UCLA basketball and the beginning of its golden age, 50 years later
Fifty years ago, the college basketball earth shook. Wherever UCLA went, awe followed, mostly because of the 7-foot-2 Bruin who could not be stopped.
His name was Lew Alcindor, before it was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and when he scored 56 points in his first college game, everyone could guess what was coming. "The thing that surprised me,” he would say a half-century later of his debut, “was how easy it was.”
When he and the rest of a young starting lineup – four sophomores and a junior in an era when freshmen could not play – rolled to an unbeaten regular season, winning all but four of 26 games by at least 15 points, history was on alert. When they stormed through the 1967 NCAA tournament, taking the national championship with victory margins of 49, 16, 15 and 15 points, their legacy was secure.
And they were only beginning.
MARCH MADNESS ON SOCIAL MEDIA
JOIN THE TEAM.
They had taken the John Wooden dynasty to a place it would remain until the mid-1970s. They had become a team feared and, in some ways, loathed. “We’re not very popular, are we?’’ forward Ken Heitz said one day.
UCLA won 10 national titles in 12 years from 1964-75. But something about that 1967 team – the one that began a streak of seven consecutive championships – made those Bruins the symbols of all that was possible in Westwood.
“I guess in many respects, the first one in 1967 was kind of a check-off; 'Well there’s No. 1,'” says Lynn Shackelford, one of the sophomore starters that season, renowned for left-handed high-arching jump shots that seemed to fall from the rafters. “'Now we have to do it two more times,' because that’s what everybody expected.”
How dominant were they? Team captain Mike Warren, the lone junior starter in 1967: “There were games that were close. There were some games that were finished by halftime, and in some they were finished before the ball even went up, watching guys watch us go through our warmups. I remember talking to one of the opposing players years afterward and he told me the coach had instructed the team not to even watch us during warmups.”
How intimidating? Two days after the '67 national championship game, the dunk was outlawed in college basketball in a vain attempt to slow down Alcindor. The skyhook, perhaps the most lethal shot basketball ever has seen, was born.
Fifty years later, the Bruins of 1967 still share a special time when they reconvene.
“We don’t get together to re-live the glory days,” Abdul-Jabbar says, via e-mail. “Most of us have gone on to do much more glorious things in athletics or elsewhere. We get together because we have a bond, not because of the victories, but because of the hard work and dedication we put in for four years to become the best athletes we could. The trophies and championships were just a byproduct of that effort.”
A hint of what was to come
Where to begin to explain how it was? Start in the Los Angeles airport in the mid-1960s, with Warren there to meet a new recruit. Tall kid from New York named Alcindor.
“I remember distinctly Wooden telling me that he was very sensitive about his height and by all means don’t stare at him,” Warren says. “That was probably not the best thing to say. You tell a 19- or 20-year-old kid not to do something ...
“At the airport, I’m seeing this guy get off the plane and it’s like 'Oh my God.’ As we’re walking through the terminal, I’m hearing Wooden’s mantra. 'Don’t stare, don’t ask him anything about his height,' all these don’ts. We walk by these pictures they had hanging in the terminal, and I don’t see him anywhere. He’s above the frames of the pictures. I knew somehow, we’ve got to get him.”
They got him, and UCLA-land wondered what might come next.
October of 1965. Alcindor – a Dodger fan – and Shackelford went to a World Series game together as freshmen. “I do remember people taking a second glance when he climbed out of my Volkswagen in the Dodger Stadium parking lot,” Shackelford says. “But hey, we’re 18 years old. We can crawl into little cars at that point.”
November of 1965. UCLA opened its new Pauley Pavilion with the annual varsity-freshman game. The varsity had several players back from the 1965 national championship team and was ranked No. 1. The freshman team had Alcindor, Shackelford, Heitz and Lucius Allen, all high school phenoms.
“It was supposed to be Coach Wooden’s big night,” Abdul-Jabbar says. “A bunch of Coach’s former players were there for the building’s opening, and they formed a human tunnel for Coach to run through to the cheers of the over 12,000 fans in the stands.
“My main thought going into the game was that they would beat us quickly and that would kill any future rivalry between us. They were the national champs, having just come off a record of 58 wins out of 60 games for the last two seasons. We were a tune-up game to launch them into yet another championship season.”
Some tune-up. The freshmen won 75-60.
