It was supposed to be the week UCLA played itself into basketball's Bowery, just another faded hero sprawled among yellowed clippings, sipping from a pint of past glories. Washington, only once beaten and ranked fifth in the nation, would knock the stumbling Bruins into the gutter. But up in the cold Northwest last week the Bruins were riding high again. The Wizard of Westwood may be gone, but UCLA is still the Wicked Witch of the West.
The Bruins stopped their internal bickering, forgot their prayer meetings, canceled Coach Gene Bartow's reservation for the funny farm, mended their guards' ways, got Richard Washington to sweat and decided to straighten up. Along the way they beat two very good teams and silenced a whole lot of reproachful critics.
First UCLA topped Washington 92-87 in Seattle Thursday night. Then the Bruins visited Pullman, Wash, and trumped Washington State 91-71 on Saturday evening. Those two victories, fashioned with exemplary play, left UCLA with a 6-1 conference record and alone in its accustomed spot atop the Pac-8 standings, and put a smile on the beleaguered Bartow's haggard face for the first time in months.
Bartow, who took over for the retired John Wooden this season, has had to contend with dissension, innuendo, rebellion and obscene phone calls. UCLA opened the season on Nov. 29 with an embarrassing loss to Indiana, was beaten on the road by Oregon State and Notre Dame and struggled with several flimsy opponents. Three losses is not bad for most teams, but this was UCLA. There were reports that Bartow had lost control over his team. Players supposedly had bags packed to transfer to other schools. A Los Angeles radio station announced that Bartow's phone number was listed, and a spate of calls followed in which the salutation was deep breathing. A friend offered to serve as his bodyguard, and there were jokes that the Bartow family dog, Damon, had hired the German shepherd up the street to taste his food. Bartow described his state as "a frenzy." He picked at his food and lost almost 20 pounds, his appetite withered by anxiety and an upset stomach.
Like Wooden, a man who could not sleep and haunted motel coffee shops when they opened at seven the morning after a road game, Bartow is tightly strung. After coaching at Valparaiso, Memphis State and Illinois, he was not prepared for Hollywood and Vine. He has a penchant for candor and a need to be liked, and both got him into trouble, particularly when he promised three different guards starting berths. After the team discovered that, confidence in him ebbed and the offense began to look like a nest of baby birds all trying to grab the worm. "A lot of guys thought they would play, and when they didn't, they came into the games firing the ball up," says Forward Marques Johnson.
The Bruins had built a reputation of winning with the efficiency of a computer, but at times this season they played as if the plug had been pulled. "It used to be that teams were intimidated when they played against us," says Guard Ray Townsend. "Now they think we've lost our divinity."
After a one-point victory over Stanford in Pauley Pavilion on Jan. 16 a distraught Bartow called a team meeting at a nearby motel where the Bruins stay for home games. "You better get your minds on basketball, or else we are in real trouble," he said grimly. Then he walked out, leaving the players to talk among themselves for 2½ hours.
The Bruins began the season with their starting lineup unsettled, even though four incumbents had returned from last year's championship team. There were three highly regarded freshmen from California—Center David Greenwood and Guards Brad Holland and Roy Hamilton—plus a long list of eager talent that had chafed on the bench under Wooden. Bartow had to get to know his personnel and vice versa (Forward Richard Washington, for example, never had heard of him) while installing his concepts and trying to prepare for Indiana. The result was that nothing got done on time.
In December he settled on sophomore Townsend to start at guard with Andre McCarter, began using excitable Forward Gavin Smith as the team's sixth man and two weeks ago replaced senior Center Ralph Drollinger with Greenwood. Drollinger has shown flashes of brilliance during his career and is the tallest player on the team at 7'1¾". He is deeply religious. For his part, Townsend plays with a crucifix stuck in the laces of his shoes and Bartow is called "Clean Gene," partly because of his spiritual ways. But at times Drollinger's mild, meek nature seems misplaced on the basketball floor, and his play has the zest of cold mashed potatoes. "I think God is trying to strengthen my moral fiber," he said when he was benched. Meanwhile, his teammates think their fiber is toughening up with Greenwood hammering the boards. "Ralph was great when he got psyched up," says Marques Johnson, "but other times there was nothing there."
