The new year came, but in basketball the old order—the top of the old order, anyway—remained the same. Stoutly challenged but replying with a renewed excellence, Bill Bradley of Princeton and the UCLA team established for 1965 the superiority that the year gone by had already witnessed. Their latest successes, in the two best of many holiday tournaments, differed only in the statistical denouements: that is, on the scoreboards.
UCLA performed at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, located, as the freeway flies, only 10 miles from Hollywood. And as in a celluloid finish—all kisses and picket fence—the Bruins romped to a deserving, happy win in the L.A. Classic final over Utah. Led by a surfer named Keith Erickson, who is even more renowned for his volleyball prowess—many consider him the best in the country—UCLA and its zone press whipped two undefeated teams and set scoring records to boot.
But separated by a continent and denied that sort of tidy script, Bill Bradley played a last act in Madison Square Garden that more resembled the dramas of neighboring Broadway, where playwrights frequently dare to conclude with the brutal crush of reality. In the Holiday Festival, against the nation's No. 1 ranked team, Michigan, Bradley put on as fine an individual performance as has ever been given on a basketball court. When he fouled out with 4:37 left, his team was ahead by 12 points. With him on the bench, Princeton lost it all, 80-78, though even in defeat Bradley salvaged what he wanted most of all. "We all felt he looked forward to this so much," teammate Ed Hummer explained. "He wanted to show that the Ivy League was better than they all said."
Bradley's personal dismantling of Michigan, followed by St. John's subsequent 75-74 victory over the Wolverines in the Festival final, further served to show that while UCLA has regrouped after the substantial loss of Walt Hazzard, Michigan's veteran personnel has failed to improve as a unit. The Wolverines still rely too much on muscle. Against Princeton, for instance, they did not make a basket except off a rebound for the first eight and a half minutes. They are also still given to lapses of shoddy defense and to long minutes of utter collapse, the nadir of which was reached against St. John's, when Michigan blew a 16-point lead. The team suddenly just stopped dead, scoring but a single basket and four free throws in the last nine and a half minutes.
Despite the fact that Coach Dave Strack has the considerable talents of Cazzie Russell to guide the attack, Michigan needs, as an option, a more disciplined offense to fall back on when it goes into those devastating spells of purposeless inefficiency. It was, of course, a thrilling victory for St. John's, especially since Coach Joe Lapchick is retiring after this season, but it was also somehow anticlimactic after Bradley's show. The second straight sell-out crowd (scalpers got $35 for tickets to the Princeton-Michigan game) was on hand just as much to see Bradley perform in a meaningless consolation match with Cincinnati as it was to see the championship game.
Despite his play in the Olympic trials and on the U.S. team, Bradley still came to New York with the stigma of supposedly weak Ivy League competition detracting from his notices. It took him exactly three minutes of Princeton's opening game with Syracuse to show that the Ivies can play as hard as they study. Syracuse set up in a four-man box zone defense, with Sam Penceal assigned just to Bradley. Penceal literally clung to him, clutching, grabbing, clawing. Suddenly, obviously furious, Bradley lashed back with an elbow that rocked the husky Penceal as hard as any elbow he had ever received on the Brooklyn playgrounds where he learned the game. The crowd gasped, then whooped in appreciation; the referee sent Penceal to the free-throw line. A minute later, Bradley finally broke away from Penceal and got the ball for the first time. Immediately, he sank a 20-foot jump shot. By the half he had 23 points, at the end 36, and Princeton won 79-69 in this battle of orange-and-blacks.
Against Manhattan that night, Michigan's Russell also scored 36, which set things up almost too perfectly for the already much-publicized head-on battle between the two best players in the nation. As it turned out, though, it was not to be Bradley vs. Russell, or Princeton vs. Michigan, but Bradley vs. Michigan. By the time he fouled out to one of the largest and warmest ovations ever given a performer at Madison Square Garden, Bradley was no longer being compared to any of his contemporaries but only to the other legendary collegians of basketball and to memories of their greatest nights.
"Hank Luisetti and Oscar Robertson came in here and they were unbeatable," former All-Pro Carl Braun said flatly, "but Bradley is the greatest."
Said Joe Lapchick, "I always thought Oscar was the greatest, but Bradley is only a half-step behind him. Right now, if the Knicks could get him, he'd be worth $100,000 to them."
The Knicks, of course, cannot get him, Bradley having committed himself to a Rhodes scholarship for two years at Oxford. Then he plans to enter law school. Too bad for the Knicks, and for all basketball fans.