SI Vault
Curry Kirkpatrick
February 02, 1970
Everybody plays, now that the one-man gang, Lew Alcindor, has gone. UCLA is not better but it's brighter and No. 1
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
February 02, 1970

It's More Fun Without Lew

Everybody plays, now that the one-man gang, Lew Alcindor, has gone. UCLA is not better but it's brighter and No. 1

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

It has been approximately 100 days and 14 games since the Bruins of UCLA awoke on a mid-October morning to what must have been a feeling approaching that of the young suitor in the movie Kings Row, who had his legs rather rudely amputated by the town doctor because the sadistic medic was disturbed that the man had dated his daughter. On awakening from the operation, the unfortunate swain stared down at the end of the bed and delivered the memorable line, "Where's the rest of me!"

That young actor's panic was only for the cinematic moment. The UCLA players' incertitude, on the other hand, lasted a while longer—or until they discovered, to a fellow, that the absence of a man named Lew Alcindor was not going to mean the loss of limb, the deprivation of food and clothing or as much forfeiture of their general habits as they had come to suspect. Indeed, now, after winning all of their first 14 games—albeit some by the fine hairs of a UCLA coed's natural cut—they no longer ask such questions of themselves and are becoming somewhat weary of answering to the similar doubts of others.

Last weekend UCLA concluded the nonconference portion of its schedule with a sluggish no-meaning victory over UC Santa Barbara 89-80 and a thunderous romp over Wyoming 115-77. Because, with a vastly dissimilar style, the Bruins are rebounding better, shooting better and scoring more than last year's national championship team, and because they are again, as the blue-and-gold buttons around campus would have it, "Number One," comparisons with the Alcindor years have yet to cease.

"Not everyone gets to play with Lew Alcindor in their life," says John Vallely, the blond beach boy who steadies the backcourt for UCLA. "But this year it seems like we're playing real basketball, the way we grew up playing it. It's difficult to make comparisons because Lew was such a great player. We all know this, though: it's a lot more fun now. I mean, we must be more fun to watch. With Lew, the way he is, once you've seen him hook two or three times, it's over. He used to hook it in a few-times and we'd win by 30. What a drag, huh? Now we're running and pressing and all of us are getting into the act—you know, just like in regular basketball.

"It's funny, though. People still ask about the challenge of playing without Lew and about the pressure of winning. I've never really thought of it in terms of pressure. Not winning just has never occurred to me. We've always been winners here, all of us from high school on. Winning is the only thing we know. There are no other options."

UCLA has won 102 of 104 games over the past 3½ seasons, but this year's version of the dynasty realistically invites comparison not with the triumvirate of Alcindor-led champions but with Wooden's teams of 1964 and 1965. Not so coincidentally, these contingents, whose time is lovingly referred to around Westwood Village as "the Hazzard and Goodrich years," also won NCAA national titles.

Walt Hazzard and Gail Goodrich, now stellar professionals both, were the swift-handed, quick-witted floor leaders who made UCLA so dominant. Though neither Vallely nor Henry Bibby, 6'1" and a brilliant shooter from long range, is as capable of generalship, Wooden believes his current team has certain potentialities above and beyond those of his former champions. Included among them are Bibby's shooting (which he used to practice under the North Carolina moon after picking tobacco all day) and team rebounding, a chore that is the vested responsibility of the Bruins' imposing front line of Steve Patterson, Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe, college basketball's musketeers of muscle.

Although UCLA's starters (with the exception of Rowe and Vallely) had to wait until this season to earn playing time of any consequence (you-bet-your-sweet Bibby is a sophomore), the five appear to get along famously in the high post offense that was the hallmark of the pre-Alcindor days. It is an attack that affords equal shooting opportunities for all but Patterson at center, and it puts a premium on balanced scoring, screens, cuts and teamwork. With it, all five are averaging in double figures and are shooting, as a group, almost 53%.

Early in the season, however, UCLA was depriving itself of its set plays simply by being so proficient in another phase of its offense: the fast break. The Bruins won six of their first eight games by 25 points or more, running their opposition out to the Santa Barbara oil slicks and back. Paradoxically, the other two victories were one-pointers (over Minnesota and Princeton), and it suddenly became apparent that to stop UCLA all one had to do was to slow the tempo and control the ball.

Since early in the month, as a consequence, Wooden has been resurrecting, piece by piece, his devastating zone press, still another strategic UCLA ploy that Alcindor, by his very presence, had transformed into a useless relic. The zone press forces a control team out of its patterns, makes it get moving to survive and, as the creator of chaos, is the quickest way yet devised to send a team unprepared for such activity to a psychiatric ward. With the bustling, acrobatic Wicks roaming the court with all of the abandon and most of the skill that Keith Erickson once brought to the position, the ZP saved the Bruins against Oregon State's slowdown—another one-point victory—and was the decisive factor in turning the game with Bradley all the way around.

Continue Story
1 2 3