When the UCLA basketball team arrived in Houston for the NCAA championships, Coach John Wooden made one of his typically startling forecasts. "I think we have as good a chance as any team here," he said. There was that rascal going out on a limb again.
So, having been forewarned by Wooden—and the fact that UCLA hasn't lost a playoff game since smog was invented—absolutely nobody was astonished when the Bruins beat Kansas 68-60 in the semifinals Thursday night with their usual workmanlike precision, then subdued inspired Villanova 68-62 in the finals on Saturday. The fact that UCLA's lone candidate for superstardom, fashion plate Sidney Wicks, had to play with a sore big toe might have worried some people. Not UCLA. The school tabloid, The Daily Bruin, already had made the necessary allowances in the budget for an eight-page color supplement celebrating the championship.
For the benefit of those whose subscriptions to The Daily Bruin have expired, UCLA now has won five straight NCAA championships ("Gimme five," the UCLA buttons said) and seven of the last eight. The team's record for the past five seasons is 145-5 and it has won 28 straight NCAA tournament games. Opposing schools are going to make up buttons saying, "Givus help!"
If the story of this year's NCAA showdown was familiar, the setting at least was different. The court was a four-foot-high platform squatting out in the middle of the Astrodome's acreage, with an 80-foot-high NBC camera crane poised above it at one end like a creature feature predator ready to pounce. The spectators at ground level needed periscopes; the spectators in the stands needed telescopes. Photographers sitting cross-legged at either end of the floor were threatened with decapitation by people sitting behind and below them as the Astrodome set a new two-day, U.S.-arena record for "down in fronts." But worse was yet to come. The customers not only were unable to see the games, they couldn't see those nubile UCLA pompon girls doing a quick costume change and coming out in homemade hot pants. "Givus help!"
The NCAA knew all along that the Astrodome was far more suitable for feeding Christians to lions than for basketball, but the potential payoff was too much to resist. The two sessions drew 63,193 people, which is a lot of sweetening for a tournament pot. One official estimated that each of the four semifinalists would cart home about $60,000, much more than teams had before.
For the players, there was a problem, too: not the lights, as some expected, but the short distance between the sidelines and the edges of the raised floor—only about 10 feet. A man chasing a loose ball toward the side felt like a Navy pilot overshooting an aircraft carrier. When Western Kentucky Coach Johnny Oldham stepped up on the court for a practice session, he said:
"Here's my first prediction. Clarence Glover goes over the side."
"I'll go after the ball," said Western's Rex Bailey. "I may not want to, but when you're playing for the national championship you don't hold back. Of course, I'll land on somebody's head."
Several players did overshoot the runway in the four games (Glover not among them, despite his usual hustling performance), but miraculously nobody got hurt. Outside the Dome, however, a Western Kentucky student was killed trying to jump from a motel balcony into a swimming pool.
The first semifinal game was between East Regional champion Villanova, playing in its 10th postseason tournament in Jack Kraft's 10 years as coach, and the Mideast's Western Kentucky. To cynics it looked like a preview of next season's ABA playoffs; two newsmen with good eyesight reported seeing ABA contracts signed by Villanova's 6'8" Howard Porter and Western's 7-foot Jim McDaniels. Both players signed affidavits for the NCAA, swearing they were still untainted, but early on Monday the Pittsburgh Condors announced they had signed Porter.
McDaniels did not seem bothered by an insulting banner—"Big Mac is a 59¢ hamburger"—and had an ABA-type night shooting and rebounding, but his extremely amateurish job of defense against Villanova's Hank Siemiontkowski—along with a missed free throw by Jerry Dunn with four seconds to go—probably cost Western the game. Western had 32 more shots and 11 more rebounds than Villanova but still lost in double overtime 92-89.
UCLA took out Kansas in a tough but not particularly hair-raising fashion. The Bruins led at 32-25, then K.U. made a run early in the second half. Kansas Coach Ted Owens felt that his team lost momentum and never regained it when 6'10" Dave Robisch put in a jump shot to tie the game at 39-all, only to have the goal nullified because he had taken steps. UCLA moved steadily out into the lead, went ahead by as much as 15 points and won by eight.
For the Bruins, it was the work of an expertly programmed machine grinding down an opponent, but belowstairs—in other arenas one would say "on the sideline"—things were a bit more confusing than observers of UCLA's cold efficiency would ever guess. Master technician Wooden and one of his assistants, Denny Crum, spent part of the time bickering with each other. At one point Crum wanted to send in Guard Terry Schofield. Wooden said no and Crum beckoned for Schofield anyway. Wooden threatened to banish Crum to the end of the bench and Crum said he would not sit there. Henry Bibby, a regular guard, tried to cool them off.
