Fifty years ago Saturday, UCLA played a game that John Wooden didn’t like much.
How was he to know it was the front door to history? The Bruins’ majestic 88-game winning streak that still stands tallest in the record book had to start somewhere — Jan. 30, 1971 with a somewhat ragged 74-61 victory over UC Santa Barbara. Precisely, as of Saturday, a half-century ago.
UCLA began that last week of January in 1971 getting shredded by Notre Dame’s Austin Carr for 46 points. The 89-82 loss in South Bend was the Bruins’ first defeat of the season and knocked them from their No. 1 spot in the polls. As Curtis Rowe told the Los Angeles media, “We’re not on the top of the hill anymore.”
The next game was a Jan. 30 Saturday afternoon date in Pauley Pavilion with UC Santa Barbara. UCLA struggled the first half, led only by two points at halftime, but finally put away the Gauchos. Rowe had 28 points, Sidney Wicks 19. Wooden wasn’t terribly impressed. “I’m going to initiate this conversation,” he began with the post-game media, “by saying I am not at all pleased.”
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There was more. “We’re not seeing the open man on offense, so we’re missing him. We’re not sliding well on defense. And today, we looked as if we’d never seen a press before.”
Other stories in the news that weekend included the launch of Apollo 14. America was going back to the moon. There was a new battle in Vietnam, and negotiations between President Nixon and California governor Ronald Reagan about a legal assistance fund for the state. Super Bowl V, won by the Baltimore Colts, had been played two weeks earlier. Ten miles down the freeway from UCLA’s campus, the Lakers were on their way to taking the Pacific Division of the 17-team NBA, behind Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West. Later that calendar year, the Lakers would begin their own history-making winning streak, a 33-gamer.
The Santa Barbara game had been something of a tune-up for the Bruins. UCLA was to play unbeaten USC the next week, who had passed the Bruins in the rankings. While UCLA struggled with the Gauchos, the Trojans had flattened Loyola in Chicago by 24 points, after which coach Bob Boyd announced, “There’s no looking ahead to Feb. 6 anymore. Now we can really concentrate on UCLA.”
Back in Pauley Pavilion, Wooden was still grumbling about how his team had looked that Jan. 30.
“If we play the way we’re playing right now against SC, we don’t have a chance.”
Anyone remotely familiar with basketball history knows what happened next.
The winning streak would go 88 games, and 1084 days — longer than the terms of seven U.S. presidents. It would include three national championship games, and victories over 45 different schools, including 15 who today own national titles themselves. It would not end until Jan. 19, 1974, back at Notre Dame again, when the Irish magically stormed back from 11 points behind in the final 3 ½ minutes to utterly shock UCLA 71-70. So Notre Dame was bookends to the streak, the last opponent to beat the Bruins, and the next. Among those 88 victories in between, UCLA played the Irish four times — and won 114-56, 57-32, 82-56 and 82-63.
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Looking back, the streak was nearly stopped in its infancy, many times. In that showdown with USC, the Bruins were down nine points with seven minutes to go, but rallied to win 64-60. Later would be a series of escapes on the arduous Pac-8 trail; by one point at Oregon and by two at Oregon State the next night, by four at Washington State and by two at Washington.
In the NCAA tournament, they had to come from 11 points behind for a tense 57-55 victory over Long Beach State and Jerry Tarkanian. At the Final Four, they beat Kansas by eight and Villanova by six. Wooden’s national championship run carried over to its fifth consecutive year, but did not suggest an untouchable juggernaut that would not be beaten for years.
Then a sophomore named Bill Walton arrived the next season. Jamaal Wilkes, too. As UCLA broadcaster Dick Enberg had for his signature call . . . Ohhh, my!
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In 1971-72, the Walton Gang went 30-0 and had only two games settled by single digits. In 1972-73, they were 30-0 again and won four games by under 10 points. Actually, one of the tougher victories was 70-59 over Indiana in the Final Four. The Bruins led by only one point with under six minutes to go, and might have been in true peril had not the Hoosiers’ center Steve Downing – who scored 26 points — fouled out with eight minutes left. On the other bench facing Wooden that day was a young and earnest coach named Bob Knight. It was the only time they would ever meet.
Two days later, in win No. 75 of the streak, UCLA cliched another title by beating Memphis 87-66. Walton took 22 shots in the game. He missed one. The 44-point virtuoso performance was the centerpiece of his career.
So the streak rolled on to another season. It nearly ended on No. 77, when Maryland had the ball for a last shot, trailing only 65-64 in Pauley Pavilion. A steal kept the Bruins upright. On Jan. 17, 1974, the Bruins flew east and beat Iowa 68-44 in Chicago Stadium. Walton missed his third consecutive game with a bad back, but the streak still ticked up to 88 in a row. Since Walton and Wilkes had arrived, UCLA had gone 73-0, with seven wins by single digits, two by five points or under. But Wooden was unsettled by the Iowa game. “I thought we were lackadaisical, and I have never had that trouble with my teams,” he told reporters that night.
The Bruins hopped on bus and took the Indiana Toll Road, headed for Notre Dame.