How the 1964 UCLA Bruins made John Wooden (cont.)
For Slaughter the warm weather had beckoned, as well as a mother who lived nearby and, as he puts it, a desire "to help the basketball team achieve some national recognition. Most people think I came because of John Wooden. Let me be real facetious: I came to help John Wooden." He grins at the audacity.
"We all came by accident," says Hirsch, whose father, failing to hold up his end of the bargain, died of lung cancer at the end of the championship season. "But we had great quickness, great hands, great communication, great chemistry."
Chemical reactions only occur with an admixture of different elements. Wooden recited for me the spiel he always gave his players: "I'm not going to like you all the same. You won't like me or each other all the same either. Nor will I treat you all the same." In the fall of 1963 it must have been an easy sell, for with a quick glance around, the players could see that they weren't even remotely the same.
"We used to talk about how we were the All-American team, such a group of guys from diverse backgrounds, yet on the court were a perfect mesh," Slaughter says. "Two black, two white, one Jewish, who after games would go in our separate directions. But game time, practice time, ride-the-bus time, we were pretty well-matched. We liked to protect each other. We liked to do our jobs. And we just enjoyed playing for the man."
On the road all wore grey slacks and navy blue blazers, and none regarded doing so as a restraint on his personal freedom. Five years later Herbert Warren Wind would describe Wooden as an anachronism, "an island of James Whitcomb Riley in a sea of Ken Kesey, the Grateful Dead, Terry Southern and Jerry Rubin," but these were prelapsarian days. None of these Bruins lay down in rush-hour traffic on Wilshire Boulevard to protest war in Southeast Asia. There were only hints of worldly complications to come, when twice Wooden cancelled practice: once during a severe smog alert, and again on the day of Kennedy's assassination, after leading the team in a silent prayer. Indeed, Hazzard and Goodrich, Army ROTCers both, carried the colors during LBJ's visit to campus a few months later. "Off the court the group wasn't the closest in the world," Wooden remembered, naming the non-starting regulars, the roommates McIntosh and Washington, as the only two everybody really liked. "But they worked together as well as any team possibly could have."
Several times a year Wooden made it a point to poll his players, asking them who they thought should be starting. He did this to test his own judgment, and to have something with which he might shoo away a parent disgruntled over his son's playing time. Wooden had never before, and would never again, find such unanimity on this question as he did during the 1963-64 season.
Shortly after he announced his retirement in 1975, in the aftermath of his final title, Wooden confided to a young alumnus that he had blundered badly early in his career by cavorting with yes men. "Whatever you do in life, surround yourself with smart people who'll argue with you," he said. Wooden didn't mention any names, but he was tipping his hat to one smart, argumentative assistant coach in particular.
Jerry Norman had played on two of Wooden's early Bruin teams, and he had the kind of contrarian spirit that both drives coaches nuts and steals their hearts. He was an instigator, but instigators are initiators -- and in athletics it's the initiators who tend to seize the main chance. "A profane youngster," Wooden called Norman in They Call Me Coach. "Jerry gave me fits. I don't believe I ever had a boy more strong-willed, more sure of himself, and more outspoken." Wooden kicked him off the team for two weeks during the 1950-51 season. Yet after Norman did turns in the service and as a coach for Wooden's brother Maurice, the principal at West Covina High, his old college coach brought him back, first to run the freshman team and then, in 1959, to serve as a full-time 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 had recently retired. Newell believed that a team controlling the tempo controlled the game. Accordingly, over the 1962-63 season, the Bruins had looked to push the pace at every opportunity. In their next-to-last game, a 51-45 defeat of Stanford for the conference title, they'd used a full-court man-to-man press to that end. But how could the Bruins have forced almost 20 turnovers and scored only 51 points?
After a loss to Arizona State in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Norman caucused with his boss. He argued that, imposing as it might be, a full-court man-to-man forces an offense to advance the ball with the dribble, which chews up time. If UCLA really wanted to send gas to a game's engine -- to hasten changes in possession and shorten each possession itself -- the team needed not a man press, but a zone press, with the kinds of traps that only a foolish dribbler would try to slalom through. Opponents would have to advance the ball upcourt by passing it, and human nature being what it is, those passes would eventually become lobs and crosscourts, hurried and careless. UCLA's quick hands, long arms and sprinters' speed would lead to deflections 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 of their opponents' turnovers, would sow, as Wooden later put it, "disharmony and disunity."
There was more. Force a turnover as a result of a zone press, Norman intuited, and the five Bruins would be spread across the breadth and length of the floor, the better to take advantage of Hazzard's skill in transition. Size may be an advantage in basketball, but it dissipates when spread over the court. And if the Bruins took a lead with a flurry of baskets, their opponents would fall behind, and to catch up would have to adopt a faster tempo -- playing right into UCLA's hands. "I laid out the rationale," says Norman, who had used a 2-2-1 zone press successfully with his Brubabe freshmen. "We had no size, and we played in a conference where teams liked to walk the ball up the floor. The idea wasn't to steal the ball, remember. That would be an ancillary benefit. It was to increase tempo."
Wooden was skeptical. Yes, he had used the zone press effectively early in his coaching career, and in his first college job, at Indiana State. But in Terre Haute he had enjoyed a nucleus of his former players at South Bend Central High, just home from World War II and unusually mature. Today's collegiate players, Wooden feared, would be too skilled and poised to be flummoxed by a zone press.
It wasn't Norman who ultimately won Wooden over so much as the presence of Erickson, whose lateral quickness, sense of timing and gambler'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 would eventually conclude that he had erred in not using a zone press earlier in his career. "When I came to UCLA I expected to use it more often, and a number of years I had the personnel for it," he told me. Between 1957 and '59 he had coached Rafer Johnson, the Olympic decathlon champion-to-be, and kicked himself for not recognizing in him another ideal backliner for the 2-2-1. "I tried it for a while and gave up on it," he added, reproaching himself. "And as a coach, you know, you preach patience."
The zone press, Wooden came to realize, had additional virtues. It built morale and promoted cohesion. And just as a lumbering team was vulnerable to it, a bunch of big galoots couldn't really make it work. So your team is short. God never closes one door without opening another.