First the bad news from St. Louis. UCLA won the national championship again, surviving the threat of a trio of slick, quick and nicknamed dudes from Memphis State who did everything but tear down the Gateway Arch trying to please their riverboat townful of screaming Dixiecrats.
Now the really bad news. Bill Walton is staying in school.
Even before Walton had huffed and puffed and blown apart the NCAA record book in UCLA's 87-66 victory Monday night; before he had made 21 of 22 shots, scored 44 points, handled 13 rebounds and sashayed away somewhere high above the lights in the arena; before, indeed, he had proven once again that he is one of the most remarkable athletes of the age, Walton contemplated his future and figured it was now.
"I am not playing pro basketball next year," Walton said. "I have decided there is plenty of time left to earn a living, but now is my time to be a young man. I don't want to worry about the other things. All the attention and the publicity and financial bonanzas are not for me or my life."
April 2, 1973
Walton, who said he was making a "non-decision," will remain at UCLA through his graduation in the spring of 1974. "I don't need any reasons for coming back," he said. "I'm here and that's it. Money has never been a factor—I wish people would understand that.
"I dig change for the better, but I'm not changing now. My six months as a basketball player are over. Now I get six to be a human. I want to get away and bring some reality into my life."
The reality of Walton as the supreme player struck Memphis State's Larry (Dr. K) Kenon, Ronnie (Big Cat) Robinson and Larry (Little Tubby) Finch very early in the final game when he totally dominated the inside play. Still, after UCLA built a 33-24 lead in the first half, the Doctor kept coming at him. Coach Gene Bartow's team went into a zone and Walton got into foul trouble. The Tigers came growling back to tie the score at 39-all at the half and even took a lead just after intermission. But Walton, despite three fouls—and eventually a fourth—kept on truckin'. Scoring a multitude of points on lob passes from Greg Lee ("Our eyes meet and I wail it up there," said Lee), Walton also terrorized the defensive boards. Relentlessly he carried the champions from a 45-45 tie to a 57-47 lead with 12 minutes left, and Memphis was done.
Walton also was done when he limped to the bench on a hurt ankle with three minutes to go and the lead at 15 points. Memphis' Billy Buford helped him off. Finch, who performed splendidly himself, embraced him, and a once hostile crowd roared in appreciation.
Despite Finch and Kenon and the screaming masses that howled for an upset, what the whole thing turned out to be was only another replay of the past decade in which the Bruins had won nine championships. This was their seventh in a row and, as Pan American's Coach-elect Abe Lemons put it, "Just another UCLA bullfight. You gore the matador all night. In the end he sticks it in you and the donkeys come on and drag you out."
Long before the championship game, Memphis State had made a different kind of impact on the tournament by virtue of some extraordinary work by the team's publicist, Bill Grogan. An industrious, gnomelike creature whose zeal for a hot item is never inhibited by reality, Grogan operated all week as if the Final Four consisted of Russia, China, Wounded Knee and the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Like coaches who hold their national convention in conjunction with the finals every year, publicity men are a dime a dozen at this event. But Grogan, who became a prophet with honor by constructing a season-long publicity campaign around the theme "Meet me in St. Louis, Wooden," was of another species. His prediction fulfilled, the P.R. man came equipped with shopping bags, buttons, press releases, pictures, articles, six boxes of assorted material on "Tigerball" and a bizarre dictionary of 156 words "associated" with the team ("xyloid," "whoopee," "quitclaim" and "gobbledygook" were included).
"I said we'd meet the Wizard here, and now we're here," Grogan reminded everyone. "If we beat Providence, 50,000 Memphians goin' serenade Wooden at his hotel. You think he won't want us bad after that. Damn!"
Bartow was leery. "This is not my cup of tea. I'm proofing everything from now on," he said. "Imagine when John Wooden sees this, he'll think there's a bunch of nuts running around in Memphis."
Wooden couldn't have cared less. UCLA has been to the finals so often now that he is well acquainted with any bric-a-brac that may fly his way. Ignoring nonsense, the UCLA Wizard channels his energy to polish the ritual of Being There.
This was the tournament where Wooden finally reached super-celebrity status. He was forever instructing media lingerers, greeting old ladies and small children, autographing his book They Call Me Coach (there are other names his rivals call him), being reintroduced to young assistant coaches ("You don't remember me, sir. It was in Loretto, Pa.") and conducting on-the-spot clinics in everything from "face guarding" to "weak-side pressure" to "three-two, two-three, low-high, high-low" to how does your garden grow?
He was Fred Astaire at a dance seminar; John Ford at a cinema exhibition; Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on the mount, accepting hosannahs, dispensing advice, suffering fools gently. The Wizard of Westwood, yeah.
The coach of UCLA's semifinal opponent, Indiana, did not have similar memories of the Final Four, in which he had appeared some years earlier as an Ohio State substitute. Now he was back and everyone was wondering would Bobby Knight try any of the things he had done in his flamboyant past? Would he throw a player into the stands? Would he tell the crowd to "Get off your dead rear ends"? Would he snap at journalists, "That's a dumb question"? Would he maybe punch Wooden in the heart? Would he kick Walton in the knee? Would Knight be errant?
