Monday night in the San Diego Sports Arena college basketball went off to meet the Wizard of Westwood for the last time. Having arrived in California 27 years ago as something of a scarecrow, John Wooden went out like a most uncowardly lion. UCLA, which under Wooden has failed to win only two of the last 12 NCAA championships, won this one by holding off Kentucky 92-85.
At the finish Wooden remained true to his image; except for an emotional outburst or two during a very emotional game, he was the kindly Tin Man to the end. "I didn't really feel differently about this game," he said. "Just very proud."
Even the Wizard, having announced his retirement on Saturday, must have sensed the extra impact of the game's two most honored schools meeting in his farewell. Here were UCLA and Kentucky, which had won more than a third of all the NCAA basketball titles ever played, evoking memories of Hagan and Ramsey and Issel, of Goodrich and Alcindor and Walton. And here was Wooden one-on-one with destiny.
"It will be sad if he loses," said retired Kentucky Coach Adolph Rupp, "but he's got enough of those darn trophies. Johnny's in against me tonight."
The Bruins also were in against a massive Wildcat squad that had reached the final on muscle, manpower and the deft shooting of freshman Jack Givens. But if the thin list of six Bruins who played in the final, including slender Centers Richard Washington and Ralph Drollinger, felt they couldn't handle the burly Wildcats they didn't show it. Drollinger got 13 rebounds and 10 points in 16 minutes, while Washington, who split his time between the pivot and forward, scored 28, added 12 rebounds and found the time to help hold the Wildcats' three hulking freshman centers to eight points. "I even surprised myself," said Washington, the tournament MVP.
The furious pace of the first half, in which there were 15 lead changes and five ties, continued in the second period until UCLA broke away to a 66-56 lead with 12 minutes left in the game. Kevin Grevey, whose 18 first-half points had sparked Kentucky, was silenced by Bruin Captain David Meyers during UCLA's surge. Then Grevey suddenly came alive again, scoring 10 points, and Wildcat floor leader Jimmy Dan Conner finally escaped the defensive clutches of Pete Trgovich. Kentucky scrambled to only a point back with 6:49 remaining.
At that moment the Wildcats had a chance to take the game by the throat. That they didn't was another example of the uncanny luck that UCLA enjoyed all week. With the Bruins ahead 76-75, Meyers went up for a jumper but fell into Grevey and was called for a foul. Screaming and pounding the floor, the Spider was hit with a technical, whereupon Wooden shouted, "You crook!" at Referee Hank Nichols and rushed onto the court.
Kentucky had a possible five-point play—a maximum of three free throws followed by possession of the ball. But Grevey, who finished with 34 points, missed the technical and then the first of his one-and-ones. Wildcat sub James Lee set an illegal pick on the ensuing play, and Kentucky had come up empty.
Meyers then hit on two free throws that were matched by Bob Guyette's bank shot, but the ubiquitous Washington tipped in Marques Johnson's miss for an 80-77 lead. The Wildcats never got closer.
After the game UCLA Guard Andre McCarter, who had made 14 assists, and a key late basket, embraced the 64-year-old Wooden and said, "Coach, I hope you have a nice life." The Wizard's eyes sparkled just a little.
UCLA Assistant Gary Cunningham elected to follow his boss's example and give up his job, leaving the choicest coaching position in college ball open to everybody from Louisville's Denny Crum to San Clemente's Dick Nixon.
Crum, who had wept upon hearing of Wooden's retirement, is not in the best of favor with UCLA Athletic Director J.D. Morgan. That makes the probable choice Gene Bartow of Illinois, who opposed Wooden in the 1973 finals while coaching Memphis State.
With the wisdom of youth, sophomore Johnson spoke for the team when he said about Wooden's successor, "He won't be no half-stepper who doesn't know what he's doing." He better not be. The steps he will try to fill are too big for that.
Before the unfolding of the UCLA coaching melodrama and the games themselves, the Bruins seemed to be the forgotten entry among the final four. What happened was that the game's glittering showcase had come to the sunny Pacific shores, UCLA's home turf, but all people could talk, about was how many thousand drunken Kentuckians had closed Bully's bar each night or whether there ever had been anything as hilarious as a Syracuse practice.
Because two teams representing the Commonwealth were there, San Diego was overrun with Kentuckiana. Nobody rode Secretariat across the country, but fans of both Louisville and Kentucky arrived by plane, bus, car and hillbilly wagon. One charter flight ran out of bourbon over Little Rock, Ark., and had to make a refill stop in Amarillo, Texas, lest the thirsty mob storm the cockpit with empty Old Grand-Dad bottles.
Upon their arrival, supporters of the teams took up residence in neighboring hotels on Harbor Island and, depending on their affiliation, a) argued that Kentucky is afraid to schedule games with Louisville or b) inquired Louisville who?
Even Governor Julian Carroll joined the fray. He telephoned the NCAA to ask if he could present the championship trophy to Kentucky in the event the Wildcats won the tournament; he neglected to mention Louisville.
After debating where to go sightseeing, the Louisville team opted for Tijuana. Kentucky visited the zoo.
"Shouldn't your team be favored because of these distractions?" Wooden was asked. "They've seen all this stuff."
"Not with me they haven't," snapped The Wizard. "I went to Tijuana once, and I'm never going back. And you don't have to go to a zoo to be in a zoo."
Syracuse Coach Roy Danforth could testify to that. The Orange rooting section is called "The Zoo" in appreciation of its discerning tastes, but not many fans escaped their cages to make the long trip west. As a result Syracuse was missing a major weapon in its attempt to become something more than the most unlikely team in the finals since 1967, when the legendary Glinder Torain led his Dayton Flyers to the tournament.
