Discovery amid defeat
It was the last week of December, when UCLA played Ohio State to a standstill for 30 minutes before collapsing, that the team discovered for itself what Wooden had secretly suspected. They weren't so bad. When conference play began they started winning, defeating nationally ranked USC, and powerful Stanford and Washington. There were several reasons for the change. Slaughter had now lost 30 pounds and could get both feet off the floor at the same time. This meant that Cunningham—feeling better himself—didn't have to waste so much of his energy in fruitless rebound attempts. Blackman, meanwhile, was moved up into a less punishing forecourt position on defense, with shorter but rugged John Green rebounding under that basket. Suddenly Blackman and Cunningham stopped wilting late in games. In fact UCLA used only five men recently in beating USC, though Wooden normally prefers to use a lot of substitutes.
But most important, everybody got used to East Coast. They changed from not watching Hazzard at all to watching him in self-defense, to finally watching him and expecting to get impossible passes. They got them. Green, convinced Hazzard would get the ball to him whenever possible, began playing the whole game at top speed to get clear—a pace which has enabled him to average 20 points a game.
The team shooting average improved to well over 40%, and the scoring was balanced. The rebounding was well balanced too. Because it has no big man, UCLA has four players who converge on the basket after a shot, while the fifth—whoever is farthest out—shouts "safety" and stays back. Finally, though two starters were sophomores, UCLA's freewheeling and happy bunch developed unexpected poise. They consistently came from far behind in crucial games, undismayed by their own bumptious errors, and won. They even clinched the championship in typical fashion. Twelve points behind to Washington, at Seattle, with 12 minutes to play, UCLA went into a good zone press. The rattled Huskies made three errors, UCLA broke away for three of its patented fast-break baskets, and Johnny Green won the game with a driving lay-up.
The remarkable Bruins from remarkable Los Angeles were boyishly exuberant in the dressing room after the game. They wanted to throw John Wooden into the shower. Wooden was wearing a reserved frown and a good suit. "I wouldn't do that, boys," said an assistant coach. They didn't. They were feeling just great, and they had just jolted the whole West Coast. But who ever heard of throwing a high school principal into a shower?