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It was supposed to be the week UCLA played itself into basketball's Bowery, just another faded hero sprawled among yellowed clippings, sipping from a pint of past glories. Washington, only once beaten and ranked fifth in the nation, would knock the stumbling Bruins into the gutter. But up in the cold Northwest last week the Bruins were riding high again. The Wizard of Westwood may be gone, but UCLA is still the Wicked Witch of the West.
The Bruins stopped their internal bickering, forgot their prayer meetings, canceled Coach Gene Bartow's reservation for the funny farm, mended their guards' ways, got Richard Washington to sweat and decided to straighten up. Along the way they beat two very good teams and silenced a whole lot of reproachful critics.
First UCLA topped Washington 92-87 in Seattle Thursday night. Then the Bruins visited Pullman, Wash, and trumped Washington State 91-71 on Saturday evening. Those two victories, fashioned with exemplary play, left UCLA with a 6-1 conference record and alone in its accustomed spot atop the Pac-8 standings, and put a smile on the beleaguered Bartow's haggard face for the first time in months.
Bartow, who took over for the retired John Wooden this season, has had to contend with dissension, innuendo, rebellion and obscene phone calls. UCLA opened the season on Nov. 29 with an embarrassing loss to Indiana, was beaten on the road by Oregon State and Notre Dame and struggled with several flimsy opponents. Three losses is not bad for most teams, but this was UCLA. There were reports that Bartow had lost control over his team. Players supposedly had bags packed to transfer to other schools. A Los Angeles radio station announced that Bartow's phone number was listed, and a spate of calls followed in which the salutation was deep breathing. A friend offered to serve as his bodyguard, and there were jokes that the Bartow family dog, Damon, had hired the German shepherd up the street to taste his food. Bartow described his state as "a frenzy." He picked at his food and lost almost 20 pounds, his appetite withered by anxiety and an upset stomach.
Like Wooden, a man who could not sleep and haunted motel coffee shops when they opened at seven the morning after a road game, Bartow is tightly strung. After coaching at Valparaiso, Memphis State and Illinois, he was not prepared for Hollywood and Vine. He has a penchant for candor and a need to be liked, and both got him into trouble, particularly when he promised three different guards starting berths. After the team discovered that, confidence in him ebbed and the offense began to look like a nest of baby birds all trying to grab the worm. "A lot of guys thought they would play, and when they didn't, they came into the games firing the ball up," says Forward Marques Johnson.
The Bruins had built a reputation of winning with the efficiency of a computer, but at times this season they played as if the plug had been pulled. "It used to be that teams were intimidated when they played against us," says Guard Ray Townsend. "Now they think we've lost our divinity."
After a one-point victory over Stanford in Pauley Pavilion on Jan. 16 a distraught Bartow called a team meeting at a nearby motel where the Bruins stay for home games. "You better get your minds on basketball, or else we are in real trouble," he said grimly. Then he walked out, leaving the players to talk among themselves for 2� hours.
The Bruins began the season with their starting lineup unsettled, even though four incumbents had returned from last year's championship team. There were three highly regarded freshmen from California—Center David Greenwood and Guards Brad Holland and Roy Hamilton—plus a long list of eager talent that had chafed on the bench under Wooden. Bartow had to get to know his personnel and vice versa (Forward Richard Washington, for example, never had heard of him) while installing his concepts and trying to prepare for Indiana. The result was that nothing got done on time.
In December he settled on sophomore Townsend to start at guard with Andre McCarter, began using excitable Forward Gavin Smith as the team's sixth man and two weeks ago replaced senior Center Ralph Drollinger with Greenwood. Drollinger has shown flashes of brilliance during his career and is the tallest player on the team at 7'1�". He is deeply religious. For his part, Townsend plays with a crucifix stuck in the laces of his shoes and Bartow is called "Clean Gene," partly because of his spiritual ways. But at times Drollinger's mild, meek nature seems misplaced on the basketball floor, and his play has the zest of cold mashed potatoes. "I think God is trying to strengthen my moral fiber," he said when he was benched. Meanwhile, his teammates think their fiber is toughening up with Greenwood hammering the boards. "Ralph was great when he got psyched up," says Marques Johnson, "but other times there was nothing there."
The team's emotional state, plus its guard play, is the subject of endless discussion. Bartow has agonized over what he feels is a lack of intensity. Washington, it is said, plays forward like a piano player practicing scales. In fact, some fans cite the players' clear skin as proof that they are not emotional. "People keep bringing up David Meyers being an emotional player," McCarter said stiffly one day, referring to last year's UCLA All-America. "Just because he has bumps on his face, they think he looked mean."