How the 1964 UCLA Bruins made John Wooden (cont.)
The next season UCLA suffered seven defeats by a total of 21 points. Wooden nonetheless sensed an imminent turn in the program's fortunes. That January, on the flight home from two close losses at Washington, he whipped off some doggerel for Pete Blackman, a recent Bruin captain and fellow poetry aficionado. It included a lengthy lamentation on the shortcomings 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 then some more
We could be champs in Sixty-Four.
"Freddie" was Freddie Goss, who wound up sitting out the 1963-64 season as a redshirt. The "some more" turned out to be two small-town sophomores, McIntosh, a white kid from Lily, Ky., and Kenny Washington, the black product of segregated schools in Beaufort, S.C., and a household headed by a Marine sergeant who revered Booker T. Washington. Each was perfectly suited for the role of coming off the bench, and seemed to save his finest contributions for the biggest games. And then there were Walt and Gail and Keith and Jack and Fred.
To be sure, Walt Hazzard, Gail Goodrich and Jack Hirsch had been high school players of distinction in their respective hometowns -- Philadelphia, Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley town of Van Nuys. But all were apparently one-dimensional: Hazzard, a passer; Goodrich, a shooter; and Hirsch, a defender. Goodrich accepted a scholarship as a high school junior when, at 5-8 and 120 pounds, he correctly intuited that he wasn't likely to get an offer much better than UCLA's. At first he was wary of Hazzard, who had the ball most of the time -- the ball, after all, being what Goodrich needed in order to do what he did best. Goodrich also needed the regular pat on the back; with Hazzard, Wooden told me, his eyes atwinkle, the application had to come "lower and harder." But as a stern hand brought forth Hazzard's best, Goodrich soon realized that, if he moved to an open spot, Hazzard would find him, for Hazzard loved to deliver the ball as much as Goodrich loved to launch it. "I defy you to find two finer guards who ever played on the same team," says Hirsch. "They averaged 43 a game between them. Some teams today don't even score 40 points, and we had no shot clock or three-pointer."
Hirsch himself was a player unlike any Wooden had encountered, on or off the court. He had grown up in Brooklyn, learning the game's subtleties on the playgrounds of Bedford-Stuyvesant. His father had become wealthy from a chain of bowling alleys, and when the family moved to the West Coast, Jack brought along a knack, at 6-4, for stealing rebounds from, and improvising shots over, taller players. "I was two or three years ahead of these 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 played ball at UCLA. "Wooden adapted to me as much as I did to him. Everyone else was afraid of him. But even though he seemed to hold my life in his hands, I knew I could always go back to playing cards. He's admitted his stubbornness kept him from winning sooner, and I was one of the people who opened his eyes because of how crazy I was."
As for Fred Slaughter and Keith Erickson, neither came on a full basketball scholarship, but that was a reflection of their great versatility, not meager potential. Slaughter had been a 9.9 sprinter in high school in Topeka with his choice of colleges at which to run. He ultimately accepted the Bruins' offer of a scholarship split between track and basketball. Erickson had grown up just down the freeway, in El Segundo, but wouldn't see a Bruins basketball game until he played in one. No other school had offered him a ride for basketball, and UCLA's deal was for half hoops, half baseball -- though volleyball, which he learned on the beach and would play in the Tokyo Olympics, was the sport that had taught him how to use his astonishing jumping ability.
When practice began in October 1963, few of the things UCLA basketball would come to be known for -- the iconic centers; the role of prohibitive favorite; the late-model arena whose rafters would eventually groan from the weight of championship banners -- had yet to arrive. The team had no locker room or showers to call its own. For practices the players scaled three flights of stairs to the two baskets in "the B.O. Barn," the cramped and fetid men's gym on campus, where canvas drapes separated the court from the wrestlers and gymnasts. Chalk drifting over from the pommel horses had to be swept up before practice; two managers pushed the mops while Wooden himself walked in front of them, backward and crouched over, dribbling water out of a bucket as if, he told me, he were "feeding the chickens back on the farm." The B.O. Barn once accommodated 2,400 spectators, but in 1955 fire marshals banned any crowd of more than 1,300. If the program were to pay its way the team had to become vagabonds. So that season the players bussed to their caravanserai of the moment: the L.A. Sports Arena, which was essentially on the USC campus; the Long Beach Arena, 25 miles away; even the gym at a community college in nearby Santa Monica. The team would go undefeated while essentially playing 30 road games.
"It was so hard to recruit with our facilities and entrance requirements," Wooden told me. "It was winning our first one that made the difference. I didn't think we could do it, and found out I was wrong. Perhaps subconsciously I was dwelling too much on negative things."
With their raw athletes, split scholarships and three-ring practices in that hoops hayloft, the 1963-64 Bruins were less a basketball team than a rarified phys-ed class, with Wooden as gym teacher. Certainly not one of the players chose UCLA because he wanted to play for some legendary basketball coach. Wooden was then "Johnny" Wooden, a transplanted Hoosier whose superbly conditioned teams played the pell-mell Midwestern style, but weren't regarded as very sophisticated defensively. Indeed, in the fall of 1963, when a Los Angeles newspaper used the phrase "wizard of Westwood," it was to describe the Bruins' playmaker, Hazzard.
It wasn't so much Wooden who attracted the team's four regulars from beyond Southern California, as the very thing that had pulled young men West throughout American history, whether for land or gold, sunshine or stardom: One way or another an adolescent could sketch the scene in his head and project himself into it. Wooden didn't enjoy recruiting, and only welcomed out-of-state players if someone else initiated the contact. McIntosh would have attended Tennessee, but the coach there, a Purdue alum like Wooden, had suddenly resigned and was happy to hook his recruit up with a fellow Boilermaker. Hazzard arrived thanks to a connection twice removed: From the Philadelphia playgrounds, Naulls knew Woody Sauldsberry, who was Hazzard's distant cousin. Meanwhile Hazzard recommended Washington, who played pick-up ball in Philly while spending summers visiting a sister. Washington had arrived in L.A. unseen by any UCLA coach -- and two inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than advertised -- after cowering in the back of a Greyhound bus for three days.
Washington emerged into a dreamland, the polar opposite of a Jim Crow Southern town. "At first you say, 'No, it can't be,'" he recalls. "And then you see this university, this microcosm of the world, and say, 'Well, why not?'" Those first couple of years he would write buddies back home, telling them they wouldn't believe what he'd see: guys flooding dormitory floors to slide around on them, and putting matches to their farts, and drinking beer. And this guy Jack Hirsch, who drove his own red Pontiac Grand Prix, and called the coach "John" or "J-Dub" or "Woody" to his face, and swanned into training table one day to announce that "I'm not gonna eat this slop." It sure enough did take all kinds.
"Yes, buses were being burned by the side of the road," Washington says. "But you had faith, because if the whole country were like that you'd still be in chains. And then you'd see this man who practiced what he preached, and that was like beauty. You had structure, a philosophy based on fairness. He was a small-town person, too. The same things his father taught him, my father taught me. I felt like a foster child."