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Mike Lopresti | | February 16, 2015

40 years later Bill Walton still aches

Time heals, but not always. Not for Bill Walton, when it comes to March 23, 1974. Time never has, time never will.

"That failure has plagued me, and will," he said. "It is a stigma on my soul, and there's no way I can get rid of it."

On that day, North Carolina State beat UCLA 80-77 in two overtimes in the Final Four. And that was not the half of it.

It was not just that the Bruins blew an 11-point lead in the last 11 minutes of regulation, or a seven-point lead in the last 3 ½ minutes of the second overtime.

It was not just that it ended UCLA's run for the ages -- seven consecutive national titles.

It was not just that 1974 will forever stand as the only season in John Wooden's final nine years as coach that his team was not champion at the end. Like an unsightly gash on a masterpiece work of art.

To Walton, it was more, and always will be. Something about wasted blessings. Something about a young man who did not see the big picture, until it was too late. Too late for good.

Four decades later, the years have not dulled the ache for the iconic star of the 1974 Bruins. Not, it would seem, by an iota.

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Bill Walton led a dynasty to two national championships, and an 88-game winning streak that no men's team has yet to touch. On the black day in 1974 against North Carolina State, he produced 29 points and 18 rebounds.

Wouldn't all that enough for an unspoiled legacy? Goodness no. Not to him.

"The losses are what you remember. The failures, the mistakes, and how it could have been so different."

And . . .

"We could have, we should have won them all, and we didn't get it done. And when you're in that position, it's the worst feeling in the world."

And . . .

"That's the timelessness of pain and suffering; the agonizing, the reflection and the endless questioning of yourself. When you're right there and it's there for you and the whole world is watching, and it's recorded as history that can never be changed, that is a terribly heavy burden."

And finally . . .

"I, we, had no idea what we had with Coach Wooden and UCLA. Until we left. He had built such a machine, and we were the crowning glory of that. It was a locomotive rolling down the tracks, and then we were derailed. No. change that. We derailed."

Perhaps, the train's itinerary should be reviewed.

Walton and his fellow senior starters -- Keith Wilkes, Tommy Curtis and Greg Lee - came into their final year as a seemingly unstoppable force. They had put together back-to-back perfect seasons. In December of 1973, they met David Thompson and North Carolina State - by all accounts, their main rival - and dispatched the Wolfpack by 18 points.

All seemed well. All seemed right. From the outside, anyway. But on the inside were young athletes who had grown perhaps too jaded by lavish and historic success; so comfortable they began to tune out the wizardry of the man who had put them together

"Coach Wooden is the most influential person in my life outside of my mom and dad, but when we played for him, he was older than our parents, and we thought our parents were the oldest people on earth," Walton said. "So the things he taught us made no sense to us."

Walton said Wooden's mantra always included one message. Don't beat yourself, don't cheat yourself, don't short-change yourself. Lose that way, and you would never get over it.

"We thought he was nuts," Walton said. "But when you're hot and when you're on top and it's all happening, you never think. We were so young and we had always won. So we had no real idea how fragile everything was.

"Everything that Coach Wooden told us eventually came true."

The first real sign of trouble came in January, when the Bruins blew an 11-point lead late in the game at Notre Dame, as the Irish ended the immortal 88-game winning streak 71-70. The unbeatable had been beaten. But that can happen to anyone, right? Once.

Soon after, UCLA dropped consecutive games at Oregon and Oregon State. Something seemed clearly amiss.

"There were so many problems," Walton said. "Injuries [he missed games with a bad back.] Team chemistry. It was just a nightmare."

Presumably, the NCAA tournament would refocus the Bruins' brilliance. John Wooden UCLA teams never, ever, ever lost in March.

But in a near-miss often forgotten in history, the Bruins barely escaped their first game; beating unheralded Dayton 111-100 in three overtimes. The UCLA-North Carolina State classic-to-come almost never happened.

The Bruins whisked past San Francisco 83-60 and into the Final Four in Greensboro, where North Carolina State was waiting for revenge in its own backyard. There were some uncustomary words of smugness from the UCLA camp that week -- were the Bruins trying to talk their way into a new sense of security? -- and when the team arrived in Greensboro, Walton walked off the plane in sandals, looking as if he had come for a rock concert.

So much for Wooden's crisp, precise machine. His star was strong-willed, brash, somewhat rebellious. A southern California free spirit of the times. And it was showing. Maybe it had for some time.

"It was the totality of the environment," Walton said, 40 years later. "There was trouble from the beginning, and I'm responsible for that. I was the team captain. It's on me, and it's on my soul."

Still, when UCLA pulled ahead 57-46 with 11 minutes to left, the Bruins seemed to have rediscovered their mission. But the Wolfpack came back at them, with Thompson on his way to 28 points, and 7-4 Tom Burleson fighting Walton to a near-draw inside.

North Carolina State had chances to win at the end of regulation and the first overtime, but couldn't hit the clincher. The missed opportunities seemed fatal when the Bruins pulled ahead 74-67 with 3:27 left. There was no shot clock. There was no 3-pointer. Surely, a team of veterans from two national championships would know how to close the deal.

Except, they didn't. Turnovers, missed shots, heroic plays by a North Carolina State team refusing to blink. And a dynasty came crashing down. Walton's numbers were marvelous, but all he can think about 40 years later are the shots he missed, and the rebounds he didn't get, and the defensive stops he didn't make.

"David Thompson's a great champion. He is a wonderful person and a very special human being," Walton said. "He was really fun to play against. He was a dynamic big moment guy, and I just wish I could have risen to the occasion."

It is all there now, indelible on film. And even worse, in Walton's memory.

"I try not to watch it, but they keep showing it on television," Walton said.

Nor was it a moment he and Wooden discussed much later.

"It would come up more than either of us wanted, because it was sad," he said. "And the worst part is, there's nothing you can do about it, other than try to learn from your mistakes. But we never had the chance to get it back."

There was, however, one last indignity. Two days after the loss, the Bruins had to play Kansas in the third-place game. It was the last thing any of them wanted to do.

"I didn't want to play and I told Coach Wooden that. We had a bitter argument over that, and I lost that argument, too," said Walton, who took only three shots in a 78-61 UCLA win. He played but 20 minutes in his last game for John Wooden.

"Twenty minutes too much," he said.

The epitaph of UCLA's unsatisfying season -- perhaps the lesson from it all -- might have come on Walton's graduation day. It was a message from his coach.

"To Bill Walton, it's the things you learn after you know it all that count. John Wooden."

Those words sit on Walton's desk today.

Later would come NBA titles for Walton, Hall of Fame honors, a lifetime regarded as one of the finest players the game has ever produced. None of it takes away the sting of one day in 1974.

"A lot of sleepless nights over the last 40 years," he said. "A lot of sleepless nights."

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