Erickson is no newcomer, for it was he who last year so capably called signals for—and backed up—Coach John Wooden's tricky zone-press defenses. Wooden's presses cling to opponents like a wet sheet. "The first problem you've got to solve," says a UCLA rival, "is how to get the ball in bounds." But if the offense can ever squirm through the zone-press net, it can often find clear sailing ahead. It can, that is, if there is no Keith Erickson waiting up court as safety man. Erickson can squirt hither and yonder so quickly that even if it is two-against-one he is rarely the under-dog. Says Minnesota Coach John Kundla ruefully: " UCLA can afford to let you break through now and then. Erick-son's going to block your shot anyhow."
This year Erickson, taking over Walt Hazzard's role, has become the offensive ignition of the team as well. As a sort of cohesive force and inspirational leader, he is the man they all turn to when trouble arises—and more times than not he can handle it. Not cut from the same blue-serge cloth as the earnest, understated John Wooden, Erickson is cocky and given to drifting indifference in the tedium of practice. But Wooden admits he can tolerate a little insouciance if the man can rise to the occasion at game time. "And Erickson gets better as the pressure gets higher," says Wooden.
That does not mean Herc (for Hercules) Erickson waits for things to happen. He is the kind of player who manufactures his breaks, and such induced opportunity was evident as the Bruins worked their way through Arizona, Minnesota and Utah last week. UCLA was not pressed by Arizona and coasted to a 99-79 victory. But next night, against unbeaten, third-ranked Minnesota, the opposition stiffened; at the half, UCLA led by a mere three points, two of them made by Erickson just before the buzzer. Erickson got things moving with more vigor in the second half. Not only was he floor boss, he also had the dangerous job of guarding the Gophers' Lou Hudson, as fine a forward as can be found on campus. This job Erickson discharged wickedly and with wit: once he came diving in like a shortstop (which he has been in his day) to make a steal from Hudson. Moments later he came zipping around Hudson's back and deflected a Minnesota pass to teammate Edgar Lacey for an easy layup. Utah Coach Jack Gardner, taking it all in and trying to divine what it was to mean to his Utes, groaned: " UCLA destroys you—physically, mentally and morally." Shortly thereafter, wisps of smoke rose over what had been Minnesota—93-77.
Still, Jack Gardner may have thought he had overestimated the Bruins for, the following night, Utah itself was only three points down at the half. Indeed, Utah had been tied with UCLA 11 times, and Gail Goodrich, the Bruins' excellent playmaker, was in foul trouble and on the bench. With that, John Wooden tightened his zone press and Utah, bending under the awful weight, committed seven major ball-handling errors in the first six minutes of the second half. What had been anybody's ball game was suddenly UCLA's all the way—104-74 at the finish.
Hercules Erickson had been everywhere: sometimes on the prowl down-court like Joe DiMaggio floating through center field; sometimes picking up the first man loose on Utah's fast break; sometimes intercepting passes; and other times catapulting into the air under the backboards as if the floor were a trampoline. Seeing Erickson heading up, up and away, it is easy to understand why he was on the U.S. Olympic volleyball team last fall. When he spikes a volleyball, the only defense is to dive for cover.
After UCLA lost its opening game this season to Illinois—the first defeat in 31 games—everybody aha-ed, sure that the Bruins were not of the championship caliber of last year. But now they look even better than they did last time around and must be rated a favorite for the national title all over again. So some of the sports were picking the brains of Jack Gardner after the Classic, trying to make sense of what they had seen. "What have they got?" one man wanted to know. "What haven't they got?" blurted the Utah coach, a shade too hotly for humor, perhaps. "Oh, I admit Gail Goodrich has a weakness; he can't dribble very well with his left foot. Otherwise, they have balanced board power. And great speed. Also great shooting. And fantastic jumping. Don't overlook great depth. And—and don't ever forget it—Keith Erickson."