The team's emotional state, plus its guard play, is the subject of endless discussion. Bartow has agonized over what he feels is a lack of intensity. Washington, it is said, plays forward like a piano player practicing scales. In fact, some fans cite the players' clear skin as proof that they are not emotional. "People keep bringing up David Meyers being an emotional player," McCarter said stiffly one day, referring to last year's UCLA All-America. "Just because he has bumps on his face, they think he looked mean."
Marques Johnson allowed that it might be significant that other teams cut down the nets and have them bronzed when they beat UCLA. In Seattle, Washington was waiting with the scissors. The years have been cruel to the Huskies. They managed to beat the Bruins last year 103-81 for the first time in 13 seasons, and still wound up tied for fifth in the Pac-8. But they approached this game with confidence and a share of the conference lead with UCLA and Oregon State. Nevertheless, Washington Coach Marv Harshman was wary: "I'm half scared. I'm afraid these guys have woken up."
Washington has played good inside defense this year, and against UCLA Harshman wanted to put the pressure on the Bruins' guards. McCarter never has even received honorable mention recognition on the Pac-8 all-conference teams, and most of the season he has been inconsistent. "I'm trying to find out what the coach wants me to do," said McCarter, who for the past few weeks has been dribbling a basketball to class.
The danger of playing on the road with a hostile crowd is that if the home team gets off to a good start, the momentum of the game can overwhelm the opponent, which is what had happened to UCLA at Oregon State. So Bartow squirmed in anguish as Washington came down and scored the first five times it handled the ball, and 12 of the first 14, taking a 24-18 lead.
By then Drollinger and Jimmy Spillane were off the bench to replace Greenwood and McCarter. Spillane began the season as a starter, and earlier in the week he had groused to himself on the sidelines at practice that "I'm not even on this team." But his presence helped immensely against Washington as Bartow went to a 2-1-2 zone that baffled the taller Huskies. Spillane made three steals and a bunch of right decisions before he twisted an ankle in the second half. Many times this season the Bruins' guards arrived at a crossroads and made the choice that sent them to Destruction Gap. Against the Huskies the entire backcourt played remarkably, hitting 11 of 12 shots and never allowing the game to get away after the Bruins took the lead midway in the first half. Even a halftime cheer led by Washington President John Hogness did not help the Huskies. "It looked like the old UCLA tonight," admitted Huskie Guard Clarence Ramsey.
And while Townsend was at the foul line sinking two free throws with 1:49 to go, word came over the public-address system that Oregon State had been upset by Cal. There was jubilation in the Bruins' locker room. McCarter pointed out to Bartow that he had not missed a shot, though the score sheet showed he had. "Andre's shooting the ball," chortled Gavin Smith, pointing his finger for emphasis. "And that's what we need."
The mood at a workout Friday afternoon in Washington State's Performing Arts Coliseum was typical of the change in coaches. Wooden's practices were solemn affairs, conducted in silence. Bartow allows the players to banter among themselves.
After running through the opposition's plays—a nuance Wooden never bothered with—the players held a jumping contest won by reserve Center Brett Vroman. Johnson and Washington tied for second. Then everyone practiced dunks.
George Raveling, the Washington State coach and a friend of Bartow's, walked in near the end of the workout. "Hey, Gene, success in Los Angeles is 30 wins," he said. "I don't think the Lord could have done better than you—and He created the players. Those fans would be saying, 'Fire the Lord.' "
"They would if He broke that winning streak at Pauley," Bartow agreed.
His mood had improved dramatically with the defeat of Washington. It was the first time in anyone's memory that UCLA had won a game using a zone defense. Bartow had left himself open to criticism by employing it, and it had come through.
Raveling is one of the first black coaches at the major-college level. "Gene, let me win tomorrow night," he said. "It'll help you with the black players in Los Angeles." Bartow slapped him on the back.
The next night UCLA won about as easily as a team can win on the road in the Pac-8. Johnson, a player who looks as if he could scare a dark alley, scored 32 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, and right on down the line, all the way to the coach's seat, the Bruins had an excellent night. "This is the turning point," Johnson said later. "We're over the hump now. It should be downhill from here." The pressure wasn't off, but at least it was bearable.