself in high school who had sacrificed his points when he joined the varsity, told Lacey UCLA was not the place for him. Later, Slaughter was called in by Wooden and threatened with the loss of his scholarship if he ever tried to "de-recruit" anyone again. For the rest of his time at the school, including two postgraduate years, Slaughter was not asked to help with the program in any way. When he attempted to become the graduate assistant coach for the freshmen, a position traditionally held by former UCLA players, Slaughter was passed over and the job went to Jay Carty of Oregon State. "I tried to tell Lacey the way it was," says Slaughter today. "But it fell on deaf ears. Then the coaching staff thought I was sabotaging them. There is no 'perfect' place for the black athlete, but if a black kid wants to get his game together for the pros, this is the best place to come. Coach Wooden is a product of his experience and background and he relates to the black as well as his background lets him. That's better than most."
Warren, who is now in movie and television acting, does not feel so tolerant. "His relationships with blacks have no meaning," says Warren of Wooden. "The coaching staff was seriously interested only in us playing, studying and keeping out of trouble. Our individual progress in terms of maturing as black men was of no concern. It's all superficial, the same kind of dialogue every day."
At the end of his sophomore year, Warren was called in by Wooden and confronted about his dating a white girl. Wooden told Warren he had received threatening phone calls and that Warren was doing the wrong thing.
"I would discourage anybody from interracial dating," says Wooden today. "I imagine whites would have trouble dating in an Oriental society, too. It's asking for trouble. But I've never told a player who he could or couldn't date."
"He didn't stop me," smiles Warren. "But, man, how about telling me my life is in danger? How's that for a hint?"
"I think I've had good discussions with various black members of my teams," says Wooden. "I've tried to understand and adapt. I remember when Wilt Chamberlain came out here, he told a reporter he couldn't be 'handled,' that only animals were 'handled.' I had used that term before, but I never have since. I had made a mistake. I learn more every year. But there are some things I have to stand upon."
Wooden's most recent crisis had nothing to do with race. It came at the UCLA basketball dinner last spring when, in his farewell speech, Bill Seibert, a little-used reserve forward, bitterly attacked the UCLA system as harboring "double standards," "unequal treatment" for starters and substitutes, and a "lack of communication" between the players and the coaching staff. Seibert articulated what many players in the past had felt but not said. During the speech he was shouted down and booed by alumni, but at its conclusion he received a standing ovation from his teammates. Wooden handled what was an immensely difficult situation in his usual composed manner. In truth, he was hurt more than anyone knew. In the days to follow, the team held several meetings on its own to discuss how to improve conditions. Wooden summoned individual players and requested that, if they felt as Seibert had, they leave the team.
Following this, some starters went to Wooden and asked him to stop "harassing" their fellow players, or they (the starters) would quit. The coach told one player that he himself would resign if pressured with any ultimatums from the team. "The whole thing got out of hand," says one prominent Bruin. "We told him we didn't want to challenge him. We just wanted the right to get up and say something if things were going badly. I told him we came to UCLA because we wanted him to coach basketball, not coach our private lives. He had been trying to divide us and harass us. Wooden has always said we were students first and players next. But he never considered what the ramifications of that are—that as a basketball coach, he can't control our identities."
In the end, Wooden met with the team as a unit, and Sidney Wicks, the star, spoke for everyone. "You shouldn't feel threatened by this," he said. "We're here as a team and you taught us that."
In the past few years, influenced by Alcindor, Wooden has relaxed many rules. The team no longer has to wear blazers on the road (they voted blazers down this season). Sideburns can be longer, but no beards or mustaches are allowed. Wooden no longer lobby-sits on road trips, waiting for his players to come in before curfew.
But he has not abdicated all of his positions. In the midst of the Seibert upheaval last May, the team got together and sent a telegram to the President in protest of the invasion of Cambodia and the shootings at Kent State. It was the kind of political group endeavor that Wooden staunchly disapproves of, and even now he resents the action and believes some team members were coerced into signing the telegram. It is doubtful, too, that he will ever change his mind about the heart of Seibert's complaints.
"A player gets the treatment he earns and deserves," says Wooden. "I've told some of my men that if I had an eligible daughter, I wouldn't let them near my place. Other men could visit her, but couldn't play for me. They all won't get the same breaks in life. If I treated them alike, they'd know I was lying to somebody. Seibert felt he had the right to do what he did," Wooden says, "but the boy took advantage of the situation. I didn't feel it was in good taste or polite or good manners, either."
To Wooden's credit, he has never defended either himself or his system by pointing to all of those national championships. "Winning isn't the most important thing," he says. He also has maintained closer relationships with his players after they have departed UCLA and are past what one player calls "the emotional chaos" of the player-coach association. Alcindor, for example, has since apologized for some of his remarks about Wooden, and just last month appeared quite by surprise for a private dinner party at the Bel Air Country Club to celebrate his former coach's 60th birthday. Seibert, too, has made his peace with Wooden—just before he left for Australia and a coaching and teaching position that Wooden had obtained for him.
"Insensitive?" the coach asks. "I don't think so. All I want to know is, have I been fair? Not have I been right, because I know I haven't always been. But have I been fair? I think I have. I always remember to do my best, and I have peace of mind."
Undoubtedly, too, there are times when John Wooden remembers what he told his players late on a night seven long years ago, moments after they had won that first national title. "Now you are champions," he said. "And you must act like champions. You met some people going up. You will meet the same people going down." Even with the many crises at UCLA, college basketball continues to wonder when that will be.