In New Orleans, where UCLA played on a portable board floor that had been screwed together, The Reserve looked around and punned, "This sure is a screwy floor." Right during the game he said that. When the Bruins pressed for a time, he said it might be "a permanent press." Right during the game. The coach looked down the bench and wondered what was going on. Here were his national champions attempting to quell an uprising by Illinois, and down there at the end of the bench The Reserve had all his guys moaning and breaking up.
Swen Nater is certainly the largest Dutch boy ever to come out of Amsterdam and make the U.S. Olympic team. He quit, though, because he could not eat when he wanted to, and then went back to UCLA where he could eat when he wanted although he hardly ever got to play. Walton calls him the best center he has played against and Nater always thanks him for that whether it is true or not. It might be true. Pro scouts come away from UCLA practices shaking their heads at Nater's shooting ability and latent skills. He cannot play defense, however, and he doesn't appear to know what the word pass means.
Nater is second-string in academics, too. He has enough units to graduate but they are spread out so haphazardly that he is but an "early junior." One teammate says Nater should move as quickly in Pauley Pavilion as he does to the crip courses.
Nater himself says he has tried a lot of academic stuff, searching for a career, but that pro basketball looks like the best bet. "I've had a major in German," he says, "and in sociology, music, general arts, geology and a few other things. Now I'm back in German. I speak some. Someday I'd like to teach it. Why German? Oh, look, the major doesn't mean anything. The only reason I came here is to play basketball. You can't make a living with puns."
Nater knows the scouts are watching. He says the things he needs to make it are coaching and playing time. Coaching he gets. "Practices are games to me," he says. "I pretend there are two starting lineups. It's the only time I get to show what I can do. Sure I'm disappointed I don't play more, but Wooden's been right for 10 years and why change? Maybe I should have gone someplace else, or left school for the pros, but I don't think so. I get experience playing against Walton and we do win."
The school administration's protective, paranoid attitudes aside, UCLA players are not emotionless ciphers programmed into some destructive victory force without regard for life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness. The team's unbroken success, however, has indulged its fans to the brink of idiocy. Student supporters keep their heads all right, but at home games there is a certain segment of the crowd behind the UCLA bench, consisting mainly of well-heeled alumni and player relatives, that deserves some sort of award for front-running.
At the slightest UCLA error there are catcalls and complaining from this crowd—as if nothing less than perfection is enough. And the section's behavior toward the opposition, even as the poor team is being blown out of the place, is nothing short of juvenile. When Providence's Ernie DiGregorio left Streak Game No. 59 a fortnight ago, he received a merited standing ovation from the UCLA students. The older segment orally bade good riddance.
UCLA players refuse to be quoted directly, but to a man they are bitterly critical of these bad vibrations. They chastise their supporters for expecting too much. They wonder what the reactions would be to defeat. They seriously doubt the loyalties would be lasting.
Off the court UCLA players get away with the same brand of antics as any mortal team. Behind the backs of authority they have cake fights in the locker room and girls are shanghaied in after curfews. Beer sometimes flows at the Bel-Air Sands Hotel where the team stays on home-game weekends. Then there was a memorable trip back from Notre Dame last season. Overjoyed at leaving the sub-freezing temperatures and being rid of the exasperating loitering contest the Irish had concocted, the Bruins imbibed liberally during a long layover at the Chicago airport. They boarded the plane, in the words of one, "thoroughly plastered out of our minds." And they commenced to have peanut-and water-hurling battles the rest of the flight until a stray missile nailed Wooden. A halt was called immediately.
"We have this great UCLA image," one Bruin says, "and nobody suspects we are a bunch of wonderful lawbreaking degenerates."