Warren: “Back then, [the freshmen] practiced behind a curtain. So my expectations were, yeah, this might be a good game but we’re going to prevail. Well, those guys almost ran us out of the gym. They beat us by 15, but it could have been more.
“I remember sitting in the locker room just kind of stunned. We had no words for it. Looking around the room, no one’s saying anything, they’ve got their heads held down. We were preseason No. 1, and the freshman team goes past our locker rooms yelling, 'We’re No. 1!' My memory has Wooden coming in at some point and saying, 'Just be happy those guys will be playing with you next year.’
“Kenny Washington was so upset he wanted to play them again the next night. From my point of view I think we could have played them 10 times and they would have beaten us 10, or maybe nine. They were just that good. Kareem threw the equation out the window. How do you play him? Not too many teams figured it out.”
Abdul-Jabbar: “Our main concern was that we didn’t want them to feel embarrassed. The freshman coach, Gary Cunningham, who was coaching his first college game, felt bad that we beat his mentor and friend, Coach Wooden. After the game, there was a reception in the student union but Gary felt so embarrassed that he was a bit dispirited. But Coach Wooden wasn’t disturbed at all.
“In fact, he said that if the varsity had been able to beat us badly, that meant I wasn’t as good a player as he thought I was. I was certainly glad I didn’t hear him say that before the game.” Abdul-Jabbar writes about his relationship with Wooden in the upcoming book, "Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50-Year Friendship On and Off the Court."
Shackelford: “From that point on, I think we all knew we were going to be on a wild ride. And this was not going to be ordinary times.”
UCLA went 18-8 that season and missed the NCAA tournament. But the freshman games drew well.
A championship team's first steps
Dec. 3, 1966. College basketball held its breath. The Alcindor era was about to dawn. Against cross-town rival USC, no less. The expectations weren’t just high, they were in the stratosphere. Warren wondered if the team was too young, with four sophomore starters.
Abdul-Jabbar: “I remember it was a balmy December day, and Pauley Pavilion was packed, as it always was when we played USC, so I would either fail or succeed in a grand scale.”
He scored 56 points, and the Bruins rolled, 105-90.
Abdul-Jabbar: “It was like test driving a Ferrari. It was just as good-looking and fast as I had hoped.”
And the rest of college basketball had feared.
The romps began, one after another, as an entire sport gasped.
Shackelford: “We’d line up for the first free throw, and somebody on the other team would just nod over to me and say, 'There’s no way that guy’s only 7-2.’ You can imagine the intimidation factor.
“It was always interesting to see how teams would play us, more specifically how they would play Kareem. One of the great things Wooden was capable of doing was getting us all to play together and to make the various sacrifices that needed to be made. Kareem could have scored 56 points every night if that had been the objective. Lucius could have scored 30 or 40 points.
“Our quickness made us hard to guard, our outside shooting was consistent, and I was a big threat on the inside. That was a formidable combination. Sure, when one team is steamrolling through the season, other teams will become a little intimidated and hesitant. But at the same time, that also gets them excited about being the ones to knock us down a notch."
Colorado State lost by only 10 points to the Bruins. Shackelford: “Years later, somebody introduced me to the guy who was the Colorado State coach and he was still bragging about that game. It was like that was one of the highlights of his coaching career.”
UCLA did not have a road game until Jan. 7, at Washington State. By most accounts, Wooden was a little anxious about how the sophomores would react in their first hostile setting. The Bruins stayed in rooms above the student union, and the Washington State fans were camped out all night outside their windows. Warren: “I remember not getting a lot of sleep. And I seem to recall having a band play outside. And knowing that when we played on the road we weren’t going to get a lot of calls, and that was directly related to Kareem and his ability.”
UCLA won by nine points. In early February, the Bruins had their closest call; a 40-35 overtime win against USC and its slow-down strategy. Two weeks later, Oregon – having lost the first meeting with UCLA, 100-66 – tried to dawdle as well, and the final was 34-25. It was the last time UCLA won by less than 10 all season.
March 24, the Final Four in Louisville. The Bruins had stormed through their first two NCAA tournament games, beating Wyoming by 49 and Pacific by 16. Houston, the first ranked opponent they faced since December, was next, featuring a talented center named Elvin Hayes.
Shackelford: “I remember being impressed by him. In the first five minutes of the game, he got the ball and tried to dunk over Kareem. And I thought, 'Whoa, I’m not used to seeing that.”
Didn’t matter. UCLA won 73-58. In the other semifinal, unheralded Dayton upset North Carolina, 76-62, and its young coach in his first Final Four. Dean Smith.
