UCLA BASKETBALLtoday seems shot full of the John Wooden magic. This season's Bruins, who are26--5 and considered a strong title contender heading into the NCAA tournament,wear facsimiles of classic UCLA uniforms and share the commitment to defensethat produced 10 national championships in the 1960s and '70s. A pilgrim toPauley Pavilion might easily believe the UCLA dynasty began with a simple waveof the Wizard's wand, but in fact, Wooden spent 16 years in Westwood unable toelevate the program much beyond mediocrity. He questioned himself and tinkered,and ultimately came wisdom--and then victory on a scale unlikely ever to bematched.
The old coach, 96 now, is such a passionate collector and spouter of aphorismsthat it's easy to regard them as quaint. But one sign that Wooden hung on thewall of his office serves as a worthy caption for the first of UCLA's titleteams, the 1963--64 Bruins, who went undefeated without a starter taller than6'5": when you're through learning, you're through. Keep that in mind asyou read their story.
UCLA had enjoyedonly four winning seasons in the previous 20 years when 37-year-old John Woodentook over as the Bruins' coach in 1948, so the team's accomplishments in hisfirst season--most important, beating Cal for the Pacific Coast Conferencetitle after being picked to finish last--delighted the campus. Over the next 14seasons the Bruins racked up winning records every time out. Still, it wasn'tuntil Wooden was 53 that a team of his won a national title. The first threetimes his Bruins qualified for the NCAA tournament--in '50, '52 and '56--theyfailed to win their opening game. Today the chat boards and talk show hostswould have taken him down a decade before he had bagged his first title.
Wooden believesthat "six or seven" of those early teams could have won a nationalchampionship--"not should have," he wrote in his autobiography, TheyCall Me Coach, "but could have." All they lacked were luck and timing.In 1952, the day before the start of the NCAA tournament, starter Don Braggstumbled coming out of the shower and broke his toe. The only player inWooden's first 15 years in Westwood to later stick as a pro, Willie Naulls,happened to play between '53 and '56, precisely when Bill Russell reigned atSan Francisco. No sooner had Russell left than UCLA's football team wasdiscovered to have been part of a leaguewide pay-for-play scandal, and theschool's three-year probation was applied to all sports. After which came Caland its Hall of Fame coach, Pete Newell; though Wooden beat Newell sevenstraight times at one point, the Golden Bears turned the tables beginning in'57, eventually taking eight straight from the Bruins and winning an NCAA titlealong the way.
So, despite UCLA'srelative success, Wooden took heed of another sign on his office wall, the onethat read, IT'S WHAT YOU LEARN AFTER YOU KNOW IT ALL THAT COUNTS. From studyingNewell he learned the virtues of patience and simplicity. He sat in on apsychology class and decided that he didn't want yes-men as assistants.Sometimes he even courted conflict with players because he believed aworthwhile lesson might emerge from the clash. He asked other coaches to scouthis team and share their critiques. And he would spend each off-season poringover the meticulous records he kept of his practices, wondering what he mightdo differently.
March 18, 2007
In the spring of1960, after a 14--12 season that would turn out to be his worst at UCLA, Woodenreassessed everything. He concluded that his teams tended to fade late in theseason and wondered if he worked the players too hard in practice. Moreover,when he substituted, the reserves didn't mesh well with the starters. A singletweak to his practice plan--he began to rotate reserves among the first fivemore often in scrimmages--solved both problems. Two years later the Bruinsreached the national semifinals, where they suffered a controversiallast-minute charging call and a two-point loss to eventual championCincinnati.
Preposterous as itmay sound, winning per se was never Wooden's main emphasis, even as the Bruinsreached that doorstep. As Doug McIntosh, a reserve on the 1964 team, says,"The word win never escaped his lips. Literally. He just asked us to playto our potential."
