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Not even the occult can put a finger on the specific point in time when the Bruins of UCLA (see cover) took over the game of college basketball—when they nursed it, rehearsed it and gave out the news. When, in fact, they took it and reduced it to an exact science. A concept, if you will, rather than a contest. However, a fleeting glance at history might reveal that the precise moment probably came sometime after Elvis Presley but before Vietnam, making the dominance of the UCLA program appear at once both younger and older than it really is.
On the one hand, the program is bright and shiny new in its adaptation to the mod age, prevailing every year as it does whether hair or skirts go up or down. And yet the beginnings of its success go way back, a tracing that starts before all the national championships. Certainly then, when considered from this point, the UCLA reign seems much more venerable, almost as if college basketball never had anything else, as if there had never been any Oklahoma A & Ms or Kentuckys or San Franciscos or Cincinnatis. No Tom Gola, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson or Jerry Lucas. There were, of course, but those legacies are gone from the college game, dulled by the sweeping consistency of the UCLA effort. Most of the anticipated dynasties have faded, and the individual names now mean something else. Gola is Philadelphia politics, Russell is Boston and the pro game. Oscar is the quintessential holdout, a traded relic. Lucas is Beef "N" Shakes.
Only UCLA remains, such a tower in the game that not even the three most publicized college stars of all time have been able to make a mark on its preeminence. Bill Bradley of Princeton and Pete Maravich of LSU came to fame in years of UCLA championships and were forced into bit parts. Even Lew Alcindor, who was of the program and thus had no chance to overcome it from the outside, never quite seemed larger than the whole.
Perhaps, in retrospect, this is because the coach, John Wooden, won before Alcindor and has now won after him. But it is much more than that, too. The UCLA system—Wooden's system—is founded on the simple basics of conditioning, fundamentals and teamwork, which, admirable qualities though they may be, are only goals elsewhere. At UCLA they are necessities.
The all-encompassing authority of the team in recent years has tended to becloud the fact that only since 1962 has UCLA been much of a factor in the national college picture. Wooden came to the Westwood campus in 1948 from Indiana State, and in his first year of major college coaching transformed what was considered to be a last-place team into a running, hustling outfit that never seemed to tire as it won 22 games and the championship of the Pacific Coast Conference's southern division. Right away Wooden was offered the head coaching position at his alma mater, Purdue, where he had been an All-America for three years in the 1930s. He graciously declined.
A few years later, after winning a couple of league titles with his zippety-whirl style of play, he was again approached by Purdue as well as other Big Ten schools. At the time Wooden was anticipating the emergence of Willie Naulls, a development that would make him a contender for the national championship. Again he remained at UCLA. Bill Russell and San Francisco halted Wood-en's drive to the top at that time, and Pete Newell's disciplined, defense-oriented teams at California stopped him later. After three trips to the Western Regional in 12 years and only one victory in a consolation game to show for it, UCLA and John Wooden entered the 1960s with speed, quickness, a fast break and a grand reputation, which, with a dime, got the coach a cup of coffee down at Hollis Johnson's fountain.
Then, in 1962, UCLA won in the West and made it to the national semifinals in Louisville only to meet a Cincinnati team that had won the championship the year before and was to win again that weekend. The Bruins kept the game close and went into the last minute tied, holding the ball for a final shot that would win the game. With time running out, an inexperienced sophomore named Walt Hazzard was called for a charging foul. Cincinnati gained possession, and the Bearcats—not the Bruins—got the final shot and the victory. To this day Wooden believes that had UCLA held onto the ball and made the shot, his team would have beaten Ohio State and an injured Lucas in the finals and won its first championship.
In the latter part of the next season another good UCLA team that was to lose in the regionals (to Arizona State) came upon a little number known as the zone press, and everything began to draw together. When the same men returned in 1963-64—Hazzard and Gail Goodrich at the guards, Fred Slaughter at center, Keith Erickson and Jack Hirsch at the forwards—this is what followed:
1964. The first NCAA championship. An undefeated season, 30-0, with no starter over 6'5".
1965. The second NCAA championship. The first team to win back-to-back titles without a dominant big man.