- The Washington Times - Monday, February 5, 2001

The way it was

During 27 seasons as UCLA's "Wizard of Westwood," John Wooden's teams stomped out a record of 620-147 (.808) and won an unprecedented, unbelievable 10 NCAA tournament titles in 12 years. Yet Wooden's most memorable game might have been one he didn't win.

What made UCLA's 71-70 loss to No. 2 Notre Dame on Jan. 19, 1974, in South Bend particularly remarkable was that the Bruins had won their previous 88 games the longest streak ever in any American team sport.

Through it all, the Wizard sat imperturbably on the bench, rolled-up program in hand. Like gentlemanly baseball pioneer Connie Mack, Wooden could be tough and demonstrative when necessary. The thing was, he did it in private or on the practice court. No zebra shook in his shoes when this coach disagreed with a call. If Wooden was really seething, he might call the official over and whisper something in his ear.

When Wooden spoke, no matter how quietly, people listened. Respect for the man was enormous and still is at age 90 26 years after he hung up his clipboard. Ten national championships? Why, that's more than Adolph Rupp (four), Bobby Knight (three) and Dean Smith (two) combined.

What's more, the Bruins' 88-game streak had obliterated the previous record of 61. UCLA hadn't lost a game since 1971 at Notre Dame's Athletic and Convocation Center. But there was no immediate indication on this January evening three years later that this history, and hysteria, would be repeated.

For weeks, basketball had been a rare topic of attention in South Bend. Ever since Knute Rockne's arrival as coach more than half a century earlier, Notre Dame had been known in athletic precincts as a football school the Rock, the Gipper, Touchdown Jesus and all that. Now Digger Phelps' undefeated basketball team was challenging Ara Parseghian's football squad for recognition on campus. In some corners this was considered sacrilege.

"We were pretty confident going in that we could beat them," recalled District native Adrian Dantley, who was enjoying a fine freshman season at Notre Dame after starring at DeMatha High School in Hyattsville. "During practice [that week], we pretended to cut the nets down [after beating UCLA]. But when the game started, I think we realized who we were playing."

In the first half, UCLA was about as dominant as usual. Star center Bill Walton, playing in an elastic corset after missing three games with a back injury, led the Bruins to a 17-point lead. By halftime, Notre Dame reduced the deficit to 43-34, but an upset appeared extremely unlikely.

Nothing changed for much of the second half. With just 3:32 remaining, UCLA's lead was at 70-59, and some of the 11,343 spectators were heading for the exits. Those who did make it outside into the frigid Indiana night undoubtedly regret it to this day, for suddenly everything was turning around dramatically after a timeout called, possibly in desperation, by Phelps.

"Digger told us not to quit, that we could still win," Dantley said. "We figured we still had a chance if we kept plugging away. Then it was like Maryland's game against Duke last week their big lead just disappeared."

Suddenly, the Irish seemed to find the confidence and touch they had lacked all evening. Simultaneously, UCLA's players grew uncertain and clumsy. There wasn't much time left, Notre Dame fans conceded, but just maybe …

Maybe indeed. Pressing on defense, Notre Dame scored when 6-foot-9 center John Shumate sank a hook over the weary Walton, who had played the entire game. Then Shumate stole UCLA's inbounds pass and scored again. Notre Dame was down by seven now, and a murmur swept through the crowd.

On its next possession, UCLA got only as far as midcourt before Tommy Curtis lost the ball to Dantley, who loped to the basket for an easy layup, and the Bruins' lead was five.

Again Curtis brought the ball upcourt for UCLA and again turned it over. This time Gary Brokaw scored for the Irish to make it 70-67, and the Bruins were turning into teddy bears on national TV. Another UCLA turnover and another basket by Brokaw made it a one-point game as bedlam erupted.

UCLA tried hard to maintain the lead, but nothing was working. Star Keith Wilkes drove hard to the basket and fouled Brokaw, the Bruins' fifth consecutive turnover. With less than a minute to play, Notre Dame set up a play for Shumate, who was quickly double-teamed. Junior guard Dwight Clay was uncovered, and Shumate dished off to him. Clay's jumper ripped through the cords to give the Irish their first lead at 71-70 and complete a 12-0 run.

UCLA, stunned, had no comeback to offer, and 21 seconds later it was over. The streak was no more, and perhaps in the lonely solitude of the locker room, John Wooden might have whacked his rolled-up program into his other hand a time or two.

We can only speculate what Wooden said to his team in practice over the next few days, but a week later Notre Dame came calling at Pauley Pavilion. Final score: UCLA 94, Notre Dame 75.

"We just had that one week as the top team in the country," Dantley said ruefully. "They jumped on us early out there, and that was it. We weren't really that surprised. After all, they were UCLA."

Yet this was not quite a typical UCLA team. The Bruins finished the season 26-4 but lost to N.C. State 80-77 in the Final Four semifinals, ending their run of seven national championships as David Thompson's Wolfpack swept to the championship.

There was one more national title left in Wooden's rolled-up program as his last team defeated Kentucky 92-85 in the 1975 championship game. Then it was time for the prim and proper Wizard, who symbolized the best in college basketball, to sit back and reflect on his nonpareil career and perhaps on what went wrong in the disastrous 212 seconds that allowed Notre Dame to spring one of sport's biggest upsets.

"I don't know about anybody else, but I think of that game all the time," said Dantley, who went on to a long and honorable NBA career after three seasons at Notre Dame. "After it was over, I talked to Bill Walton, and he was crying."

Small wonder. At UCLA in those days, defeat was an unwelcome stranger.

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