The great lessonfrom the Cincinnati game, Wooden says, was simply this: "I learned we couldplay with the best." The next season UCLA finished 20--9, but six of thoselosses were by four points or fewer. Wooden sensed an imminent turn in theprogram's fortunes. In January 1963, on the flight home from two close lossesat Washington, he whipped off some doggerel for Pete Blackman, a recent Bruinsplayer and fellow poetry aficionado. It included a lengthy lamentation on theshortcomings of his team, but ended with these lines:
I want to say--yes,I'll foretell
Eventually, this team will jell
And when they do, they will be great
A championship will be their fate.
With every starter coming back,
Yes, Walt and Gail and Keith and Jack,
And Fred and Freddie and some more
We could be champs in sixty-four.
"Freddie"was guard Freddie Goss, who wound up sitting out the 1963--64 season as aredshirt. The "some more" turned out to be two small-town sophomores,McIntosh, a white center from Lily, Ky., and Kenny Washington, a black guardfrom segregated schools in Beaufort, S.C. Each was perfectly suited to be areserve and seemed to save his finest contributions for the biggest games. Andthen there were Walt and Gail and Keith and Jack and Fred.
To be sure, guardsWalt Hazzard and Gail Goodrich and forward Jack Hirsch had been high schoolplayers of distinction in their respective high schools in Philadelphia, LosAngeles and Van Nuys, Calif. But all were seemingly one-dimensional: Hazzard, apasser; Goodrich, a shooter; and Hirsch, a defender. Goodrich accepted ascholarship as a Polytechnic High junior when, at 5'8" and 120 pounds, hecorrectly intuited that he wasn't likely to get an offer much better thanUCLA's. At first he was wary of Hazzard, who had the ball most of the time, butGoodrich soon realized that if he moved to an open spot, Hazzard would findhim--for Hazzard loved to deliver the ball as much as Goodrich longed to launchit. "I defy you to find two finer guards who ever played on the sameteam," says Hirsch. "They averaged 43 a game between them, and we hadno shot clock or three-pointer."
Hirsch was a playerunlike any Wooden had encountered, on or off the court. Hirsch was apoker-playing sharpie who had grown up in Brooklyn, learning the subtleties ofbasketball on the playgrounds of Bedford-Stuyvesant. His father had becomewealthy from a chain of bowling alleys, and when the family moved to the WestCoast, Jack brought along a knack, at 6'3", for stealing rebounds from, andimprovising shots over, taller players. "I was two or three years ahead ofthese other guys as far as how the game should be played," says Hirsch,whose dad promised to quit a five-packs-a-day smoking habit if his son playedat UCLA. "Wooden adapted to me as much as I did to him. Everyone else wasafraid of him. But even though he seemed to hold my life in his hands, I knew Icould always go back to playing cards. He's admitted his stubbornness kept himfrom winning sooner, and I was one of the people who opened his eyes because ofhow crazy I was."
As for center FredSlaughter and forward Keith Erickson, neither went to UCLA on a full basketballscholarship. But that was a reflection of their versatility, not their ability.Slaughter had been a sprinter in high school in Topeka, Kans.--he ran the 100yards in 9.9 seconds--and had a choice of colleges at which to run. Heultimately accepted the Bruins' offer of a scholarship split between track andbasketball. Erickson had grown up just down the freeway from the Westwoodcampus, in El Segundo, but had never seen a Bruins basketball game until heplayed in one. No other school had offered him a ride for basketball, andUCLA's deal was half for hoops and half for baseball; though volleyball, whichhe would play in the '64 Tokyo Olympics, was the sport in which he firstdisplayed his astonishing jumping ability.
