Let us forget about occult theory and whether the Milky Way is in its proper alignment. Let us not speak of what might have been or what could be, with a lot of silly ifs in between. But let us, as the really in-crowd likes to bray, get right down to that funky stuff and tell it like it is. The question, America, is the one that has put schools on probation, broken the hearts of lithe cheerleaders, moved back the hairlines of baffled coaches and threatened to take the fun out of college basketball. Is there anyone out there man enough, big and bad enough, to throw UCLA off the mountain?
For this is the Era of the Bruins, a spell during which college basketball has hummed along to the rhythm of California Winnin' and thrived on the homilies of that little old man in tennis shoes, John Wooden. Whether it will be his farewell appearance this week, only the Wizard knows. Bill Walton is graduating and there is speculation that Wooden will graduate with him, trading in his rolled up program for a lounge chair plumped with the cushions of a fat pension and happy memories.
But before any of that, he will be in Greensboro over the weekend for the NCAA finals as the Bruins seek their eighth straight championship and their 10th in 11 years. This time he will find a more formidable trio of challengers, teams with animosity in their hearts and glory on their minds, and for once UCLA must be chary and vigilant. North Carolina State, Marquette and Kansas all have the rudimentary skill and talent to take the bluster out of the preening Bruins. This will be no beauty contest.
No one makes it to the final round on a wing and a prayer. These teams have outstanding big men in the middle, a sprinkling of superstars and clever coaches. Of the three, North Carolina State is the best, ranked No. 1 and playing on familiar turf. Marquette's defense can turn opposition hands to stone, while Kansas has tradition behind a young team that has come to peak efficiency at just the right moment. UCLA is, of course, a champion, perhaps not quite as consistent as some Bruin teams of the past but a winner nonetheless.
March 24, 1974
This final round has a tough act to follow. The regionals last week were a weird mélange of humor, pathos and the absurd. David Thompson tried to imitate a Nike missile while North Carolina State bombed two opponents. UCLA continued its schizo routine, turning in an uneven performance against Dayton and an overwhelming one against San Francisco. Notre Dame was freaked out by a Campy solo, Marquette finally got its Soul Train together and Kansas won while people were talking about whether you can drink and still coach.
And so we have N.C. State against UCLA in one semifinal Saturday afternoon, Bill Walton on Tom Burleson (see cover), Keith Wilkes on David Thompson, and not a plow will be turning across North Carolina. State was undefeated last year but was on probation and ineligible for the tournament. This season the Wolfpack lost once—to UCLA in St. Louis—a defeat that now means just about as much as a loss in exhibition baseball. That was early in the year, before the team had assimilated new talents and discovered just how marvelous a machine it could be. John Wooden does not look at it that way. "I want North Carolina State to remember that we beat them by 18 points on a neutral court," he said after the Bruins won the Western Regional. "I want them to think about who has the psychological advantage." Looking for even more advantages, Wooden dispatched Assistant Coach Frank Arnold to scout State in the Eastern Regional in Raleigh.
It was there that a terrifying scene took place. Thompson was racing downcourt midway in the first half of the game against Pittsburgh. He left his feet near the foul line in his normal jet-assisted takeoff, soaring three or four feet into the air. Unfortunately he was not cleared for landing. His legs tangled around teammate Phil Spence and he cart-wheeled wildly. When his head hit the floor it sounded as if a bowling ball had fallen off the top of the backboard. It was first suspected that Thompson surely had fractured bones in his neck, and memories of Maurice Stokes turned stomachs queasy. Said North Carolina State Coach Norm Sloan, "I was numb. I wished I wasn't even associated with this team or this game."
A giant wave of anticipatory noise had risen from the crowd as Thompson went up to block the shot, but when he fell it stopped as though someone had disconnected a speaker wire somewhere. There was an immediate P.A. announcement—"the injured player is David Thompson"—and absolutely not a sound could be heard as two doctors and a nurse hovered over him. After almost 10 minutes he was wheeled off in a stretcher.
