On the night of March 18, 1953, shortly after Indiana had edged
Kansas 69-68 to win the NCAA title in Kansas City, John Wooden,
the ambitious young coach of UCLA, rushed to congratulate Hoosier
coach Branch McCracken. Wooden had been a boyhood pal of
McCracken's in rural Indiana, and it was upon the recommendation
of McCracken, among others, that UCLA had hired Wooden away from
Indiana State in 1948. ``Johnny was the first person in my
dressing room,'' McCracken would recall years later. ``He ran
straight at me and jumped up and put his arms around my neck.''
This is an article from the April 15, 1995 issue
However, McCracken's great triumph also caused the Bruin coach to
do some soul-searching. Wooden was beginning to doubt that he
would ever know what it felt like to reach the pinnacle of college
basketball. UCLA had failed to make the NCAA field that year and
had been a first-round loser in Wooden's only tournament
appearances, in '50 and '52. ``It looks like I'll never win an
NCAA,'' Wooden told McCracken. ``We get so far, and then something
By the end of 1975, of course, that story had become laughable. In
12 seasons beginning in 1963-64, Wooden won a record 10 NCAA
titles, including seven in a row, an amazing stretch in which UCLA
forged what is arguably the greatest dynasty in sports history.
Forget the New York Yankees in baseball, Notre Dame in college
football and the Boston Celtics in the NBA. All had long and
sensational runs, but only Wooden's UCLA basketball empire had to
cope each year with the sudden-death format of the NCAA
Along the way the coach who was so frustrated in 1953 came to be
known, to his chagrin, as the Wizard of Westwood.
The Little Guys
Wooden had been an All-America in his playing days at Purdue --
where he was known as the India Rubber Man because of his supple
body -- and he yearned to be just as successful in coaching. As he
told his first Bruin team in '48, ``I've never been a loser,
either as a player or a coach, and I don't intend to start now.''
In many ways UCLA was an ideal place to build a powerhouse. As far
back as the 1940s, when Jackie Robinson played football,
basketball and baseball for the Bruins, UCLA and the city of
Los Angeles had been looked upon kindly by many African-Americans.
The color of one's skin didn't seem to matter as much in the City
of Angels as it did in most other parts of the U.S. And in the
1950s Wooden's best player was Willie Naulls, a black center.
So it was hardly surprising that 6 3" guard Walt Hazzard, an
African- American from Philadelphia, enrolled at UCLA. Hazzard
would prove to be invaluable, but in the 1961-62 season he was
instrumental in costing Wooden what could have been his first NCAA
title. With time running out and the score tied 70-70 in a
semifinal game against defending national champion Cincinnati,
UCLA was holding the ball and playing for the last shot when
Hazzard was called for an offensive foul. The Bearcats then won on
a 25-foot jumper by Tom Thacker with three seconds remaining.
Wooden returned to L.A. thinking he had lost his best, and maybe
his last, chance at the title.
In previewing the 1963-64 season, Sports Illustrated essentially
wrote off UCLA's title chances on the grounds that the Bruins,
with no starter taller than 6 5", were just too short. Yeah,
right. The team turned out to be the surprise of the season,
rolling into the NCAAs with a 26-0 record.
The Bruins' success was due largely to their suffocating zone
press. ``I want my players thinking defense all over the court,''
Wooden said, ``and the zone press is one way of doing that. Mainly
it is used to speed up the tempo of the game, to encourage the
opponent to run with the ball when it might not be his best style
of play. It is designed to alter the opponent's style.'' Going
into the NCAAs, however, SI still hadn't jumped on the UCLA
bandwagon. ``UCLA will not [go all the way],'' said the magazine,
``because only two teams in history have ever gone undefeated up
to and through the tournament.''
Against Kansas State in the semis in Kansas City, the Bruins
trailed 75-70 with slightly more than seven minutes to go. But
about that time the Bruin pom-pom girls, who had had airplane
difficulties, arrived. Who knows how much their presence had to do
with the 11-0 run that propelled UCLA to a 90-84 win?
