- The Washington Times - Monday, March 22, 2004

As the final seconds ticked away at Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium, delirious fans clad in baby blue and gold counted down in unison. Then it was over, and members of the winning team hugged one another and their bespectacled coach as the joy and tears overflowed.

Forty years ago this week, on March21, 1964, UCLA and John Wooden won their first NCAA men’s basketball championship. Nine more would follow over the next 11 seasons, but none would be a surprise as the Bruins authored perhaps the most astonishing success story in sports history. The first one was, sort of.

Though UCLA came into the NCAA tournament undefeated, the smallish Bruins were nobody’s favorite. That role was shared by Duke and Michigan, both much bigger with more impressive basketball traditions. UCLA, however, had a secret weapon: the nation’s best college coach.

Once a firebrand during games, Wooden now coached with a gentle authority that no player dared defy. He didn’t believe in calling timeouts for strategic reasons, because, he reasoned, his players should know what to do in any situation if they had been properly prepared. And UCLA always was.

On the bench, rolled-up game program in hand, Wooden was a special coach; off it, he was a special man. In an era when sports and society were much more segregated than now, he cared only that his athletes play well. One black player, asked whether there were racial tensions on a later UCLA squad, put it this way: “You don’t know our coach. He doesn’t see colors — he just sees ballplayers.”

In his first college coaching season at Indiana State, Wooden had turned down an invitation to a national championship tournament because the NAIA would not allow a black player on his team to participate. Said Wooden years later: “That’s one of the things my dad tried to teach us: You’re as good as anybody, but you’re no better than anybody. It was just my upbringing that you never looked down on anyone for any reason at all and certainly not race or religion. … Your players must know that you care for them more than just as athletes.”

No wonder Wooden’s players loved him and opponents respected him. He had been an All-American player at Purdue in basketball’s Neanderthal early ‘30s and later a successful coach in high school (218-42 over 11 seasons) and at Indiana State (47-14 for two seasons). Yet during his first 15 years at UCLA, starting in 1948, there was no dancing in the streets. His teams were always winners, but it seemed no NCAA championship banner ever would grace the Bruins’ “home” court several miles away from the Westwood campus at Los Angeles Sports Arena.

Wooden was 53 when the 1963-64 season started, practically a senior citizen among his coaching counterparts, but suddenly the Bruins were beating everybody. Oddly, this team didn’t have a superstar like it did with Lew Alcindor (aka Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton in later years. The best players were small guards — 6-foot-3 Walt Hazzard and 6-1 Gail Goodrich — and the supporting cast scared no one. Center Fred Slaughter and forward Keith Erickson were the tallest players at 6-5, and Erickson was considered better at volleyball.

The coach knew his team would have to win with quickness and speed. To that end, he installed the seldom-used 2-2-1 zone press defense. Though his teams at South Bend (Ind.) Central High School had employed it successfully, he didn’t think it would work against major college teams. But his options were limited.

“When we do it properly, our press sets a tempo for the whole game,” Wooden explained, “and when we get the other team falling into our tempo, we have gained a big advantage.”

Bolstered by the press and by sophomores Kenny Washington and Doug McIntosh playing well off the bench, UCLA demonstrated strength by routing powerhouse Michigan by 18 points in December’s Los Angeles Classic. One victory after another followed until the Bruins found themselves in the NCAA’s Elite 8. After beating Seattle 95-90 and San Francisco 76-72 in the West Region, UCLA made the first of its practically annual visitations to the Final Four.

The Bruins were 28-0, but their run appeared in jeopardy when they trailed Kansas State by five points with 7:28 to play. Then, however, they seized control with a startling 11-0 run on the way to a 90-84 victory.

In the championship game against powerful Duke, which had routed Michigan 91-80 in its semifinal, the Bruins were decided underdogs. The ACC champions had two 6-10 frontcourt stars in Jay Buckley and Hack Tison. Forward Jeff Mullins led their scoring attack.

UCLA’s only hope seemed to lie in its zone press. But early in the game, Duke was successful in passing the ball over it and taking advantage of mismatches in the paint. The Blue Devils led by three with 7:14 left in the half when the Bruins suddenly went on the same kind of tear they had enjoyed against Kansas State — this one for 16 unanswered points over a span of 2:34. That made it 43-30, and Duke never caught up. UCLA outrebounded its much taller foe 43-35, and the zone press harassed the Blue Devils into a whopping 29 turnovers. Goodrich led all scorers with 17 points, one more than Washington.

And when the game ended. the dynasty had begun.

“I am immensely proud of you,” Wooden told his troops afterward. You’re really the best — you’ve proved it. Now don’t let it change you. You are champions, and you must act like champions.”

The following year, UCLA won another title. Texas Western (now Texas-El Paso) kept the Bruins from a threepeat with its classic upset of Kentucky in 1966 at Maryland’s Cole Field House, but UCLA then ran off an incredible seven championships in a row before David Thompson and N.C. State broke through in 1974. Wooden’s final title came in 1975. Then he retired at 64, his place in hoops history assured. Last December, the school got around to naming the Pauley Pavilion floor “John and Nell Wooden Court” in honor of the coach and his wife, who died in 1985. Considering Wooden was 93, UCLA didn’t exactly rush.

In a profession filled with schemers and dreamers, the Wizard of Westwood remains an icon of humility and decency.

“Your players become almost like your children,” he said once. “You get very close to them. Their joys are your joys. Their sorrows are your sorrows. It doesn’t end when they leave your supervision. That’s with you forever.”

So, too, is the shining image of John Wooden as a big winner who won the right way.

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