Shortly after he
announced his retirement in 1975, in the aftermath of his final title run,
Wooden confided to a young alumnus that he had blundered badly early in his
career by associating too much with yes-men. "Whatever you do in life,
surround yourself with smart people who'll argue with you," he said. Wooden
didn't mention any names, but he was tipping his hat to one smart,
argumentative assistant coach in particular.
Jerry Norman had
played on three of Wooden's early teams, and he had the kind of contrarian
spirit that both drives coaches nuts and steals their hearts. He was an
instigator, but instigators are also initiators--and in athletics the
initiators tend to seize opportunity. "Very headstrong, set in his ways,
and profane," Wooden called Norman in his autobiography. "Jerry gave me
fits. I don't believe I ever had a boy more strong-willed, more sure of himself
and more outspoken." Wooden kicked him off the team for two weeks during
the 1950--51 season. Yet after Norman did turns in the service and as a coach
for Wooden's brother Maurice, the principal at West Covina ( Calif.) High, his
old college coach brought him back, first to run the freshman team and then, in
1963, to serve as a varsity assistant. "I guess I wanted a rebel,"
Wooden wrote, "someone who would stand up to me."
Like his boss,
Norman had been influenced by UCLA's nemesis, Pete Newell, who retired as Cal
coach in 1960. Newell believed that a team controlling the tempo controlled the
game. Accordingly, over the 1962--63 season, the Bruins had looked to push the
pace at every opportunity. In their next-to-last game, a 51--45 win over
Stanford for the conference title, they'd used a full-court, man-to-man press
to that end. They forced almost 20 turnovers, Norman says, but still scored
only 51 points.
After UCLA lost to
Arizona State in the Bruins' NCAA tournament opener, Norman caucused with his
boss. He argued that a full-court, man-to-man defense forces the opponent to
advance the ball with the dribble, which chews up time. If the Bruins really
wanted to hasten changes in possession and shorten each possession, the team
needed a zone press, with the kinds of traps that only a foolish dribbler would
try to slalom through. Opponents would have to advance the ball by passing, and
human nature being what it is, those passes would eventually become hurried and
careless. UCLA's quick hands, long arms and sprinters' speed would lead to
deflections and interceptions, and soon the ball would be headed the other way.
The Bruins would score, and the way they'd score--suddenly and as a result of
turnovers--would sow, as Wooden later put it, "disharmony and disunity"
on the opposing team.
There was more.
Force a turnover as a result of a zone press, Norman argued, and the five UCLA
players would be spread across the breadth and most of the length of the
floor--the better to take advantage of Hazzard's skill in transition. Size may
be an advantage in basketball, but it dissipates when spread over the court.
And if the Bruins opened a lead with a flurry of baskets, their opponents would
have to adopt a faster tempo to catch up, playing right into UCLA's hands.
"I laid out the rationale," says Norman, who had used a 2-2-1 zone
press successfully as coach of the Bruins' freshman team. "We had no size,
and we played in a conference in which teams liked to walk the ball up the
floor. The idea wasn't to steal the ball, remember. That would be an ancillary
benefit. It was to increase tempo."
skeptical. He had used a zone press effectively in his first college job, at
Indiana State, but he feared that players had become too skilled to be
flummoxed by one. It wasn't Norman who ultimately won over Wooden so much as
the presence of Erickson, whose lateral quickness, sense of timing and
gambler's sangfroid made him the perfect safetyman at the back of the 2-2-1.
Cal coach Rene Herrerias would liken him to "a 6'5" Bill Russell,"
and Wooden came to call Erickson the finest athlete he had ever coached.
concluded that he had erred in not using a zone press earlier. "When I came
to UCLA, I expected to use it more often, and a number of years I had the
personnel for it," he says. From 1957 through '59 he had coached Rafer
Johnson, the Olympic decathlon champion-to-be, and kicked himself for not
recognizing in Johnson another ideal backliner for the 2-2-1. "I tried it
for a while and gave up on it," Wooden adds, reproaching himself. "And
as a coach, you know, you preach patience."
The zone press,
Wooden came to realize, had additional virtues. It built morale and promoted
cohesion. And just as a lumbering team was vulnerable to it, a bunch of big
galoots couldn't really make it work.
At the front of the
press Wooden deployed Goodrich, who despite his wraithlike physique had huge
hands and a 37-inch sleeve length, and the 6'5" Slaughter, who was fast
enough to sprint back and set up if an opponent broke into the forecourt, but
whose broad 235 pounds made breaking the press even more of a challenge.
"They had a poor little person trying to throw the ball in, trying to see
around me," Slaughter recalls. "And please, don't try to throw a long
pass. While I was running and jumping at the front of the press, Keith was
running and jumping at the back."
If Erickson picked
off the most passes, the ensuing baskets usually came as a result of the
decisions by Hazzard, who lined up with Hirsch near midcourt and, just as
Norman envisioned, tended to wind up with the ball in the open floor. "Walt
and Gail never called a play for the rest of us," Erickson says. "Much
to our chagrin and to their credit. But we were best when we were running, so
we didn't really need plays." The Glue Factory, one wag called the Bruins
press. Another called it Arranged Chaos. Asked what it was like to face the
2-2-1, USC coach Forrest Twogood responded with a question of his own.
"Have you ever been locked up in a casket for six days?" he said.
"That's how it feels."