After another strategy disagreement, Wooden said: "I'm the coach of this team, and don't tell me how to coach my team."
Wooden always has said he likes "high-spirited" players, and, while Crum no doubt went too far, the head coach likes the same quality in his aides. He has never had yes-men around him. One of the secrets to his success, in fact, is that after considerable prodding and debate an aide can sometimes get Wooden to accept new ideas. For instance, ex-Assistant Jerry Norman convinced him to use the diamond-and-one defense that helped stop Houston's Elvin Hayes in the 1968 semifinals.
On Saturday, Villanova was hoping to become the second team in history with six losses on its record to win the NCAA tournament (Kentucky's "Fiddling Five" did it in 1958). The Wildcats had only nine players, so they were practicing with "the publicity man from the school paper, an injured player and two managers," said Kraft. "We only can play five men at a time, so we're not worried about it."
Villanova had shocked everyone by murdering strong Penn by 43 points in the East Regional. After the Wildcats beat Western Kentucky Thursday, a group of Villanova students marched about 11 miles to the Penn campus to crow some more, and on Friday Kraft was named university division Coach of the Year by the National Association of Basketball Coaches. The season already was a huge success, but Villanova did not intend to stop playing basketball just yet.
"The whole East Coast will go up in flames if we win," said Siemiontkowski. "The school would be unbelievable. They'd burn it."
Villanova cheerleader Tim Halloran, nicknamed "Rootie Kazootie," had no fear of the Bruin pompon girls, either.
"I'm really psyched up," he said. "This is my last game."
Well, UCLA saved the East from firebugs, but Rootie Kazootie's last game was plenty exciting.
Villanova opened in a two-three zone, the sort that had given UCLA so much trouble in the West Regional game against Long Beach State. The Pennsylvanians held Wicks and Curtis Rowe in check fairly well, but 6'9" Center Steve Patterson (see cover) made nine of 13 shots, inside and out, and had 20 points at the half. (Patterson turned down two pro offers to forgo his senior year at UCLA. "I know I'm not a famous entity," he said, "but I might have been infamous if I had left and UCLA lost a national championship because of that.")
With five minutes to go in the first half and UCLA holding a 39-32 lead by virtue of its furious pressing defense and some hot long-range shooting, the Bruins went into a stall to force Villanova out of its zone. Villanova obliged, just slightly, but that was enough for UCLA to move ahead by 11 points.
In the second half, UCLA spread out again. Wooden was afraid the long shots, so necessary against the zone, would stop dropping and he was certain his team could score on Villanova's seldom seen man-to-man. He was wrong. Villanova played man-to-man as if it had just discovered a new toy and the game turned into a battle to the end. When UCLA called a time out with 4:53 remaining, the Wildcats were only four points behind. Their man-to-man had held the Bruins to just three field goals—all layups. And the fans who could see at all were being treated to a superb show, a duel between All-America Wicks and All-America Howard Porter.
Twice Porter's jump shots closed the margin to three points, but three points were as close as Villanova would come. When Patterson's layup, aided by a goal tending call, made it 66-60 with 38 seconds left, Wicks went into his mugging act. He was justified. He had his third national championship.
Patterson finished his Saturday chores with 29 points, a career high. Porter, who scored 25 points, was voted the tournament's outstanding player. And Wicks had the game ball in his clutches. "Lew said he came to win three," Wicks said. "And I did, too."
To the credit of Villanova, this was the first time in years UCLA had had to work up a sweat in an NCAA-final game. Indeed, during the Lew Alcindor era it often seemed there were no final games—just passionless exhibitions. But this season's Wicks team, which was not up to its immediate predecessors, had grown used to close calls. The Bruins even lost once, to Notre Dame by seven points. They beat Stanford by only five points. They beat USC, after trailing by nine points with only 9½ minutes to go. They trailed Oregon by one point with less than a minute to go when Bibby stole the ball and drove in for the winning basket. Wicks hit a 20-foot jump shot in the final seconds to beat Oregon State. Two foul shots with seven seconds to go were the margin over Washington State. Rowe's jump shot with less than a minute left beat Washington. And UCLA squeezed past Long Beach State by two points.
"At times it looked bad," said Wooden. "But somehow we stuck in there. Except for the Notre Dame game, we always ended up where we wanted to be at the end."
Afterward, as Wooden stood where he wanted to be, with his seventh NCAA championship wristwatch in his hand and interviewers and well-wishers surrounding him, it was easy to recall the brief clipping he had produced at the coaches' convention the day before.
It was one of those 25-years-ago-to-day features from an Elkhart, Ind. newspaper and it told how, in 1946, Coach John Wooden of South Bend Central High, a recent service returnee, came to speak at a winter sports banquet. "They had hoped to line up some prominent college coach," the paper said.