Dayton was a Cinderella story, slipping into the Final Four by winning its first NCAA tournament game in overtime, its next by a point and its next in overtime again. Against the Tar Heels, star Don May hit 13 shots in a row in a 76-62 win. He had averaged nearly 17 rebounds that season, but was only 6-foot-4. “The whole tournament was kind of a series of good fortune,” Flyers coach Don Donoher says 50 years later. “We won every close game there was.
“Prior to that, we were an NIT-oriented team. Going to the NCAA was kind of foreign territory for us.”
After their win over Houston, the Bruins went back to the hotel to rest for the championship game the next night. The Tar Heels were in the same hotel.
Shackelford: “After being upset, they decided they were going to party. They got very, very loud, getting the fire extinguisher hose and running it down the hallway, slamming doors. I can remember the next morning Coach Wooden was very, very upset. I don’t think he slept very well and I don’t think any of us slept very well. I think he was kind of mad at Dean Smith for years afterwards because of that.”
The first of many
March 25, 1967. Mighty UCLA, No. 1 and 29-0. Unranked Dayton, with five losses, including to Niagara. Trying to simulate Alcindor’s daunting wing span for his shooters during practice, Donoher had his scout team wave brooms and tennis racquets.
Warren had special motivation, beyond the obvious. He was a product of the deeply emotional world of Indiana high school basketball, and his South Bend Central team had lost the state championship game to Muncie Central. He had never gotten over it. Among the Dayton players that day was Glinder Torain, from Muncie Central. The two had taken some college recruiting visits together.
Warren: “I’ve always said I’d give up one of the championships at UCLA for one Indiana state championship. This kind of got the slate even.”
Before the biggest game of their lives, the young Bruins sat in the locker room waiting to hear from Wooden.
Shackelford: “I’m thinking, here it is, we’re 29-0, this is what I’ve wanted for my whole life, to play an NCAA championship game. And now I’ve got John Wooden talking before the game. This is going to be indelible, and imprinted in my life forever and ever. And he walks in and just says two things.”
The first: which way to face during pre-game introductions, for the TV cameras.
Shackelford: “He goes, 'Louisville is the fifth most immoral city in the United States and I expect everybody to behave themselves properly after the game. All right, that’s it, let’s go out there.’ And that was it.
“So we were out there doing pre-game warmup, and we were trying to figure out who were the cities above Louisville. I think all we could come up with was Las Vegas."
Donoher had one surprise. He sent out reserve Dan Obrovac, at 6-foot-10, for the opening tip. It was the only tip Alcindor would lose his entire college career.
Donoher: “Unfortunately, we couldn’t take the ball and go home.”
Abdul-Jabbar: “He only played five minutes that game, but to his great credit, he made history in those five minutes. The photo of Dan beating me was featured in Sports Illustrated and become iconic [it would hang for years in University of Dayton Arena]. In the end, it didn’t matter; we beat them 79-64."
A half-century later, Donoher still mourns part of his strategy: “May played deep in the post and that played right into the teeth of UCLA because of Alcindor. In retrospect, had we played May high up around the foul line and played our center off to the corner, deep along the baseline, maybe we could have generated more offense early and been competitive in the game. But that was a tall order. They had shooters. They had great guards. And they had about the best player in the history of the game. We were up against it.
“The final score was not indicative of how much they dominated us [it was 70-46 when Wooden called off the troops]. But then again, they dominated their whole schedule.”
Shackelford: “As good as they were, well-coached, they were a little undermanned against us. His [May’s] game was five feet and in, muscling inside, and that’s just not going to happen with Lew Alcindor. So it was a pretty easy win.”
Alcindor had 20 points, Allen 19, Warren 17, Shackelford 10. The Bruins breezed despite a horrendous 11-for-25 from the free-throw line. It was the third national championship for UCLA and Wooden in four years.
But it was something else: An unmistakable message of what was ahead for college basketball, delivered by a program that would own the future.
Shackelford: “I’m not sure it had a big effect on the dynasty. It had a big effect on us. We were fresh and eager and playing in a positive way. We just kind of took it for granted that we were going to win. It was just a question of who was going to play and how much we were going to win by. It’s not like we were over-confident. But you look at the statistics, we were just supremely better than everybody.”
By 1968, the nation seemed to be coming apart with the Vietnam War and battles over civil rights. The UCLA campus, too. The Bruins, as socially aware as any group of diverse college kids, nevertheless played on.
