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There is a certain mystical something about the UCLA basketball team that defies calculation. The Bruins go for long spells at a time looking mortal and vulnerable and capable of inspiring sympathy. Then they put you under with such thorough execution that a witness has to look twice to be sure that innocent-looking truck was really the one. UCLA coaches call it "the two-minute explosion," this mystical something-or-other, and since it is not an eclipse of the moon, only of an opponent, they cannot predict when it will occur. Only that it will occur. Eventually. They hope.
Last week in Kansas City, a town unequipped for too much excitement, 10,000 people at the Municipal Auditorium were permitted the treat of watching UCLA's two-minute explosion explode on consecutive nights. In each case the explosion was extended a few seconds, but the time was put to good use and the practical result was exceedingly gratifying—for UCLA. The Bruins beat Kansas State, a good team, 90-84 and beat Duke, a better team, 98-83 and won the national championship.
Anybody unromantic enough to believe UCLA could not finish 30 games undefeated, with undersized, unimpressive-looking players and a coach, John Wooden, who does not smoke, drink or recruit very much, deserved to be kept awake by UCLA insurgents yelling, "We're No. 1," down Baltimore Street until morning—and to see "We Try Harder" buttons (the ones UCLA rooters obtained from a second-rated auto-rental agency) in any sleep he did get.
But about the two-minute explosions. In the semifinal on Friday night, after Duke had taken Michigan 91-80 in such a tour de force that not one of the 600 convening members of the National Association of Basketball Coaches dared be unimpressed, UCLA bumped around with Kansas State and was behind 75-70 with seven minutes to play. There followed a flurry of hands ("Does UCLA have quick hands?" said one coach. "Are there Mexicans in El Paso?") and feet ("You run with UCLA and you die," said another). Two-minutes-plus later UCLA was ahead 81-75. Permanently ahead.
On the final night, in a match that promised to be a dandy but proved to be a dry throat for Duke, UCLA trailed 30-27 midway in the first half. In two minutes and 30 seconds the Bruins scored 16 straight points, the Blue Devils agonized, and when the score reached 43-30 there was no doubt in which direction that game was heading.
No one with half a superstition was willing to believe it was so simple, of course, and omen for omen UCLA people stack up with anybody. What immediately precipitated the 11-point rush on Kansas State, for example, was the strategic arrival of four UCLA cheerleaders just at the moment a Kansas State shot was heading for the basket. The cheerleaders' plane had been delayed by a snowstorm. Hollywood smiles still intact but frozen on, they skipped into the arena. There was a mighty cheer. The Kansas State shot whirled uncertainly inside the basket and popped out.
Duke, No. 30 in UCLA's magnificent procession, had then to face this kind of lineup: John Wooden's daughter Nan's 30th birthday ("Oh, that's a sure thing," cooed Publicist Vic Kelley), Nell Wooden's lucky acorns, her husband's collection of lucky pats and tics, and assistant Jerry Norman's 13-year-old lucky road suit. "Since we don't need it anymore," sniffed Jerry's wife, June, looking pained at her husband's style lag, "we are going to burn that suit." Jerry's father, Arthur Norman, said all the other accessories were really unnecessary, because it had come to him in a dream last December that UCLA was going to go undefeated and win the national championship.
No one else quite shared Mr. Norman's serenity, however, and on the morning of the Duke game, Wooden sat in front of his orange wedges, oatmeal and sweet roll at the Hotel Muehlebach and said he had slept barely three hours. "Nell fell asleep about 2," he said, "and I was on my own until about 4, thinking about Duke." Wooden is a man so straightforward as to make you blush, and he is devoted to the outlandish proposition that character really is more important than winning.
This has not been an easy team for Wooden to coach, but through skins thick and thin he has stuck with his five starters and is proud of the reward. "Lately," he said, "we have not been going well, but somehow we keep our poise and get out of the jams we get ourselves into. Now we have to do it one more time."
Duke had experienced immediate discomfort in Kansas City. The chartered plane carrying 90—the team, cheerleaders and guests—slid off the landing strip at the Kansas City airport and almost nosed over. The Kansas City Star kept referring to the Blue Devils as the " Tar Heels." The hotel neglected to obtain the 7-foot beds Coach Vic Bubas had ordered for his 6-foot-10 boys, Hack Tison and Jay Buckley (7-foot beds would not fit in most Kansas City hotel rooms, anyway). When the Devils went to practice at the auditorium their dressing room was being painted.