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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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UCLA BASKETBALL today seems shot full of the John Wooden magic. This season's Bruins, who are 26--5 and considered a strong title contender heading into the NCAA tournament, wear facsimiles of classic UCLA uniforms and share the commitment to defense that produced 10 national championships in the 1960s and '70s. A pilgrim to Pauley Pavilion might easily believe the UCLA dynasty began with a simple wave of the Wizard's wand, but in fact, Wooden spent 16 years in Westwood unable to elevate the program much beyond mediocrity. He questioned himself and tinkered, and ultimately came wisdom--and then victory on a scale unlikely ever to be matched.

The old coach, 96 now, is such a passionate collector and spouter of aphorisms that it's easy to regard them as quaint. But one sign that Wooden hung on the wall of his office serves as a worthy caption for the first of UCLA's title teams, the 1963--64 Bruins, who went undefeated without a starter taller than 6'5": when you're through learning, you're through. Keep that in mind as you read their story.

UCLA had enjoyed only four winning seasons in the previous 20 years when 37-year-old John Wooden took over as the Bruins' coach in 1948, so the team's accomplishments in his first season--most important, beating Cal for the Pacific Coast Conference title after being picked to finish last--delighted the campus. Over the next 14 seasons the Bruins racked up winning records every time out. Still, it wasn't until Wooden was 53 that a team of his won a national title. The first three times his Bruins qualified for the NCAA tournament--in '50, '52 and '56--they failed to win their opening game. Today the chat boards and talk show hosts would have taken him down a decade before he had bagged his first title.

Wooden believes that "six or seven" of those early teams could have won a national championship--"not should have," he wrote in his autobiography, They Call Me Coach, "but could have." All they lacked were luck and timing. In 1952, the day before the start of the NCAA tournament, starter Don Bragg stumbled coming out of the shower and broke his toe. The only player in Wooden's first 15 years in Westwood to later stick as a pro, Willie Naulls, happened to play between '53 and '56, precisely when Bill Russell reigned at San Francisco. No sooner had Russell left than UCLA's football team was discovered to have been part of a leaguewide pay-for-play scandal, and the school's three-year probation was applied to all sports. After which came Cal and its Hall of Fame coach, Pete Newell; though Wooden beat Newell seven straight times at one point, the Golden Bears turned the tables beginning in '57, eventually taking eight straight from the Bruins and winning an NCAA title along the way.

So, despite UCLA's relative success, Wooden took heed of another sign on his office wall, the one that read, IT'S WHAT YOU LEARN AFTER YOU KNOW IT ALL THAT COUNTS. From studying Newell he learned the virtues of patience and simplicity. He sat in on a psychology class and decided that he didn't want yes-men as assistants. Sometimes he even courted conflict with players because he believed a worthwhile lesson might emerge from the clash. He asked other coaches to scout his team and share their critiques. And he would spend each off-season poring over the meticulous records he kept of his practices, wondering what he might do differently.

In the spring of 1960, after a 14--12 season that would turn out to be his worst at UCLA, Wooden reassessed everything. He concluded that his teams tended to fade late in the season and wondered if he worked the players too hard in practice. Moreover, when he substituted, the reserves didn't mesh well with the starters. A single tweak to his practice plan--he began to rotate reserves among the first five more often in scrimmages--solved both problems. Two years later the Bruins reached the national semifinals, where they suffered a controversial last-minute charging call and a two-point loss to eventual champion Cincinnati.

Preposterous as it may sound, winning per se was never Wooden's main emphasis, even as the Bruins reached that doorstep. As Doug McIntosh, a reserve on the 1964 team, says, "The word win never escaped his lips. Literally. He just asked us to play to our potential."

The great lesson from the Cincinnati game, Wooden says, was simply this: "I learned we could play with the best." The next season UCLA finished 20--9, but six of those losses were by four points or fewer. Wooden sensed an imminent turn in the program's fortunes. In January 1963, on the flight home from two close losses at Washington, he whipped off some doggerel for Pete Blackman, a recent Bruins player and fellow poetry aficionado. It included a lengthy lamentation on the shortcomings of his team, but ended with these lines:

I want to say--yes, I'll foretell
Eventually, this team will jell
And when they do, they will be great
A championship will be their fate.
With every starter coming back,
Yes, Walt and Gail and Keith and Jack,
And Fred and Freddie and some more
We could be champs in sixty-four.

"Freddie" was guard Freddie Goss, who wound up sitting out the 1963--64 season as a redshirt. The "some more" turned out to be two small-town sophomores, McIntosh, a white center from Lily, Ky., and Kenny Washington, a black guard from segregated schools in Beaufort, S.C. Each was perfectly suited to be a reserve and seemed to save his finest contributions for the biggest games. And then there were Walt and Gail and Keith and Jack and Fred.

To be sure, guards Walt Hazzard and Gail Goodrich and forward Jack Hirsch had been high school players of distinction in their respective high schools in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Van Nuys, Calif. But all were seemingly one-dimensional: Hazzard, a passer; Goodrich, a shooter; and Hirsch, a defender. Goodrich accepted a scholarship as a Polytechnic High junior when, at 5'8" and 120 pounds, he correctly intuited that he wasn't likely to get an offer much better than UCLA's. At first he was wary of Hazzard, who had the ball most of the time, but Goodrich soon realized that if he moved to an open spot, Hazzard would find him--for Hazzard loved to deliver the ball as much as Goodrich longed to launch it. "I defy you to find two finer guards who ever played on the same team," says Hirsch. "They averaged 43 a game between them, and we had no shot clock or three-pointer."

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