Warren: “It was in some ways similar to what we’re going through now. There was such a schism in America. The line was divided very clearly as the line has been drawn very clearly now. For us to walk on that court and all of us experiencing it differently as things were blowing up around the country, Wooden somehow -- and I still haven’t figured out how -- got it that that’s the only conversation that took place. It was about basketball. Off the court Wooden tried not to interfere in our lives a whole lot. That was the sanctuary. It became much easier inside than outside.”
In 1968, UCLA would lose the landmark made-for-television game in in the Astrodome to Houston and Hayes, Alcindor slowed by a scratched eye. And then in the Final Four the Bruins would destroy the top-ranked Cougars, 101-69, in one of the most devastating performances the tournament has ever seen.
In 1969, they would lose one more game, 46-44, to their old slow-it-down pals from USC. But they would march to the three-peat, then turn the dynasty over to a new wave. When Alcindor and his class left UCLA, a floppy-haired high schooler from California named Bill Walton took over.
But 1967 will always linger, and not just at UCLA.
Donoher: “The significance from Dayton’s part which holds true to today, after we won the regional up in Chicago, we came back to the hotel and our athletic director had been working on a mission of building a new arena in Dayton. He just announced to everyone after that game, 'Tonight, we built an arena.’ And three years later, we were in it.”
UD Arena has now hosted more NCAA tournament games than any other in the nation.
One more thing form Donoher:
“In our family room I’ve got a big picture right front and center of Lew Alcindor and Don May," he says. "The house we live in probably was built because of it.”
A legacy on and off the court
As for the Bruins, the legacy from 1967 came in many ways. One was the no-dunk rule.
Abdul-Jabbar: “Of course I was not pleased at having a rule changed just to keep me from playing my best. Part of my passion for basketball was to see how far I could go as an athlete. On the other hand, I was in good company, because two of my role models – Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain – had been so dominant, they caused ruled changes for me [Including widening of the lane, and the elimination of goal tending].
“The dunk ban didn’t really end up affecting my overall game much. I’d been perfecting my hook shot since grade school, so I was able to rely more on that. The dunk was reinstated in college ball in 1976, but I was already dunking in the NBA.”
Shackelford: “What the coaches would do was just tell us to lob the ball into Kareem and him dunk it. Since he couldn’t dunk it, he had to perfect the hook shot, which became known as the skyhook, which to this day is probably the most unstoppable shot in the history of the game. So in the world of unintended consequences, they actually made him a better player.”
Warren headed off to Hollywood after 1968. Alcindor and Lucius Allen to the NBA after 1969. Shackelford eventually to business, Heitz to law school. Wooden to more titles. It was left to each man to put 1967 in context.
Warren on Wooden: “I came all the way out to UCLA to get away from my parents – not because I didn’t love them, but I wanted to grow up – and I run smack dab into a guy who is just like my parents. He’s saying the same thing they were saying. But once I got distance from the experience, and particularly when I had children of my own, not only do I hear my parents in my inner ear from time to time, I hear Wooden.
“That’s probably the best thing that ever happened to me. When Wooden and I would get together, we very seldom reminisced about basketball. But we talked a lot about family.”
In 2010, Abdul-Jabbar connected with a man dying of cancer: Dan Obrovac, the Dayton Flyer who won that tip 43 years before.
“I was especially sympathetic because I had been diagnosed with chronic myelogenus leukemia. Basketball isn’t just a job, it’s a brotherhood." Abdul-Jabbar says. "So I sent Dan a signed photo of that tipoff with the hope it would bring a smile to his face.”
Fifty years after that one-sided game in a one-sided season, many Bruins are gathering to mark the feat.
Shackelford, about the call he got from UCLA about a reunion of the 1967 team: “I said. `Whatever you do, you’re going to have to do it every year for seven years.’ They said `Yep, that’s a good problem to have.”
Abdul-Jabbar: “Winning seven consecutive NCAA championships has set a gold standard in college sports that may never be equaled. At the time it happened, I didn’t think of it that much because I was still in my professional career, and frankly, was getting used to UCLA winning. But looking back, it’s extraordinary for any sport to have one team consistently set the standard for excellence. I’m so happy I could be part of that extraordinary legacy.”
The numbers tell a lot, but only the men who lived it truly understand. Men who were there when John Wooden became immortal and UCLA became a dynasty.
The Bruins of 1967.