When practice beganin October 1963 the players scaled three flights of stairs to what was known asthe B.O. Barn, the cramped and fetid men's gym on campus where the basketballcourt shared space with wrestling mats and gymnastics equipment. Chalk driftingover from the pommel horses had to be swept off the court before practice; twomanagers pushed mops while Wooden walked in front of them, backward andcrouched over, dribbling water out of a bucket as if, he says, he were"feeding the chickens back on the farm." The B.O. Barn onceaccommodated 2,400 spectators, but in 1955 fire marshals prohibited crowds ofmore than 1,300. For the program to pay for itself, the players had to becomevagabonds. So for home games that season the Bruins bused to the L.A. SportsArena, which was virtually on the USC campus; the Long Beach Arena, 25 milesaway; and even the gym at a community college in Santa Monica. The Bruins wouldessentially play 30 road games.
With their rawathletes, split scholarships and three-ring practices in that hoops hayloft,the 1963--64 Bruins were less a basketball team than a rarefied phys-ed class,with Wooden the gym teacher. He was then known as Johnny, a transplantedHoosier whose superbly conditioned teams played the pell-mell Midwestern stylebut weren't regarded as very sophisticated defensively.
Only later, afterUCLA's first several titles, would Wooden begin to dominate the recruitingscene, picking and choosing among the top players in the nation. In fact, thecoach disliked recruiting, and only welcomed out-of-state players if someoneelse initiated the contact. McIntosh would have attended Tennessee, but thecoach there, a Purdue alum like Wooden, resigned suddenly and was happy tosteer his recruit to a fellow Boilermaker. Hazzard arrived thanks to aconnection twice removed: He was recommended by Naulls, who from the Phillyplaygrounds knew Woody Sauldsberry, Hazzard's distant cousin. Meanwhile,Hazzard recommended Washington, who played pickup ball in Philly while spendingsummers visiting a sister; Washington had arrived in Los Angeles unseen by anyUCLA coach--and two inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than advertised--aftercowering in the back of a Greyhound for three days.
Washington emergedfrom that bus into a dreamland, the polar opposite of the Jim Crow south."At first you say, 'No, it can't be,'" he recalls. "And then yousee this university, this microcosm of the world, and say, 'Well, whynot?'" Those first couple of years he would write buddies back home,telling them they wouldn't believe what he'd seen: guys flooding dormitoryfloors to slide around on them, and putting matches to their farts, anddrinking beer. And this guy Hirsch, who drove his own red Pontiac Grand Prix,called the coach "John" or "J-Dub" or "Woody" to hisface.
"Yes, buseswere being burned by the side of the road," Washington says of theharassment of Freedom Riders in the early '60s. "But [African-Americans]had faith, because if the whole country were like that, we'd still be inchains. And then I'd see this man who practiced what he preached, and that waslike beauty. [Wooden] had structure, a philosophy based on fairness. He was asmall-town person, too. The same things his father taught him, my father taughtme. I felt like a foster child."
"We all came byaccident," says Hirsch, whose father, failing to hold up his end of thepact he had made with his son, died of lung cancer just months after thechampionship season ended. "But we had great quickness, great hands, greatcommunication, great chemistry."
"We used totalk about how we were the all-American team, a group of guys from such diversebackgrounds, yet on the court were a perfect mesh," Slaughter says."Two black, two white, one Jewish, who after games would go in our separatedirections. But game time, practice time, ride-the-bus time, we were prettywell matched. We liked to protect each other. We liked to do our jobs. And wejust enjoyed playing for the man."
Once a year Woodenmade it a point to poll his players, asking them who they thought should bestarting. He did this to test his own judgment, and to have something withwhich he might shoo away a parent disgruntled over a son's playing time. Woodenhad never before, and would never again, find such unanimity on this questionas he did during the 1963--64 season.
Shortly after heannounced his retirement in 1975, in the aftermath of his final title run,Wooden confided to a young alumnus that he had blundered badly early in hiscareer by associating too much with yes-men. "Whatever you do in life,surround yourself with smart people who'll argue with you," he said. Woodendidn't mention any names, but he was tipping his hat to one smart,argumentative assistant coach in particular.
