Let us forget about occult theory and whether the Milky Way is in its proper alignment. Let us not speak of what might have been or what could be, with a lot of silly ifs in between. But let us, as the really in-crowd likes to bray, get right down to that funky stuff and tell it like it is. The question, America, is the one that has put schools on probation, broken the hearts of lithe cheerleaders, moved back the hairlines of baffled coaches and threatened to take the fun out of college basketball. Is there anyone out there man enough, big and bad enough, to throw UCLA off the mountain?
For this is the Era of the Bruins, a spell during which college basketball has hummed along to the rhythm of California Winnin' and thrived on the homilies of that little old man in tennis shoes, John Wooden. Whether it will be his farewell appearance this week, only the Wizard knows. Bill Walton is graduating and there is speculation that Wooden will graduate with him, trading in his rolled up program for a lounge chair plumped with the cushions of a fat pension and happy memories.
But before any of that, he will be in Greensboro over the weekend for the NCAA finals as the Bruins seek their eighth straight championship and their 10th in 11 years. This time he will find a more formidable trio of challengers, teams with animosity in their hearts and glory on their minds, and for once UCLA must be chary and vigilant. North Carolina State, Marquette and Kansas all have the rudimentary skill and talent to take the bluster out of the preening Bruins. This will be no beauty contest.
No one makes it to the final round on a wing and a prayer. These teams have outstanding big men in the middle, a sprinkling of superstars and clever coaches. Of the three, North Carolina State is the best, ranked No. 1 and playing on familiar turf. Marquette's defense can turn opposition hands to stone, while Kansas has tradition behind a young team that has come to peak efficiency at just the right moment. UCLA is, of course, a champion, perhaps not quite as consistent as some Bruin teams of the past but a winner nonetheless.
This final round has a tough act to follow. The regionals last week were a weird m�lange of humor, pathos and the absurd. David Thompson tried to imitate a Nike missile while North Carolina State bombed two opponents. UCLA continued its schizo routine, turning in an uneven performance against Dayton and an overwhelming one against San Francisco. Notre Dame was freaked out by a Campy solo, Marquette finally got its Soul Train together and Kansas won while people were talking about whether you can drink and still coach.
And so we have N.C. State against UCLA in one semifinal Saturday afternoon, Bill Walton on Tom Burleson (see cover), Keith Wilkes on David Thompson, and not a plow will be turning across North Carolina. State was undefeated last year but was on probation and ineligible for the tournament. This season the Wolfpack lost once—to UCLA in St. Louis—a defeat that now means just about as much as a loss in exhibition baseball. That was early in the year, before the team had assimilated new talents and discovered just how marvelous a machine it could be. John Wooden does not look at it that way. "I want North Carolina State to remember that we beat them by 18 points on a neutral court," he said after the Bruins won the Western Regional. "I want them to think about who has the psychological advantage." Looking for even more advantages, Wooden dispatched Assistant Coach Frank Arnold to scout State in the Eastern Regional in Raleigh.
It was there that a terrifying scene took place. Thompson was racing downcourt midway in the first half of the game against Pittsburgh. He left his feet near the foul line in his normal jet-assisted takeoff, soaring three or four feet into the air. Unfortunately he was not cleared for landing. His legs tangled around teammate Phil Spence and he cart-wheeled wildly. When his head hit the floor it sounded as if a bowling ball had fallen off the top of the backboard. It was first suspected that Thompson surely had fractured bones in his neck, and memories of Maurice Stokes turned stomachs queasy. Said North Carolina State Coach Norm Sloan, "I was numb. I wished I wasn't even associated with this team or this game."
A giant wave of anticipatory noise had risen from the crowd as Thompson went up to block the shot, but when he fell it stopped as though someone had disconnected a speaker wire somewhere. There was an immediate P.A. announcement—"the injured player is David Thompson"—and absolutely not a sound could be heard as two doctors and a nurse hovered over him. After almost 10 minutes he was wheeled off in a stretcher.
The initial report from the hospital was that Thompson was being examined by a neurosurgeon but that he was conscious despite severe lacerations. But then good news filtered back. Sounding like The Gipper, Thompson had whispered to the doctors, "Tell the team to win." X rays showed no serious injuries. Finally, Thompson walked back into the arena, his head swatched in a white bandage that made him look like the fife player in The Spirit of '76. "It always does the public good to see a guy get up," said one of the doctors who was wearing a red Wolf-pack blazer.
The injured player watched as his emotional teammates stripped the Cinderella disguise off Pittsburgh, winning 100-72. Then Thompson returned to the hospital for more examinations. His only wound was a nasty scalp cut that required 15 stitches. Back out of the hospital Sunday afternoon, he joked with his teammates over lunch. They kidded him because so many people from all over North Carolina had called and offered to pay his hospital bills.