So you thought it was all up with UCLA? That the dynasty was over because Sidney Wicks and the rest of that big, intimidating company he kept had graduated? Well, dream no more. The unbeatable John Wooden is building what might be another superteam. It might, on second thought, be even better than that. It is led by redheaded Bill Walton, 6'11" sophomore center who does everything but help the Bruin pompon girls with their dance routines. Walton scores, he rebounds, he blocks shots, he directs traffic and he starts the fast break faster and better than anybody else in the college game.
It is inevitable that Bill Walton be compared to Lew Alcindor, but that is unfair to both and pointless. Walton is an original, with his own style. He is like Alcindor only in that he always seems to win. Because of him, UCLA followers are beginning to say the Bruins will have a problem: finding room around the increasingly crowded ceiling of Pauley Pavilion for the new national-championship banners the Walton Gang is going to hang there before leaving three years from now.
It is mainly because of Walton's many talents that this UCLA team has landed with almost as much impact as the Alcindor sophomores of five years ago. The Waltons run a devastating fast break, and they work Wooden's famed full-court zone press better than any UCLA team since the Goodrich-Hazzard-Erickson era. But what sets them apart from other UCLA teams is that, unlike some of those unlovable IBM machines of the past few years, the new group exudes so much energy and charm that it might eventually become the most popular Bruin team ever. Even Wooden admits that he is captivated by the new bunch.
"I'm really having fun with this team," Wooden said as he nursed a ginger ale at a cocktail party one night last week. "Why, this team is exciting even when it makes mistakes! And it makes a lot, being so young."
January 10, 1972
The only starter back from last season's national championship team—Wooden's fifth in a row and his seventh in the last eight years—is Henry Bibby, the quick little guard with the deft shooting touch. So far he has been UCLA's steadying influence, as well as its leading scorer. The sophomores joining Walton in the starting lineup are 6'6" Keith Wilkes, 18, a smooth, willowy forward, and 6'4" Greg Lee, 20, the floor leader who runs the point offense that Wooden dreamed up specially for this team. The fifth starter, 6'5" Larry Farmer, is a junior who spent most of last season on the bench watching Wicks and Curtis Rowe perform.
Before last week the Walton Gang was still pretty much of an unknown quantity, even though it was unbeaten, ranked No. 1 in all the polls and averaging more than 112 points a game. All of its first six games were in friendly Pauley Pavilion, and all were against opponents who probably couldn't hold their own against the pompon girls. Knowledgeable fans were reserving judgment until UCLA met Ohio State in the final of the Bruin Classic.
On paper at least, the Buckeyes seemed worthy challengers. They came to town with a 6-1 record and the No. 6 national ranking. They had a fine outside shooter in Guard Allan Hornyak, who once scored 86 points in a high school game, and they seemed to have an interesting matchup for Walton in 7-foot Luke Witte. To set the stage, Ohio State disposed of Arizona 90-47 in the first round, and the Bruins drubbed Texas 115-65 behind Walton's 28 points and 24 rebounds. The UCLA win at first appeared more costly than it should have been since Lee, the playmaker, suffered a bruised heel and was declared out of the Ohio State game. His absence, however, only proved how strong the Bruins are. With a capacity crowd of 12,820 shrieking its approval, they routed Ohio State 79-53. The game was never close.
"We wanted this one bad," said Walton, and that was obvious from the opening tip-off. Early on, the Buckeyes couldn't stop UCLA's fast break, nor could they seem to get around Walton, who blocked six shots in the first half.
After only four minutes the Bruins led 11-1. When the score got to be 30-10, Ohio Coach Fred Taylor said he felt like "getting up and going to Disneyland." The overmatched Witte threw up a few air balls and did not get much of anything done until Walton, who played only 17 minutes and 56 seconds of the game, took a breather late in the period. And poor Hornyak was not able to get so much as a single field goal past Bibby's tenacious defense.
The second half was gratifying to Wooden because of the way UCLA kept its cool after Walton picked up his fourth foul and was lifted with 18:07 remaining. The Bruins are so deep that their second team probably could win a Big Eight or SEC championship. Wooden has said that Walton's understudy, 6'11" Swen Nater, could be better than Steve Patterson, last year's center, and he rates sophomore Tommy Curtis almost even with Lee. They each made big plays in the second half. After the game Walton was asked if Witte was the best defensive center he had played against.
"No," he said.
"Swen Nater," said Walton. "It really helps me to play against him every day in practice."
The Bruins' new superstar comes from a supersized clan. His father, a director in the San Diego Department of Public Welfare, is 6'4". Older brother Bruce, a starting offensive tackle for UCLA's football team, is 6'6" and 250 pounds (Bill weighs only 210). Younger brother Andy, a high school junior and a promising basketball player, is 6'5" and 200. "Bill loves to eat," says his mother, who at 5'10" is a midget next to her menfolk, "but then we all do."
Bill began playing several sports as a fourth-grader at Blessed Sacrament elementary school in La Mesa, a suburb of San Diego. He liked to high-jump and play football, but by the time he got to be a freshman in high school he was concentrating almost exclusively on basketball. As a senior he led Helix High to a 33-0 record, averaged 29 points a game and made 78% of his shots from the floor. After getting a load of Walton's act, Pete Newell of the Houston Rockets said, "He may be the most dominant center ever to play basketball." Walton led the Bruin freshmen to a 20-0 record and, more important, established a solid rapport with his teammates that has carried over into this season.