In the championship game against Duke, guard Kenny Washington came
off the bench to score 26 points, 21 more than his average, as the
Bruins rolled to a surprisingly easy 98-83 win and a 30-0 final
record. Said Wooden of his first title winner, ``This team has
come as close to reaching maximum potential as any team I've ever
The following season, with Freddie Goss, Edgar Lacey and Mike
Lynn replacing graduated starters Hazzard, Jack Hirsch and Fred
Slaughter, the Bruins cruised to a 28-2 record and became only
the fifth school ever to win back-to-back NCAA titles. In the
process, Gail Goodrich, the Bruins' 6 1" star guard, became the
subject of a Final Four trivia question: Which player scored 42
points in an NCAA championship game and led his team to the
title but wasn't named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player?
Goodrich didn't get the award because Princeton's Bill Bradley put
on a sensational show in defeat. After his team was eliminated by
Michigan in the semifinals, the 6 5" forward lit up Wichita State
for 58 points, still a Final Four record, in the consolation game.
The crowd of 13,000 in Portland's Memorial Coliseum was so turned
on by Bradley's performance that the title game seemed almost
The Bruins' opponent was a big, strong Michigan team led by
All-America guard Cazzie Russell. When the Wolverines jumped out
to a 20-13 lead -- mainly because Russell was taking advantage of
Bruin forward Keith Erickson's pulled leg muscle to drive around
him for easy hoops -- Wooden called time. He substituted
Washington for Erickson, made an adjustment in the press to cut
off a passing lane to Russell and told Goodrich to drive more. In
what turned out to be a 91-80 UCLA victory, the lefthanded
Goodrich put on a clinic and the Wolverines never threatened.
As a 5 2" high school freshman, Goodrich had complained to his
mother, ``I don't understand why God gave me all this ability and
not the size to go with it.'' After reaching the pinnacle in
Portland, Goodrich was gratified. ``It gave me the satisfaction,''
he said, ``that a little man can win in a big man's game.''
Mostly because of injuries and illnesses, UCLA dropped to 18-8 in
1965-66 and didn't get a bid to the NCAA tournament. Nevertheless,
basketball interest on campus was at an alltime high, and it was
centered on the Bruins' freshman team. The reason: Lew Alcindor,
the 7 2" pivotman from Power Memorial in New York City, who had
been the nation's most widely publicized high school player.
Alcindor had been the most coveted college recruit since Wilt
Chamberlain, and even though freshmen were ineligible for the
varsity in those days, he was considered the best player on
UCLA's recruiting of Alcindor was unconventional, to say the
least. UCLA alumnus Ralph Bunche, the Nobel Prize-winning
diplomat, had stood in for Wooden at an awards ceremony in New
York, and in a thank-you note, Wooden asked Bunche for another
favor: Could Bunche do anything to help his alma mater land
Alcindor? After Bunche dropped Alcindor's parents a note, Wooden
received a call informing him that Alcindor wanted to visit the
UCLA campus. That trip was such a success that Wooden went to New
York and signed Alcindor.
At first, however, Alcindor had trouble adjusting to such a
radical change in environment. ``I was so homesick that I didn't
unpack my bags for a week,'' he said. ``I thought it would be nice
if they could just transplant UCLA to Times Square.'' But he felt
at home on the court, as he proved by scoring 31 points to lead
the UCLA freshmen -- the Brubabes, as they were known -- to a
75-60 win over a varsity team seeking its third consecutive NCAA
title. As one observer put it, ``UCLA is Number 1 in the country
and Number 2 on its own campus.'' Alcindor's classmates included
point guard Lucius Allen, deadeye shooting forward Lynn
Shackelford and defensive specialist Kenny Heitz.
As it turned out, of course, Alcindor exceeded everybody's
expectations. Although previous NCAA champions had been built
around talented giants -- Oklahoma A&M's Bob Kurland, Kentucky's
Bill Spivey and San Francisco's Bill Russell, to name three -- no
center had ever dominated the game as completely as Alcindor.
After Alcindor's team had defeated Dayton 79-64 in the '66 NCAA
championship game in Louisville's Freedom Hall, SI's Frank Deford
wrote presciently, ``So awesome were Lew Alcindor and his
teammates and so obvious is it that they are destined for two more
titles that the old moon there over Louisville will doubtless
suffer the indignity of conquest by mortal man before the Bruins
do.'' Indeed, the Bruins didn't lose again in tournament play
until 1974, five years after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. In
Alcindor's three varsity seasons, UCLA would go 30-0, 29-1 and
29-1 and would win the NCAA title three times.
