Hirsch was a player
unlike any Wooden had encountered, on or off the court. Hirsch was a
poker-playing sharpie who had grown up in Brooklyn, learning the subtleties of
basketball on the playgrounds of Bedford-Stuyvesant. His father had become
wealthy from a chain of bowling alleys, and when the family moved to the West
Coast, Jack brought along a knack, at 6'3", for stealing rebounds from, and
improvising shots over, taller players. "I was two or three years ahead of
these other guys as far as how the game should be played," says Hirsch,
whose dad promised to quit a five-packs-a-day smoking habit if his son played
at UCLA. "Wooden adapted to me as much as I did to him. Everyone else was
afraid of him. But even though he seemed to hold my life in his hands, I knew I
could always go back to playing cards. He's admitted his stubbornness kept him
from winning sooner, and I was one of the people who opened his eyes because of
how crazy I was."
As for center Fred
Slaughter and forward Keith Erickson, neither went to UCLA on a full basketball
scholarship. But that was a reflection of their versatility, not their ability.
Slaughter had been a sprinter in high school in Topeka, Kans.--he ran the 100
yards in 9.9 seconds--and had a choice of colleges at which to run. He
ultimately accepted the Bruins' offer of a scholarship split between track and
basketball. Erickson had grown up just down the freeway from the Westwood
campus, in El Segundo, but had never seen a Bruins basketball game until he
played in one. No other school had offered him a ride for basketball, and
UCLA's deal was half for hoops and half for baseball; though volleyball, which
he would play in the '64 Tokyo Olympics, was the sport in which he first
displayed his astonishing jumping ability.
When practice began
in October 1963 the players scaled three flights of stairs to what was known as
the B.O. Barn, the cramped and fetid men's gym on campus where the basketball
court shared space with wrestling mats and gymnastics equipment. Chalk drifting
over from the pommel horses had to be swept off the court before practice; two
managers pushed mops while Wooden walked in front of them, backward and
crouched over, dribbling water out of a bucket as if, he says, he were
"feeding the chickens back on the farm." The B.O. Barn once
accommodated 2,400 spectators, but in 1955 fire marshals prohibited crowds of
more than 1,300. For the program to pay for itself, the players had to become
vagabonds. So for home games that season the Bruins bused to the L.A. Sports
Arena, which was virtually on the USC campus; the Long Beach Arena, 25 miles
away; and even the gym at a community college in Santa Monica. The Bruins would
essentially play 30 road games.
With their raw
athletes, split scholarships and three-ring practices in that hoops hayloft,
the 1963--64 Bruins were less a basketball team than a rarefied phys-ed class,
with Wooden the gym teacher. He was then known as Johnny, a transplanted
Hoosier whose superbly conditioned teams played the pell-mell Midwestern style
but weren't regarded as very sophisticated defensively.
Only later, after
UCLA's first several titles, would Wooden begin to dominate the recruiting
scene, picking and choosing among the top players in the nation. In fact, the
coach disliked recruiting, and only welcomed out-of-state players if someone
else initiated the contact. McIntosh would have attended Tennessee, but the
coach there, a Purdue alum like Wooden, resigned suddenly and was happy to
steer his recruit to a fellow Boilermaker. Hazzard arrived thanks to a
connection twice removed: He was recommended by Naulls, who from the Philly
playgrounds knew Woody Sauldsberry, Hazzard's distant cousin. Meanwhile,
Hazzard recommended Washington, who played pickup ball in Philly while spending
summers visiting a sister; Washington had arrived in Los Angeles unseen by any
UCLA coach--and two inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than advertised--after
cowering in the back of a Greyhound for three days.
from that bus into a dreamland, the polar opposite of the Jim Crow south.
"At first you say, 'No, it can't be,'" he recalls. "And then you
see this university, this microcosm of the world, and say, 'Well, why
not?'" Those first couple of years he would write buddies back home,
telling them they wouldn't believe what he'd seen: guys flooding dormitory
floors to slide around on them, and putting matches to their farts, and
drinking beer. And this guy Hirsch, who drove his own red Pontiac Grand Prix,
called the coach "John" or "J-Dub" or "Woody" to his
were being burned by the side of the road," Washington says of the
harassment of Freedom Riders in the early '60s. "But [African-Americans]
had faith, because if the whole country were like that, we'd still be in
chains. And then I'd see this man who practiced what he preached, and that was
like beauty. [Wooden] had structure, a philosophy based on fairness. He was a
small-town person, too. The same things his father taught him, my father taught
me. I felt like a foster child."
"We all came by
accident," says Hirsch, whose father, failing to hold up his end of the
pact he had made with his son, died of lung cancer just months after the
championship season ended. "But we had great quickness, great hands, great
communication, great chemistry."
"We used to
talk about how we were the all-American team, a group of guys from such diverse
backgrounds, yet on the court were a perfect mesh," Slaughter says.
"Two black, two white, one Jewish, who after games would go in our separate
directions. But game time, practice time, ride-the-bus time, we were pretty
well matched. We liked to protect each other. We liked to do our jobs. And we
just enjoyed playing for the man."
Once a year Wooden
made it a point to poll his players, asking them who they thought should be
starting. He did this to test his own judgment, and to have something with
which he might shoo away a parent disgruntled over a son's playing time. Wooden
had never before, and would never again, find such unanimity on this question
as he did during the 1963--64 season.