The other sophomore starters are special, too. Lee, a coach's son, was the Los Angeles city high school player of the year for two straight seasons. He is the all-American boy—handsome, muscular, a straight A student. That he would attend UCLA was almost a foregone conclusion. As a youngster, he helped his father usher at Bruin home games and, says Greg, "I guess I grew up hating USC."
The youngest member of the squad is Wilkes, who will not turn 19 until next May. A minister's son, he is shy and quiet off the floor. Even during games he is so unobtrusive that people often are shocked to learn at the end that he scored 20 points. With only 167 pounds on his 6'6" frame, Wilkes is the one Bruin who is thinner than Walton. "I eat three meals a day," he says, "but I just can't seem to get my weight up." Says Wooden, in his best church-deacon manner, "When I'm inclined to wish that he were older and heavier, it is a failure on my part to count my blessings because he has so many fine qualities just as he is." Amen.
This season's UCLA team began to take shape during the summer, when Wooden spent countless hours and "about 20 or 30 notebooks" devising an offense tailored to his new team's specifications. "It's not completely different," Wooden says. "It's something I borrowed from our Alcindor teams, plus what we did when we didn't have him, plus a few wrinkles." Generally, it is a modified 1-2-2 setup with Lee playing the point, Bibby and Farmer spread out on the wings and Wilkes and Walton setting up under the basket on opposite sides of the foul lane. Often it quickly becomes a 1-3-1 arrangement with Wilkes breaking out to set up a high post at the foul line.
"The idea is to put each player where he can work to maximum efficiency," says Wooden. "I knew Walton would accept it because the principal feed is to him. We needed a quick kid who is a good shooter for the high post, and that was Wilkes. Lee has strong hands and he is an unselfish passer, so he was our point man. And it suits Bibby to a T because he does not have to bring the ball up the floor, as he did last year; he is getting his shots from the side, where he hits best." The other wingman, Farmer, was not pulling his weight in the early season, but against Texas he began to find himself, working inside or hitting short jumpers for 16 points.
Wooden revived an old friend—the fast break—to take advantage of this team's overall quickness and, mainly, Walton's extraordinary ability to dominate the defensive boards and throw the quickest outlet pass this side of Wes Unseld. After leaping high to grab a rebound, Walton likes to spin in the air and fire off a bazooka shot to a teammate dashing madly up the floor. Says Bibby, who often is on the receiving end of Walton's heaves, "I think Bill enjoys that more than any other part of the game." Adds Wooden, "He could be the best I've ever seen at throwing the outlet pass."
It is a gift, according to Walton, that he acquired out of necessity. Between his freshman and sophomore years at Helix High School he had some cartilage removed from his left knee, and it was then that he learned how to get rid of the ball.
"I couldn't run very well," he says. "So there was no way I could stay with everybody in our fast break. All I did was get the rebound, make the quick pass and watch everybody go. 1 got pretty good at it because I did it so much. And I sort of enjoyed standing back there watching our guys destroying everybody at the other end." He still does.
As if all this weren't enough, Walton also runs UCLA's 1-2-2 zone press. As the deep man, he can see the entire floor and has made it his responsibility to tell his teammates where to go and what to do. It is a role that Walton relishes. He looks like a towering traffic cop, waving, pointing, always moving and chattering. When Wilkes is about to run into a pick, Walton screams, "High post, Keith, high post." Or if he thinks Bibby is being a bit too aggressive he yells, "No fouls, Henry." Sometimes Walton gets so carried away with his policeman's role that he loses sight of his own man. Then there is a flurry of red hair and waving arms as he scrambles to catch up.
That Walton does so much and moves so well is remarkable, considering that he has a serious condition known as tendinitis in both knees. He played with a good deal of pain until this season, when he undertook a program of therapy recommended by Dr. Robert Kerlan. Each day Walton spends half an hour before practice applying heat to his knees and another half hour afterward applying ice. "Now the only time they bother me is when I play a lot of games in a row," says Walton.
The knee treatments also give Walton a convenient excuse for avoiding post-game interviews. Instead of opening his dressing room to the press, it is Wood-en's policy to allow only one or two players, usually the game stars, to be questioned. Up until the tournament finale, Walton had avoided all the sessions, ostensibly because he was busy icing his knees. When he does consent to an interview, he answers questions deliberately and thoughtfully, exhibiting none of the boyish enthusiasm that is his trademark on the floor.
Wooden's only serious criticism of Walton is that he is sometimes "too emotional." He has a tendency to hang his head or give up momentarily after making a mistake, habits Wooden is trying hard to break. "Sometimes he expects too much of himself," says Wooden.
Now that Walton and his friends have proved they can beat a good team, they must prove they can win on the road. Their first chance comes this weekend, when they open their Pacific Eight schedule with back-to-back games at Oregon State and Oregon. From now on the pressure will be enormous, but the Walton Gang seems in command. UCLA is always in command.