Just as Muhammad Ali had Joe Frazier to bring out his best, just
as Affirmed had Alydar, Alcindor had 6 9" Elvin Hayes of Houston,
who talked trash long before it became popular. A strong inside
player with a shooting guard's range, the Big E came into his
first matchup against Big Lew in the 1967 Final Four semifinal
game. Hayes predicted a Cougar victory and said that Alcindor was
Well, Hayes outscored Alcindor 25-19 and outrebounded the taller
man 24-20, but the Bruins humiliated coach Guy Lewis's team
73-58. Predictably, Hayes accepted defeat less than graciously.
``[Alcindor] is not what they say he is,'' the Cougar center said
in the locker room. ``He's just got a lot of improving to do. It
really irritates me, him getting all the publicity, because it's
not real true. We could have won if the other guys on the team had
played better. They choked up.''
All those comments did was increase the demand for a rematch,
which came on Jan. 20, 1968, in the Houston Astrodome, before a
crowd of 52,693, which at the time was the largest ever to attend
a college game. The game was also nationally televised, and it is
credited with helping to turn college basketball from an
essentially regional game into one with a broad national
following. This time Houston prevailed 71-69. Hayes had a
sensational game, scoring 39 points and claiming 15 rebounds as
the Cougars stopped UCLA's winning streak at 47. Alcindor,
meanwhile, finished with only 18 points and 12 rebounds, partly
because of blurred vision from a scratched eyeball he had suffered
three games earlier.
The rubber match came in the 1968 NCAA semifinals in the Los
Angeles Sports Arena. This time Wooden used a
`diamond-and-one'' defense on Hayes, having Shackelford shadow the
Big E wherever he went. In the second half of what was to be a
101-69 Bruin victory, the lead reached 44 before Wooden called off
the dogs. Hayes, who ended with only 10 points, slumped on the
Houston bench with a towel draped over his head.
``We haven't really said anything publicly,'' said UCLA guard Mike
Warren, ``but we're a vindictive team. We've been looking forward
to this game for a long time. And we're not looking past North
Carolina. We'll run them back down South too.'' And they did,
78-55, in what was then the biggest victory margin in
In 1968-69, with Hayes gone off to the NBA, there was nobody on
the horizon to challenge Alcindor's senior team. But in its
infinite wisdom, the NCAA had placed the West Regional in Pauley
-- UCLA needed every break it could get, right? The Bruins breezed
past New Mexico State and Santa Clara. In the Final Four, held
once again in Freedom Hall, the Bruins got a scare, squeaking by
Drake 85-82 in the semis, before defusing Rick (the Rocket) Mount
and his Purdue teammates 92-72 in the title game.
Back in his hotel bedroom, with three straight titles and an
unprecedented three Most Outstanding Player awards to his credit,
a weary Alcindor was finally able to stretch out and relax.
``Everything was in my throat all week,'' he said. ``I could see
ahead to the end, but there was apprehension and fear. Fear of
losing. I don't know why, but it was there.''
The Beat Goes On
The graduation of Alcindor gave everyone in college basketball a
new lease on life. Yeah, sure, the Bruins still had Sidney Wicks
and Curtis Rowe -- a formidable set of 6 8" forwards -- and a pair
of solid guards in Henry Bibby and John Vallely. But what about
that huge hole at center? When Alcindor's successor, 6 9" Steve
Patterson, conceded that ``nobody's going to fill Lew's shoes,''
you could almost hear the college hoops world reply, ``Least of
all you, Steve.''
Yet when the 1970 Final Four convened in College Park, Md.,
doggone if UCLA wasn't there again, with a sneaky-good team that
had only two losses. In the semifinals the Bruins dispatched New
Mexico State 93-77 to earn the right to meet Jacksonville, the
outrageous interloper with the Globetrotter warmup routine and the
twin towers, 7 2" Artis Gilmore and 7-foot Pembrook Burrows III.
Oh, and the Dolphins also had a splendid guard named Rex Morgan.
