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Birth of a Dynasty
Alexander Wolff
March 19, 2007
Only after John Wooden challenged his own coaching methods--and applied new tactics to a headstrong mix of players in 1963--64--did he make his mark at UCLA
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March 19, 2007

Birth Of A Dynasty

Only after John Wooden challenged his own coaching methods--and applied new tactics to a headstrong mix of players in 1963--64--did he make his mark at UCLA

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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."

Wooden was 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.

Wooden eventually 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."

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