The initial report from the hospital was that Thompson was being examined by a neurosurgeon but that he was conscious despite severe lacerations. But then good news filtered back. Sounding like The Gipper, Thompson had whispered to the doctors, "Tell the team to win." X rays showed no serious injuries. Finally, Thompson walked back into the arena, his head swatched in a white bandage that made him look like the fife player in The Spirit of '76. "It always does the public good to see a guy get up," said one of the doctors who was wearing a red Wolf-pack blazer.
The injured player watched as his emotional teammates stripped the Cinderella disguise off Pittsburgh, winning 100-72. Then Thompson returned to the hospital for more examinations. His only wound was a nasty scalp cut that required 15 stitches. Back out of the hospital Sunday afternoon, he joked with his teammates over lunch. They kidded him because so many people from all over North Carolina had called and offered to pay his hospital bills.
"He is ready to resume practice whenever he is equal to it," said Dr. A. E. Harer, the team physician, somewhat enigmatically. Then he added, "To have a blow knock him out for four minutes and not even leave him with so much as a headache is remarkable."
North Carolina State has revenge on its mind. Team leader Monte Towe says he felt "humiliated" by the early UCLA loss. Thompson was embarrassed by Wilkes in that game, but does not feel it was a true test. "We are the best team in the country," he said. "We love each other as people and we respect each other as ballplayers."
The team certainly looks worthy of Norm Sloan's wardrobe. The coach bought a tic decorated with small No. 1's after the Wolfpack moved into the top spot in the ratings. His club throttled a very good Providence team 92-78 Thursday night before a frantic crowd that Sloan said included only 750 student ticket-holders. Providence Coach Dave Gavitt later had the urge to drip sarcasm on Sloan. "There's this Biblical story about a fella who made a loaf of bread and a couple of fish go a long way," he said, "but, man, State sure did a hell of a job with those 750 tickets."
Meanwhile, UCLA got more reprieves than a cat in its 111-100 triple overtime victory over hot-shooting Dayton in the Western Regional. The Flyers' Donald Smith found himself staring the Bruin myth squarely in the eye with four seconds left in regulation time and the score tied, but he blinked and his jump shot missed. In the next two overtimes Dayton had few chances at victory and by overtime III the Bruins decided enough was enough.
Dayton had its heroes. Mike Sylvester scored 36 points for the Flyers, and some of his shots were so implausible that they had the UCLA bench, Wooden included, laughing in amazement.
The tendency is to put the Bruins on the couch to find answers for their losses to Notre Dame, Oregon State and Oregon, and for exhibitions like the one against Dayton. The team is into vegetables, beads, meditation and telling the coach how to run his show. Wooden wants the ball to go inside to Walton, Wilkes or Dave Meyers but then the rest of the team tends to stand around. They shun the outside shot and are leery of making mistakes that could consign them to the bench. But even if there are a few problems on the production line, UCLA is still the General Motors of basketball.
The team was so unfazed by the Dayton scare that the players frolicked around their motel pool the next morning. Greg Lee and Walton sat back to back, meditating, for 30 minutes. A pair of Bruins played tennis nearby. Later a bunch of them, including Walton, amused themselves by diving into the pool for pennies. "Isn't this Tucson weather terrific?" someone asked Assistant Coach Gary Cunningham. "Yes," he answered, "but I don't know if it's conducive to basketball."
Suntanned, meditated, full of organic food and jingling their pennies, the Bruins destroyed hapless San Francisco 83-60 in the regional title game, committing only 10 fouls and seven turnovers.
The week's big loser was third-ranked Notre Dame in the first round of the Mideast in Tuscaloosa. Whether the Irish took Michigan too lightly only their team psychiatrist can say, but they appeared somnambulant early on, falling behind 28-8 as 6'8" Campy Russell put in all kinds of inside stuff while his fellow forward, 6'2" Wayman Britt, popped away outside.