Jerry Norman hadplayed on three of Wooden's early teams, and he had the kind of contrarianspirit that both drives coaches nuts and steals their hearts. He was aninstigator, but instigators are also initiators--and in athletics theinitiators tend to seize opportunity. "Very headstrong, set in his ways,and profane," Wooden called Norman in his autobiography. "Jerry gave mefits. I don't believe I ever had a boy more strong-willed, more sure of himselfand more outspoken." Wooden kicked him off the team for two weeks duringthe 1950--51 season. Yet after Norman did turns in the service and as a coachfor Wooden's brother Maurice, the principal at West Covina (Calif.) High, hisold college coach brought him back, first to run the freshman team and then, in1963, to serve as a varsity assistant. "I guess I wanted a rebel,"Wooden wrote, "someone who would stand up to me."
Like his boss,Norman had been influenced by UCLA's nemesis, Pete Newell, who retired as Calcoach in 1960. Newell believed that a team controlling the tempo controlled thegame. Accordingly, over the 1962--63 season, the Bruins had looked to push thepace at every opportunity. In their next-to-last game, a 51--45 win overStanford for the conference title, they'd used a full-court, man-to-man pressto that end. They forced almost 20 turnovers, Norman says, but still scoredonly 51 points.
After UCLA lost toArizona State in the Bruins' NCAA tournament opener, Norman caucused with hisboss. He argued that a full-court, man-to-man defense forces the opponent toadvance the ball with the dribble, which chews up time. If the Bruins reallywanted to hasten changes in possession and shorten each possession, the teamneeded a zone press, with the kinds of traps that only a foolish dribbler wouldtry to slalom through. Opponents would have to advance the ball by passing, andhuman nature being what it is, those passes would eventually become hurried andcareless. UCLA's quick hands, long arms and sprinters' speed would lead todeflections and interceptions, and soon the ball would be headed the other way.The Bruins would score, and the way they'd score--suddenly and as a result ofturnovers--would sow, as Wooden later put it, "disharmony and disunity"on the opposing team.
There was more.Force a turnover as a result of a zone press, Norman argued, and the five UCLAplayers would be spread across the breadth and most of the length of thefloor--the better to take advantage of Hazzard's skill in transition. Size maybe an advantage in basketball, but it dissipates when spread over the court.And if the Bruins opened a lead with a flurry of baskets, their opponents wouldhave to adopt a faster tempo to catch up, playing right into UCLA's hands."I laid out the rationale," says Norman, who had used a 2-2-1 zonepress successfully as coach of the Bruins' freshman team. "We had no size,and we played in a conference in which teams liked to walk the ball up thefloor. The idea wasn't to steal the ball, remember. That would be an ancillarybenefit. It was to increase tempo."
Wooden wasskeptical. He had used a zone press effectively in his first college job, atIndiana State, but he feared that players had become too skilled to beflummoxed by one. It wasn't Norman who ultimately won over Wooden so much asthe presence of Erickson, whose lateral quickness, sense of timing andgambler's sangfroid made him the perfect safetyman at the back of the 2-2-1.Cal coach Rene Herrerias would liken him to "a 6'5" Bill Russell,"and Wooden came to call Erickson the finest athlete he had ever coached.
Wooden eventuallyconcluded that he had erred in not using a zone press earlier. "When I cameto UCLA, I expected to use it more often, and a number of years I had thepersonnel for it," he says. From 1957 through '59 he had coached RaferJohnson, the Olympic decathlon champion-to-be, and kicked himself for notrecognizing in Johnson another ideal backliner for the 2-2-1. "I tried itfor a while and gave up on it," Wooden adds, reproaching himself. "Andas a coach, you know, you preach patience."
The zone press,Wooden came to realize, had additional virtues. It built morale and promotedcohesion. And just as a lumbering team was vulnerable to it, a bunch of biggaloots couldn't really make it work.