The Syracuse menagerie featured The Enormous E, Earnie Seibert, a center who weighs 240 pounds and looks as if he were recruited from a tavern; Bug Williams, who wore dark glasses at practice; and a certain Neanderthal verve that made it a wonder the Orangemen ever got out of their dressing room, much less the East regional. "We're the goof-offs," said Guard Jim (Rat Man) Lee.
Kentucky's Guyette, Grevey and Conner watched the Syracuse practice Friday afternoon and were bewildered.
"Nobody's this bad," said Guyette.
"Who's the clown in the shades?" said Grevey.
"Stevie Wonder," said Conner.
The next day Kentucky-Syracuse turned out to be Ali-Wepner, only with more fouls. Sixty-one personals were called, not including the rabbit punches.
While the Wildcats' yoke of oxen in the pivot, freshmen Rick Robey and Mike Phillips, worked over Seibert, the rest of the Kentucky defense held Orange star Rudy Hackett to three shots in the first half, and UK took a 44-32 lead.
Syracuse went more than four minutes without scoring to begin the second period and Kentucky's margin increased to 22 points. Though the Orangemen recovered to make it respectable, they took a fearsome pounding in the 95-79 defeat.
Another Kentucky freshman, Givens, who made up for Grevey's subpar performance by gathering 24 points and 11 rebounds, revealed his prime motivation. "I love all the excitement," he said. "I love the police escorts."
Everybody knew of the emotion inherent in former UCLA Assistant Crum's face-off with his old school in the other semifinal. Everybody was aware that Pete Trgovich and Ulysses (Junior) Bridgeman had played on the same East Chicago team that had won the Indiana state prep championship, and that the Bruins' skinny guard would be checking the Cards' versatile leaper. But only a few close friends realized the feelings that churned inside Wooden during this final week of his 40-year coaching career.
There had been hints of his departure. Last month Washington State Coach George Raveling reported that this would be Wooden's last tournament. Another Pac-8 coach said Wooden had told him that he was stepping aside.
Though appearing to be in fine health, The Wizard has not been sleeping well, and he has been starting his long morning walks as early as five a.m. A doctor advised him against agreeing to become the coach of the 1976 Olympic team.
Perceptive Bruin players were alerted before UCLA's final contest at Pauley Pavilion when Wooden told his team it would be the last home game "for a few people in this room."
Rumors continued last week. And signs. At a small dinner party the night before the semifinals the Bruin coach watched as a hobbling 73-year-old Rupp entered and had to be helped to his table. At that moment an unmistakable haunted look crossed Wooden's face.
"Hello, Johnny," said Rupp.
The next morning the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner played the story of Wooden's leave-taking all over the front page of its sports section. During the Kentucky-Syracuse game the UCLA coach read the articles about his own retirement. He decided right then he had to clear the air.
Even news of Wooden's departure, however, could not diminish the drama of UCLA's 75-74 victory over Louisville.
This war of attrition was not won in the trenches but in the territory high on the backboards. That is where UCLA's Johnson went to contribute two brilliant defensive plays that saved the game in regulation time and where Washington arrived to score the last two of his 26 points and the winning basket with two seconds left in overtime.
It had been a struggle of savage intensity from the very beginning. Fleet Louisville four times held early nine-point leads as the result of 18 points from Bridgeman and Allen Murphy. But Murphy calmed down a little and Bridgeman, hounded by Trgovich, turned off. Ulysses did not score a basket in the final 37 minutes of the game.
Even after Trgovich fouled out and sore-legged Meyers was switched onto Bridgeman, neither team could take command. With 48 seconds left and Louisville ahead 65-61, Center Bill Bunton blocked two Meyers shots but both times he batted the ball back into Bruin hands. Another desperate leap and Bunton fouled Washington, who made two free throws. On the succeeding inbounds play against UCLA's press, Johnson jumped up to spear Wesley Cox' pass and moments later jammed in the tying basket with 35 seconds remaining.
UCLA was in a semifinal overtime again, the same situation in which the Bruins had been dethroned by N.C. State last year. Meyers said later, "Nobody was thinking back. We were just super lucky most of the game. Then it was time for bread and butter."
And UCLA had plenty of both. And some more luck. After Murphy had scored seven points in the overtime to run his game-leading total to 33 and Louisville took a 74-73 lead, the Cardinals went into a four-corner delay offense starring designated dribbler Terry Howard. With 20 seconds to go UCLA was forced to foul. Howard only had to make both ends of his one-and-one to seal the victory, and he had made all his 28 free throws this season. But Howard missed.
After a UCLA time-out Louisville lined up in a zone defense. The Bruins gave the ball to Johnson far outside; Washington faked toward the foul line, then drifted out along the baseline to receive Johnson's pass. The 6'9" sophomore lifted off, cocked and let go. "Our passive, easy-going, lovely person," as Wooden calls Washington, had cut Crum's Cards to pieces.
Downcast, Murphy and Bridgeman correctly analyzed that everything Louisville had tried had worked. The Cardinals had "given" the game to UCLA because they shot only 59.3% from the foul line and missed the first free throw on three one-and-one opportunities. Nonetheless, it was to the Bruins' credit that when the contest was on the line, once again they were up to taking it.
"I haven't been in that kind of game in a long time," said Meyers. "Both gangs flailing away, no moaning or messing around. It seemed like two UCLAs, one and the same."
Wooden spoke to the Bruins in the locker room immediately after the game. "I'm bowing out," he said in the vast quiet. His eyes went around the room and his voice cracked. "I don't want to. I have to." Then he walked away.
There was one last game to go. But no matter what happened in it, clearly UCLA would never be the same.