He and the shot-blocking Gilmore were known as Batman and Robin.
When the Dolphins took an early 14-6 lead over UCLA, thanks mainly
to three field goals by Gilmore, Wooden called timeout to tinker
with his defense, moving Wicks behind Gilmore and telling
Patterson and others to sag in on him. The next time Gilmore went
up for what he thought would be an easy shot, Wicks swatted it
away. Psychologically, that proved to be the turning point. With
his team trailing 41-36, Gilmore missed five consecutive shots to
open the second half, and the Bruins kicked their lead out to 16
on the way to an 80-69 win.
That title, won without Alcindor, was an immensely satisfying
achievement for his old teammates. ``Everybody on the team was
looking forward to playing without Lew,'' Rowe said. ``Right now,
if Alcindor was on the team, who would the reporters be talking
to? Look around you. The reporters are with five people, and
But soon cracks began to appear in Wooden's tightly controlled
program. At a basketball dinner in the spring of '70, reserve
forward Bill Seibert bitterly attacked the UCLA system for a
``lack of communication'' between players and coaches and a
``double standard'' for stars and scrubs. His remarks were
seconded by some of his teammates. Then, while UCLA fans were
still reeling from that assault from within, the players got
together and sent President Nixon a telegram protesting the
clandestine invasion of Cambodia and the National Guard's shooting
of students at Kent State. It was a clear affront to Wooden, who
strongly disapproved of group political activity. More than that,
it was a sign that the times were a-changin' in athletics as well
as in society at large.
The coach's response was to meet with his players individually and
tell them that anybody sharing Seibert's feelings should quit the
team. Finally, after some of the starters threatened to quit
unless the coach stopped ``harassing'' their teammates, Wooden met
with the team and listened to Wicks. ``You shouldn't feel
threatened by this,'' Wicks said. ``We're here as a team, and you
taught us that.''
Nevertheless, the chilliness between Wooden and his team more or
less continued through the 1970-71 season, a dangerous situation
for a UCLA team that wasn't as talented as Wooden's previous
champions. Not surprisingly, the Bruins lost to Notre Dame at
South Bend during the regular season and had to overcome an
11-point second-half deficit to beat Long Beach State in the NCAA
West Regional final.
When UCLA arrived in Houston for the '71 Final Four in the
Astrodome, a reporter asked Wicks if he intended to keep his
stubble of a beard for the semifinal game against Kansas. ``Yep,''
Wicks said. By game time, however, it was gone, on orders from
The Bruins prevailed 68-60 over the Jayhawks, but in the title
game they had to resort to a second-half stall before subduing
stubborn Villanova 68- 62. The unexpected hero, with 29 points,
was Patterson, who had almost quit the team because of a running
argument with Wooden over the length of his sideburns. ``I've
never been a famous entity,'' said the player who replaced
Alcindor, ``but if I'd quit and UCLA had lost a championship, I'd
The Walton Gang
If Wooden thought his stormy relationship with his players was
going to get better with the graduation of Wicks, Rowe and
Patterson, he was in for another surprise. Even as the Bruins were
winning the title in '71, there was once again excitement in
Westwood over a freshman team led by a fabulous center. This time
it was Bill Walton, a counterculture devotee who in his time at
UCLA would seem to spend more time listening to the Grateful Dead
than to the wisdom of Wooden.
As a sophomore in 1971-72, Walton led the Bruins to a 30-0 record
and an easy romp through the NCAA tournament. In the Final Four at
the L.A. Sports Arena, UCLA's semifinal opponent was Louisville,
which was in its first year under former Wooden assistant Denny
Crum. Before the game, Walton good- naturedly taunted Crum, who
had recruited him, before scoring 33 points to lead UCLA to an
easy 96-77 victory. In the final, Walton scored 24 points and
grabbed 20 rebounds as the Bruins handled Florida State in an
81-76 win that wasn't really that close.