At the front of thepress Wooden deployed Goodrich, who despite his wraithlike physique had hugehands and a 37-inch sleeve length, and the 6'5" Slaughter, who was fastenough to sprint back and set up if an opponent broke into the forecourt, butwhose broad 235 pounds made breaking the press even more of a challenge."They had a poor little person trying to throw the ball in, trying to seearound me," Slaughter recalls. "And please, don't try to throw a longpass. While I was running and jumping at the front of the press, Keith wasrunning and jumping at the back."
If Erickson pickedoff the most passes, the ensuing baskets usually came as a result of thedecisions by Hazzard, who lined up with Hirsch near midcourt and, just asNorman envisioned, tended to wind up with the ball in the open floor. "Waltand Gail never called a play for the rest of us," Erickson says. "Muchto our chagrin and to their credit. But we were best when we were running, sowe didn't really need plays." The Glue Factory, one wag called the Bruinspress. Another called it Arranged Chaos. Asked what it was like to face the2-2-1, USC coach Forrest Twogood responded with a question of his own."Have you ever been locked up in a casket for six days?" he said."That's how it feels."
The Bruins droppeda hint of what was in store just before Christmas, when they took out unbeatenCreighton and muscular Paul Silas. But it would be six days later, against No.3 Michigan in the L.A. Classic, when UCLA conclusively demonstrated how speedcould trump size. The Wolverines called their frontline of Bill Buntin, OliverDarden and Larry Tregoning the Anvil Chorus, and guard Cazzie Russell was anAll-America and future collegiate player of the year. Hirsch nonetheless lockedup Russell, Slaughter shut down the 6'7", 250-pound Buntin, and the Bruinswon 98--80, improving their record to 8--0. Harry Combes, coach of the Illinoisteam the Bruins would beat the next night for the tournament title, called it"the best performance in a single game I've ever seen by a collegeteam." Nonetheless, it wasn't until January, after Georgia Tech beatKentucky and the Bruins rang up 121 points against Washington State, that UCLAascended to No. 1 in the polls. A team unmentioned in SI's preseason Top 20suddenly found itself lording over the sport.
In each of their30 games, the Bruins used the zone press to deliver at least one game-alteringspurt, a period of two or three minutes in which UCLA outscored its opponent by10 or more points. These Bruin Blitzes, as they came to be known, usually tookplace before the end of the first half. In a few instances--such as a 100--88win over Stanford, in which Erickson's three steals spurred an 18--3 run thatput UCLA up 77--65--opponents didn't get blown away until the second half. Butthose decisive runs always came.
UCLA's confidenceflowed from its coach. "A couple of times when we were way down, I rememberlooking over at him with his legs crossed and program rolled up," Slaughterrecalls, "and I'd think, Hey, if he's not worried, I'm not worried."Sometime in February, Slaughter remembers, he picked up an out-of-town paperand read speculation that the Bruins might go undefeated. It hadn't occurred tohim. "We were too busy having fun," Slaughter says, "and beatingthe crap out of everyone."
If a lightnesspersisted among the players, it's because their success seemed so unexpectedand sudden. The fans embraced the lark of it, wearing their red we try harderbuttons from Avis's popular ad campaign. Just the same, this wasn't a case of ateam that would only appreciate what it accomplished with the passage of time."As it was unfolding," says reserve forward Rich Levin, one of fiveend-of-the-benchers who called themselves the Mop-Up Squad, "we knew it wasspecial."
In their firstgame of the NCAA tournament, in the West Regional in Corvallis, Ore., theBruins trailed Seattle late before Goodrich bailed them out, finding Washingtonfor a layup and free throw, then scoring on a layup himself off a steal in a95--90 victory. The next night UCLA fell behind San Francisco early, trailingby 13 in the first half. The blitz came like the cavalry, "right at the endof the game," Erickson remembers, delivering the Bruins to the Final Fourin Kansas City, Mo.
