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Mike Lopresti | | March 16, 2014

Lopresti: The birth of a dynasty

It is March 21, 1964 in Kansas City, and the UCLA Bruins are in their locker room, dressed for the national championship game against Duke.

UCLA is ranked No. 1 and unbeaten at 29-0, but this is unknown territory. The men’s basketball program has never been so close to a national championship game before. The Bruins don’t even have their own place to play on campus -- the new Pauley Pavilion is still a couple of years away -- and during the past season, moved most of their home games to the Los Angeles Sports Arena, which is across the street from the Southern California campus. What kind of home game is that?

But now here they are, one victory from a title, and over in the other locker room sits Duke, with a pair 6-10 towers on the front line. The UCLA lineup has no starter taller than 6-5, and includes two Bruins who did not even come to school on full basketball scholarships, one attending UCLA partly to play baseball, and the other partly to run track.

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They sit and wait for their mild-mannered head coach. John Wooden has never made it this far, either, so what can he tell them? He walks in, and begins ...

Fifty years and 11 UCLA national championships later, Gail Goodrich, UCLA’s leading scorer that season, hasn’t forgotten.

“I can recall his locker room speech to this day,” Goodrich said. “He comes and says we need to play the same way and do the same things that got us there. We press, we rebound, we get the ball out and we make this a 94-foot game.

“He asked us, 'How many of you remember who finished second last year?’ Now, I knew, but I didn’t raise my hand. He says, 'No one remembers who finishes second. Now go out there and play the way you’re capable of.’

“And that was it.”

Two hours later, Goodrich had scored 27 points, UCLA had beaten Duke 98-83, the Bruins had finished 30-0 and Wooden had won his first national championship. Who could have imagined the dynasty that was born that night?

“There was no way,” Goodrich said, “anybody could have done that.”

Nine more titles would follow the next 11 years, a magical era not broken until Wooden retired and went out a champion in 1975. But the Age of Wooden had to start somewhere, and that was 1964.

Wooden had been seeking his breakthrough season for years. The Bruins reached the 1962 Final Four, and while the 72-70 semifinal loss to eventual champion Cincinnati was disappointing, it was also a clue of how close they were.

But a 93-79 thumping by Arizona State in the early round in 1963 had Wooden thinking he needed to add something more. “I watched the [Loyola-Cincinnati] championship game that year and I said, `Next year, we’re going to play in that game,’’’ Goodrich said. But what would be the final piece?

-- Gail Goodrich
Prodded by assistant coach Jerry Norman, Wooden decided to go to a 2-2-1 full-court zone press, not so much to force turnovers (even though it would, by the bunches) but to relentlessly push the tempo of the game.

UCLA was never the same. Neither, for that matter, was college basketball.

The record will show that UCLA broke 90 points 13 times, and only four regular season opponents could withstand Wooden’s assault enough to come within five points. The Bruins had a habit of indifferent starts, but at some stage of nearly every game, the wall would cave in. The Bruin Blitz, it came to be called.

“We were quicker than everybody else. I think we were better prepared than everybody else,” Goodrich said. “We had the ability to make runs of 10, 12, 15 points. Eventually, teams would crack. We believed in that.”

By the end of the NCAA Tournament, so did everyone else. San Francisco had a 13-point lead in the regional, before UCLA went blowing by. Kansas State was up by five points with seven minutes left at the Final Four, when the Bruins went on an 11-0 run and won 90-84.

The championship game was the tour de force for the Bruin Blitz. Duke had a 30-27 lead late in the first half. Just 2:40 later, after a 16-0 explosion, UCLA was ahead 43-30.

Wooden’s attack force was an eclectic combination. Goodrich was a California kid whose father had played at USC. Final Four MVP Walt Hazzard had come from Philadelphia. Keith Erickson grew up just a few miles down the new freeway, but had never seen a UCLA game until he played in one. He was also there for baseball. Jack Hirsch was a California free spirit, Fred Slaughter a track star from Kansas.

Goodrich said he can never remember Wooden talking about winning, or showing a game film. Only rarely was the opponent mentioned. UCLA’s players were competing against the game itself. The major goal was to keep playing it better. Do that -- the same things over and over, better and better -- and victory would be not be an issue.

“Everybody knew what we were going to do,” Goodrich he said. “It was all about execution.”

Goodrich said Sports Illustrated, leaving UCLA out of the preseason top 20, had called the Bruins a “surprise package.” That would be the last time a Wooden UCLA team surprised anyone. Despite losing three starters, the Bruins repeated the next year. Goodrich scored 42 points in the championship game against Michigan.

The dynasty was rolling. “That victory in 1964 and the one the next year certainly opened the eyes of a lot of young high school basketball players,” Goodrich said. “I think it was really instrumental in his recruiting.”

Indeed, a tall high school phenom from the other side of the country visited, to see what UCLA was all about. Goodrich was gone the weekend Lew Alcindor came to campus. “He worked out with some of the players,” Goodrich said. “The report I got was that it was just a joke. And we had good players.”

So the future Kareem Abdul-Jabbar destroyed his future teammates the same way he would destroy the rest of college basketball. Wooden was on the way to being the Wizard.

“When I went there at 17, I thought he was a great coach. I could tell when I watched him practice,” Goodrich said. “But no one expected him to do that.”

Like all Bruins, Goodrich endured the annual ritual before the first practice of Wooden’s instructions on basics such as how to put on socks and tie sneakers. Like all Bruins, Goodrich was handed a paper each year with this odd title. The Pyramid of Success.

“Eventually it’d go in the waste basket, if not the first year, then certainly the second and third and fourth years,” Goodrich said. “But then years later, you would pick it up and look at it, and you’d realize he was teaching us life lessons.”

Goodrich would go on to be star for the Los Angeles Lakers. A half century later, UCLA’s dynasty is untouched in dominance, and likely will stay that way.  It has to be special, to have been there at the beginning.

“You’re part of a dynasty, but you’re also part of a something that changed the way the game was played,” Goodrich said. “In many ways as those games went on, we expected to win those last two years. But I look back now, and it’s pretty amazing.”

It always will be.

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