How the 1964 UCLA Bruins made John Wooden (cont.)
At the front of the press Wooden deployed Goodrich, who despite his wraithlike physique had huge hands and a 37-inch sleeve length. Alongside him he placed Slaughter, who was fast enough to sprint back and set up if an opponent broke into the forecourt, but whose 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 see around me," Slaughter recalls. "And please, don't try to throw a long pass. While I was running and jumping at the front of the press, Keith was running and jumping at the back."
If Erickson picked off the most passes, the ensuing baskets usually came as a result of the decisions of Hazzard, who lined up alongside Hirsch and, just as Norman envisioned, tended to wind up with the ball in the open floor. "Walt and Gail never called a play for the rest of us," Erickson says. "Much to our chagrin and to their credit. But we were best when we were running, so we didn't really need plays."
The Glue Factory, one wag called the press. Another called it Arranged Chaos. Asked what it was like to face the 2-2-1, USC coach Forrest Twogood responded with a question of his own. "Have you ever been locked up in a casket for six days? That's how it feels."
The Bruins dropped a hint of what was in store just before Christmas, when they took out unbeaten Creighton and muscular Paul Silas. But it would be six days later, against No. 2 Michigan in the L.A. Classic, that UCLA conclusively demonstrated how speed could trump size. The Wolverines called their frontline of Bill Buntin, Oliver Darden and Larry Tregoning "the Anvil Chorus," and Cazzie Russell was an All-America and future collegiate Player of the Year. Hirsch nonetheless locked Russell up, Slaughter shut down the 6-7 Buntin, and the Bruins won 98-80. Harry Combes, coach of the Illinois team 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 college team." Nonetheless, it wasn't until January, after Georgia Tech pinned a loss on Kentucky and the Bruins rang up 121 points against Washington State, that UCLA ascended to No. 1 in the polls. A team unmentioned in SI's preseason Top 20 suddenly found itself lording over the sport -- a sport that would regard UCLA's success with skepticism for the rest of the season.
In each of their 30 games, the press delivered at least one game-altering spurt, a period of two or three minutes in which UCLA outscored its opponent by 10 or more points. These "Bruin Blitzes," as they came to be known, usually took place before the end of the first half. In a few instances -- e.g., a 100-88 defeat of Stanford, when Erickson's three steals during an 18-3 stretch pushed the Bruins from three points down to a 77-65 lead -- opponents didn't feel their force until the second half. But always, ultimately, the decisive runs came. "We knew we'd find a way," says Goodrich. Adds reserve forward Rich Levin, one of five end-of-the-benchers who called themselves the Mop-Up Squad: "No doubt about it, we became very cocky. Wooden didn't really like it. He warned us about it."
Yet their confidence flowed from the coach himself. "A couple of times when we were way down I remember looking over at him with his legs crossed and program rolled up and thinking, 'Hey, if he's not worried, I'm not worried,'" Slaughter recalls. "Coach Wooden had done his job already. He'd gone through our offense and defense 'til they were part of our fabric. Then it was up to us. He sat back and watched how well he'd done his work."
Sometime in February, Slaughter remembers, he picked up an out-of-town paper and read speculation that the Bruins might go undefeated. It hadn't occurred to him. "We were too busy having fun," he says, "and beating the crap out of everyone."
When Hirsch wore a Beatle wig to practice one day, the hair-length-obsessed coach struck the perfect note. "Anything Jack wants to do to try to improve his appearance is OK by me," Wooden said. Says Levin: "It was beautiful. We all laughed. Hirsch laughed and got rid of the wig."
If a lightness persisted around the team, it's because so much seemed so unexpected and sudden. The fans embraced the lark of it, wearing their red "WE TRY HARDER" buttons from Avis Rent-a-Car's popular ad campaign. Just the same, this wasn't a case of a team that would only appreciate what it accomplished with the passage of time. "As it was unfolding," says Levin, "we knew it was something special."
So did Alexander Nikolic, the Yugoslav national coach, who spent more than three months that season pinballing around the country, watching college teams and taking notes. He would appear and reappear around the Bruins like a Hitchcock character. Perhaps only a visitor from Tito's polyglot state could recognize the cohesive strength the Bruins drew from their motley composition. All along Nikolic predicted a championship. "Is small team," he said after a couple of wins over Washington ran the record to 21-0. "But is best I see. Because is team. All five." He held up the five fingers of one hand. "Team!"
The Bruins would quail their way through the NCAA West Regional. Goodrich bailed them out after they trailed Seattle late in the game, finding Washington for a layup and free throw, then scoring a layup himself off a steal. By the end every starter but Goodrich and Hazzard had fouled out, with Hazzard receiving one of Wooden's low-and-hard administrations. The next night UCLA fell behind San Francisco early, trailing by 13 during the first half. The Blitz came like the cavalry, "right at the end of the game," Erickson remembers, delivering the Bruins to the Final Four in Kansas City.
There they drew a virtual home team, Kansas State. "They're up five with seven minutes to play," Hirsch recalls, "and their best player takes a 15-footer. The ball is in the net to put us down seven, and somehow comes out. I grab the ball, throw it down to Gail for a layup, and we're somehow down three. If that ball goes in, with no shot clock ... " He lets you imagine the consequences. "It's as if God said, 'This team is going undefeated.' "
UCLA drew back to 75-75 with four minutes remaining. Just then a stir went through the crowd, as four young women in overcoats scurried to spots behind the baseline at one end of Municipal Auditorium. Legend has it that a Kansas State shot was just then tracing its way to the basket, and it was as if the ball joined everyone else in throwing a glance toward the UCLA song girls, whose plane had been delayed by a blizzard. Once again a K-State shot had gone in, then out. This time the Blitz had been more modest, 11 points in three minutes. But it proved to be enough to carry UCLA home, 90-84, and set up a date with Duke.
Like Hirsch, Wooden knew that, as superbly as his team had performed all season, fate seemed to be playing an ever-larger role. "Somehow we keep our poise and get out of the jams we get ourselves into," he said on the eve of the final. "Now we have to do it one more time."
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