A favorite ploy of early Hollywood dramatists was to weasel their way out of their own insoluble plots by abruptly transferring the good guy from Troublesville to Sunshine Square, and never you mind how improbably it was done. Last weekend one of the zaniest West Coast basketball races that anybody cared to remember came down to its chaotic climax in Los Angeles, and the outcome was enough to make any old scriptwriter proud. UCLA, the team that had hardly any hope at all, was handed—almost gratis—a last chance at the Big Six championship. And Stanford, the team that had come south with rosy prospects, had been summarily bounced off Sunshine Square.
When the conference race began this season, UCLA was the defending champion, but no favorite to repeat. Its coach, Johnny Wooden, admitted the team's ball handling was good—largely because of the best passer in college basketball, Walt Hazzard—and its speed was adequate. But the object of the game involves putting something through a hoop, and UCLA's men weren't much at this. "My guards can't hit from anywhere past 15 feet," said Wooden. "On the other hand, my forwards can't hit from 10." UCLA promptly went up to Seattle and got upset by Washington—twice. When it went to Stanford it lost to the Indians—twice.
This should have made the race a Pacific breeze for favored Stanford, but that team insisted on falling into unlikely ambushes at the hands of California and USC. Still, as the season went into what should have been its final two days last Friday, Stanford had a comfortable margin. It was two games ahead. This meant that for UCLA to even get a tie it had to win its last two games—Stanford and California—while Stanford had to lose to UCLA and USC.
UCLA and Stanford are not necessarily intense rivals. There has been no bad blood spilt between the schools, but there has been some glass. At Stanford last month a sizable bottle was thrown from the stands and crashed into a million pieces on the floor during play. A UCLA editorialist said a Stanford student was responsible and called it disgraceful. The Stanford Daily blamed a UCLA student, and called it disgraceful.
Stanford is a gentlemen's team with a gentleman coach, Howie Dallmar. "The trouble with Stanford," said a man on the eve of the UCLA game, "is that too many of its players come from unbroken homes. They are too nice. Stanford is a prestige school that attracts a lot of mama's boys."
"Bull," answered Dallmar, respectfully.
The Indians are nevertheless a gloomily serious team, not given to levity. They also have a phobia—Fridays. They had lost four times this year on Friday night. "If you think about it long enough maybe you could make believe it's Saturday when it's Friday," said Stanford's best player, 6-foot-8 Center Tom Dose.
"Be reasonable," said Dallmar of the Friday fixation. "No one stops to think what day it is once the ball goes up."
The Friday night game was at Santa Monica City College, one of UCLA's "home" courts. Coach Wooden's plan to beat Stanford was to rattle the Indians with a full-court press. "We figure we can get away with a tight press on our home floor," he said, which is especially valid reasoning when home happens to be a gym the size of a beach cabana. The press didn't stop Dose, who hit eight straight shots before missing, but it—and perhaps the awareness that it was Friday night—unraveled the rest of the Stanford team. It lost the ball 24 times on errors. That is a whole seasonful of mistakes, and UCLA won easily, 64-54, cutting Stanford's lead to one game.
The next night Stanford moved crosstown with great relief to play USC at Los Angeles State College (big schools don't seem to have basketball courts in L.A.), while UCLA stayed in Santa Monica to take on California. "The pressure is on UCLA," announced Dallmar hopefully. Privately he was less positive. "On the outside I am an optimist," he said. "Inside I am a pessimist."