Walton's junior year, 1972-73, went much the same way, as the
Bruins once again rolled through another undefeated regular
season. At the Final Four in the St. Louis Checkerdome, however,
UCLA's NCAA winning streak was in jeopardy against an Indiana team
coached by a volatile young Bob Knight. At the end of a 17-0 run
in the semifinal game, the Hoosiers led the Bruins 54- 51 with
less than 10 minutes to go. Then Walton, wheeling across the lane,
banged into IU's 6 11" Steve Downing. Would it be a charge or a
block, Walton's fifth foul or Downing's fourth? Referee Joe Shosid
pointed to Downing, and from there UCLA ultimately pulled out a
In the championship game, Walton put on what still ranks as the
greatest show in the tournament's history. In an 87-66 blowout of
Memphis State, a team coached by Gene Bartow -- the man who would
one day succeed Wooden -- Walton was simply magnificent,
converting 21 of his 22 shots and scoring 44 points, both still
The '73-74 season would not go as smoothly for the Bruins. There
was a heartbreaking loss to Notre Dame, a 71-70 shocker in South
Bend in which UCLA blew an 11-point lead in the last three minutes
and saw its 88-game winning streak end. But even so, the Bruins
still had Walton and 6 6" senior Keith Wilkes, and going into the
1974 Final Four in Greensboro, N.C., it was something of a
foregone conclusion that UCLA would win its eighth consecutive
NCAA title. Behind the scenes, however, Wooden's wife, Nell, was
hoping her husband would retire after the season, win or lose. The
'73-74 team, for all its talent, had taken a toll on him. Some of
his players often seemed more interested in transcendental
meditation than in the high-post offense. The older players,
Walton included, seemed almost jaded by UCLA's success. As Wooden
saw it, his players had become ``complacent,'' and he didn't know
what to do about it.
The matchup everyone wanted to see came in the semifinal as
Walton's Gang went up against a North Carolina State team led by
the acrobatic 6 4" forward David Thompson. The Wolfpack had lost
to UCLA by 18 during the regular season, but playing before an
overwhelmingly supportive crowd, Thompson & Co. overcame an
11-point deficit in regulation to send the game into overtime.
After five minutes the score was still tied. In the second
overtime State quickly fell behind but rallied from seven down to
win 80-77, ending the Bruins' record streak of NCAA tournament
wins at 38.
Walton says the loss was the biggest disappointment of his career.
Of course, almost everyone else in college basketball was
deliriously happy. ``UCLA had won so much, they put themselves in
that unenviable position,'' said Wolfpack coach Norm Sloan, whose
team went on to beat Marquette 76-64 in the title game.
``Everybody wanted to see them fall.''
The Last Hurrah
The earth all but quivered late on the afternoon of Saturday,
March 29, 1975, only a few minutes after UCLA barely pulled out a
75-74 overtime victory over Louisville in the semifinals of the
NCAA tournament in San Diego. The game, one of the most taut and
tense in Final Four history, had left the 64-year- old Wooden
looking drained. Unable to sleep in the preceding weeks, Wooden
had moved the starting time for his morning walk up to 5 a.m., and
on the advice of a doctor, he turned down the opportunity to coach
the 1976 U.S. Olympic team. Still, nobody was prepared for
Wooden's emotional announcement to his players in the locker room
after the Louisville game. ``I'm bowing out,'' Wooden said. His
voice cracked. ``I don't want to. I have to.'' Then he turned and
The news spread quickly, sending shock waves throughout the sports
world. Some cynics suggested that Wooden had made the announcement
to inspire a UCLA team that would need every weapon it could
muster to beat tough and talented Kentucky. If so, it worked. The
Bruins came through 92-85.
At one critical juncture, with UCLA clinging to a 76-75 lead deep
in the second half, the Bruins' David Meyer went up for a jumper
but fell into Kentucky's Kevin Grevey and was called for an
offensive foul. Screaming and pounding the floor, Meyer was then
hit with a technical. At that point Wooden rushed onto the floor
and yelled, ``You crook!'' at official Hank Nichols.
Offered a possible five-point play -- a one-and-one, a free throw
for the technical on Meyer, and possession of the ball -- Kentucky
came up empty. Grevey missed the free throws, and Kentucky then
misfired from the field. Meyer then hit two free throws at the
other end, and the Wildcats never again got closer than three
After the game, UCLA guard Andre McCarter grabbed Wooden and
said, ``Coach, you have a nice life.'' The Wizard smiled and
walked away, leaving a legacy of success that will never be