There they drew avirtual home team, Kansas State. "They're up five with seven minutes toplay," Hirsch recalls, "and their best player takes a 15-footer. Theball is in the net, and somehow comes out. I grab the ball, throw it down toGail for a layup, and we're down three. If that ball goes in, with no shotclock.... " He lets you imagine the consequences. "It's as if God said,'This team is going undefeated.'"
UCLA drew even at75 with four minutes left, and then another K-State shot went in and out. Thistime the Blitz had been modest, 11 points in three minutes, but it was enoughto make UCLA a 90--84 winner and set up a title-game matchup with Duke. LikeHirsch, Wooden knew that as superbly as his team had performed all season, fateseemed to be playing an ever larger role. "Somehow we keep our poise andget out of the jams we get ourselves into," Wooden said on the eve of thefinal. "Now we have to do it one more time."
Skeptics remained."There is no way for UCLA to beat Duke," wrote Dick Wade of The KansasCity Star. "The Blue Devils simply have too much--height, shooting ability,rebounding ability and defense." At least Wade had been smart enough topreface his prediction with this: "If you're silly enough to apply logic tobasketball."
Logic fled thearena late in the first half, shortly after Erickson had picked up his thirdfoul with UCLA trailing 30--27. Here came the blitz by which all others wouldbe measured. Hirsch made three steals. Goodrich scored eight points.Washington, playing before his dad for the first time, knocked down twojumpers. And Erickson, disregarding the fouls, blocked several shots. TwiceDuke called timeout, but to no avail. By the time the Bruins' run hadended--after one Blue Devil turned to Slaughter and said, "Hey, can youguys slow down?"--UCLA had scored 16 unanswered points in slightly morethan 2 1/2 minutes to take a 43--30 lead. Off the bench, McIntosh andWashington would combine for 23 rebounds; Duke's two 6'10" frontliners,Hack Tison and Jay Buckley, would get only 10 between them. UCLA forced 29turnovers and coasted, 98--83, to finish 30--0. "Don't let it changeyou," Wooden told his players in the locker room. "You are championsand must act like champions."
Five times duringthat season the Bruins scored more than 100 points; only six times did they winby five or fewer. Over the ensuing months Wooden would field some 700 inquiriesfrom coaches asking how the press worked. He has always called that first titleteam the one that came "as close to reaching its potential as a team couldcome," and given his definition of success, that is the highest praise hecould deliver.
"People say hedidn't have the horses before us," says Hirsch. "No--he didn't winbecause he wasn't a great coach. He was a good coach who filled in all theblanks."
Wooden agrees."We'd have had a little better chance in earlier years," he says,"if I'd have known a little more."
Who knew? TheWizard of Westwood was really the Master of the Midcourse Correction. The1963--64 title team stands as both a summation of everything he had learned tothat time and a grand experiment in the coaching arts that he would apply towin nine more championships. Precept after precept was tonged and tempered inthe crucible of that season: The game rewards quickness above all, victorybegins with defense and, perhaps most important of all, it's what you learnafter you know it all that counts.
"Coach has admitted his STUBBORNNESS KEPT HIM FROMWINNING," says Hirsch. "I was one of the people who opened hiseyes."
Wooden was in his 16th season in Westwood when he made his initial NCAAchampionship game appearance. He won that one and nine of the next11.
The Bruins would eventually become famous for their big men, but with nostarter taller than 6'5", they ran by Duke in the '64 title game,98--83.
Just 5'8" and 120 pounds when he signed, the L.A. native would go on tobecome the Bruins' alltime leading scorer.
The pass-first Philly point guard had one message for teammates: Get open, andI'll get you the ball.
Tutored on the Bed-Stuy playgrounds, the crafty forward knew all the tricks fortaking on bigger foes.
An athlete who starred in baseball and later as an Olympic volleyballer, he wasideal for playing safety in the zone trap.
A high school sprinter in Topeka, Kans., he turned turnovers into UCLA pointson defense with his speed.