Notre Dame did rally for a 54-52 second-half lead, and Irish eyes were smiling. But not for long. Faster than you could say Campanella Russell, All-America, he hit a series of shots that took the breath out of the crowd and the fight out of the Irish. Michigan walked home with a 77-68 victory that did not surprise its players.
Russell, Britt and Notre Dame's John Shumate had talked things over the night before the game, and Britt had warned Shumate about overconfidence. "I don't think he listened to me," said Britt, who held star freshman Adrian Dantley to a measly two points and at one juncture growled at the frustrated player, "C'mon, do something." But Dantley couldn't. "My legs felt like log cabins," he said later.
Since emotional Al McGuire has coached Marquette, the Warriors had never gotten out of the NCAA regionals. But everywhere the team looked its players found portents of better things, including Tuscaloosa's Black Warrior River and a pub called Ireland's. Notre Dame's loss did not hurt, either.
Marquette frittered away an early lead and appeared tight against Vanderbilt, perhaps because of an antagonistic crowd that reacted wildly to McGuire's sideline show. But the Warriors went on to win 69-61. McGuire kept running his fingers through his wild American Graffiti hairdo in the final against Michigan, upset by the officiating as much as by his team. Finally he exploded and was charged with two quick technical fouls. The delighted crowd broke into derisive song, but McGuire had the last chuckle. His team guarded Russell as if he were a gas pump, took a 63-62 lead on reserve Rick Campbell's three-point play and assist, and after a brief tie went ahead for good on freshman Bo Ellis' 10-foot jumper. Said a giddy McGuire following the 72-70 victory, "If I had seen Bo play this well before I would've given him more money."
There were fireworks at Tulsa where Kansas won the Midwest but was thrust into the background by the remarkable events that surrounded Oral Roberts University and its lame-duck coach, Ken Trickey. In midseason, after he and school president Oral Roberts bickered over basketball doctrine, Trickey said he would resign, then coached his team into an NCAA at-large bid. But after beating Louisville 96-93 Thursday night, he was stopped by a state trooper who found something on his breath besides the sweet smell of success and arrested him for drunken driving. To Oral Roberts this is akin to moral turpitude. President Roberts suspended the coach, then prayed with him and decided every sinner should have the chance for redemption. He reinstated Trickey for the Saturday final against Kansas. "Ken told me he thought God wanted him to coach," said Roberts, adding that if any of his religious followers had any doubts, they should contact him and he would show them the light.
With only 2:50 to go against Kansas, it appeared as if Trickey was out of the fire. His team had an 81-74 lead. But instead of slowing to a canter, Oral Roberts kept right on galloping. Ninety seconds later Kansas had tied it. The Jay-hawks went on to win 93-90 in overtime. "We expected a miracle, and we got it," said Kansas Forward Roger Morning-star, who sounded as if he was on the wrong team.
After the game the now former Oral Roberts coach offered an interesting thought on why Kansas won. "It's because of tradition," he said. "Even North Carolina State and UCLA can't touch the tradition of Kansas. You don't have to believe this, but it affects their players. They don't have better players than us, but they've got tradition."
So now comes Greensboro. UCLA and North Carolina State are the only teams in the final four who have played each other this season, and things have changed since they met. One big change is the locale. North Carolina people have been aching to get UCLA down in corn-pone country, to fatten them up on grits and blow tobacco smoke in their eyes. Now they have their chance. If you listen closely, you can hear the yelling begin.
Whether Kansas or Marquette faces the winner is a tossup. Kansas has shown a propensity to turn the ball over under duress, as it did in an early-season trampling at Indiana. If the Jayhawks get fluttery, Marquette will steal them blind.
At any rate, all four teams have a chance at the title, a refreshing situation for the NCAA in recent years. But UCLA is UCLA and the team's incentive for victory may be even greater than normal. After all, the Wizard may be coming down off the mountain.