Well, no. Anybody from Orrville, Ohio, the home of Smucker's jelly, must have a touch of sweetness somewhere, and Bobby did. Also, he pulled off another fine coaching job, obtaining a terrific second-half effort from the Hoosiers that only stalled when their husky center, Steve Downing, fouled out with 7:57 remaining in the game.
In truth, Indiana looks like a bunch of muscle-toned guys who would have trouble beating your local dorm rats, and they got out of the first half against UCLA simply on guts alone. They were behind 40-22.
Earlier, Indiana had used its deliberate style to forge a 20-17 lead but after Tommy Curtis and Dave Meyers came off the bench to wake the Bruins—and after Walton, angered by a foul call against him, had thrown a towel to the bench that whapped into Wooden's face—UCLA ran off 18 straight points to put the game away by intermission.
At least that's what everybody thought, including Walton, who, with about 17 minutes left and a 20-point lead, shouted to Wooden, "Hey, how about taking off the press?" When the Bruins did, they relaxed. Walton committed two quick fouls (his third and fourth) and with him on the bench the team proceeded to exhibit some of the worst basketball any UCLA team has played since before the pompon was invented.
During one four-minute period the Bruins abandoned cohesion, lost poise, forced shots, incurred three-second penalties and committed a throw-in violation and a technical foul. At the same time UCLA was failing to score, Indiana's Quinn Buckner stopped throwing air balls, John Ritter hit outside and Downing was strong inside. The result? The Hoosiers scored an astonishing 17 straight points to come to 54-51.
Then, with 9:24 left, Walton, back in the game and wheeling across the lane, collided with Downing as the thunder rolled. Referee Joe Shosid raised his arm for the obvious foul—Walton for charging or Downing for blocking?—and pointed...at Downing. It was his fourth foul and when he went out of the game with his fifth shortly afterward most of the battle went out of the Hoosiers. Through the stretch, freshmen Jim Crews and Buckner were picked apart by Curtis and Larry Hollyfield as UCLA pulled away to win 70-59.
Indiana will always wonder what would have happened if Shosid's call had gone against Walton, if the tall redhead had left the game and Downing had remained. Wooden said UCLA would have won anyway. Knight, unconvinced, mentioned his team had taken 14 more shots than UCLA, committed six fewer turnovers and that Downing had outscored Walton 26-14.
Memphis had reached the climax with a 98-85 victory over Providence that contained drama, intrigue, heartbreak and a wonderful little order of fettucini on the side.
The noodles were provided by Ernie DiGregorio, who had whiplashed the Friars from the East to a 27-2 record. Upon arrival in St. Louis, Ernie D expressed confidence that Providence would be the one to finally knock off UCLA. Then he put on a sweat suit and ran all the way from his hotel down Market Street to the Arch and back.
Two days later DiGregorio nearly ran Memphis State out of the tournament in the first half with an assortment of quick shots, lob bomb passes and behind-the-back assists. When Providence went to the dressing room at intermission the Friars held a 49-40 lead, and DiGregorio was responsible for 18 of their 22 baskets. But Ernie did not go inside. Instead, he paced impatiently down the corridor, furious that Bad Marvin Barnes, the Friars' dominating post man, had suffered a dislocated knee early in the half and looked unable to continue.
Suddenly Providence Coach Dave Gavitt, who had worried beforehand that Memphis "had three Marvins," did not have even one himself. When play resumed Kenon and Robinson, recognizing that Marvin was starvin' on the bench, dominated the rebounds. Finch started scoring more and the three players roused Memphis to pass the Friars.
DiGregorio, who had to do everything now and got scoring help only from Fran Costello, rushed his shots, began to tire and soon was flailing for air. Though he finished with 32 points, he missed 12 of 19 shots in the second half and failed to record an assist.
Barnes finally persuaded Gavitt to let him back in the game with six minutes to go—and he did score a courageous fast-break basket to cut the lead to one point—but he was hobbling too much to be any kind of a match for Dr. K and Big Cat.
Near delirium at the turn of events, Grogan collected his paraphernalia and shouted, "More supplements tomorrow, you bet." DiGregorio walked to his locker fighting back tears. "We can't run without Barnes," he said, red-eyed, "but who knows? Even with him, maybe we get beat."
That was hardly likely. But such a note was indicative of the graciousness displayed on both sides of the court. "That isn't the kind of break we like to get but we have to take it," said Robinson, who with Kenon combined for 52 Memphis points and 38 rebounds. The two accompanied Barnes out of the arena.
That evening Big Cat lay on his hotel bed and thought about himself and Larry Finch sitting at home back in Memphis all those years and watching the Final Four on TV. UCLA...North Carolina...Houston...all the biggies. And now they had made it themselves. "I didn't think it would happen like this," said Robinson. "We never thought we'd get this far."
That figures. It was only Bill Grogan who knew it all along.