The day before the semifinals, the undefeated Bruins worked out in Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium.
Other college coaches watched them, bewildered, like Ronald Reagan in his “Kings Row” role. Where were the rest of them?
The big men apparently were still back at the hotel. No starter was taller than the 6-foot-5 Fred Slaughter.
One coach delicately asked UCLA assistant Jerry Norman, “Do you think you can win this thing?”
Norman shrugged. “We’ve beaten two of the other three teams here.”
As we know, UCLA left town the same way: perfectly brazen, brazenly perfect.
It was the Bruins’ first NCAA championship. They would win nine of the next 11.
Great teams had preceded them and would supersede them, although John Wooden forever said it was his favorite.
In the big picture, UCLA ‘64 was the headwater for this flood of merchandise, nonsense and occasional drama that we know as March Madness today.
The NCAA Tournament owes its soul to upsets, like Texas Western over Kentucky, North Carolina State over Houston.
To have an upset, one must have a favorite, preferably a monstrous one, beyond challenge. UCLA was every bit of that, and when Houston toppled the Bruins in the Astrodome in 1968, the major networks smelled money in the air.
The Bruins only made news when they lost. They stumbled at Notre Dame in 1971 and made magazine covers. They lost in the NCAA national semifinals to North Carolina State in 1974 and birds stopped in mid-flight. UCLA gave college basketball a theme, a line of polarization.
No story can live without one, and the preface was written in 1964.
Those Bruins began the season, unranked, with a 42-point disassembling of Brigham Young and ended it with a 15-point victory over Duke and its pair of 6-foot-10 centers who coughed in the exhaust of UCLA’s little deuce coupe.
In between, UCLA had 28 other victories, only six decided by five or fewer points.
“Sooner or later,” Walt Hazzard would say, “they’re bound to succumb.”
The identifying birthmark was a full-court zone press that Norman had devised and then sold to Wooden. Norman to this day isn’t sure how many opponents had a clue what the Bruins were doing.
“They thought we were trying to steal the ball, which we weren’t,” he said. “Sure, we wanted to do that, but what we really wanted to do was speed up the game.”
But how could anyone prepare?
There was no game-film exchange, no videotape at all, no “cut-ups.” College basketball was barely televised at all. Not all of UCLA games were shown at home, for example, and the Bruins twice played at Santa Monica College, in front of 1,500.
“The coaches always had their convention at the tournament,” said Norman, who is the subject of Steve Bisheff’s book, “In The Shadow Of A Legend.”
“They did it because it was the only way they could see the last four teams play.”
But height was the only gift the Bruins lacked. It was an extraordinarily gifted, athletic team.
Gail Goodrich’s number was eventually retired by the Lakers. Hazzard was the No. 1 pick in the ‘64 NBA draft.
Keith Erickson, a devastating “free safety” in the press, played 12 years in the NBA and was on the U.S. Olympic volleyball team in ‘64.
“Jack Hirsch was the most underrated guy on the team,” Goodrich said. “He had long arms and a great feel for the game, growing up in New York. And Fred was a great athlete, fast and strong. Walt was one of the great passers I ever saw. Overall, we were just too quick for most teams we played.”
Chipping in was Kenny Washington, a guard from Beaufort, S.C., who had played against Hazzard during Philadelphia playground summers. Hazzard recommended him to Wooden, although Washington’s trip west was by Greyhound.
“My father was in the Marines,” said Washington, now a parole officer in the Valley. “He couldn’t believe I could go to school by playing basketball. He thought I should be studying instead.”
Washington would have studied closer to home, but black players were not welcome in the ACC or SEC.
Slaughter, a champion high school sprinter from Topeka, didn’t have that problem, but came because, “I fell in love with the weather.” His son, Fred, is a Superior Court judge in Fullerton.
Hirsch grew up playing on nitty-gritty courts in Bedford-Stuyvesant. He was street-wise, fearless and funny.
One day at practice he warmed up in a Beatles wig. Wooden said nothing until he gathered the Bruins before drills. “Jack,” he said. “I like your new haircut.”
The rest were from L.A, and Sam Cooke’s ballads smoothly blended with Brian Wilson’s surf songs.
“We went our own ways off the court,” Slaughter said, “but we were a team. We all knew we needed each other to win.”
The Bruins picked on the best teams and the biggest players. They won at Kansas State, with Willie Murrell, and at Kansas, with Walt Wesley. They beat Michigan, with Bill Buntin, and Creighton, with Paul Silas.
Norman still wonders why the league teams didn’t adjust. In a two-game, two-night set at Cal, the Bruins won the first game by 20. The Bears slowed it down the next night and only lost, 58-56. Nobody else tried it.
Respect came hard. UCLA beat UC Santa Barbara by 31 and 28 points on back-to-back nights. Art Gallon, the UCSB coach, nevertheless said the Bruins “aren’t as good as they’re written up to be. They’ll be in trouble if they play a team that’s hitting its shots, and the referees aren’t awed.”
Instead, UCLA averaged 88.9 points and a 19.8-point victory margin, and held its foes to 38.4 percent shooting.
This was Wooden’s 14th UCLA team. He was a consistent winner, but the coaching star of the West was Cal’s Pete Newell, who had won the 1959 NCAA championship and retired after the ‘60 season.
Newell was defensive-oriented and Wooden grew up running fast breaks at Purdue. Newell would say later that Wooden never won the NCAAs until he “found religion” and paid attention to defense.
“Wooden was known as a good West Coast coach,” said Rich Levin, a substitute in ‘64. “But he wasn’t a legend yet. I don’t think any of us went to UCLA because of Wooden. It was a different era. I don’t recall a lot of outside pressure on us, or him, to win the whole thing.”
But the ‘64 seniors had been sophomores in ‘62, when UCLA got to Wooden’s first Final Four and lost to Cincinnati, the eventual champ, in the semifinals by two points.
“We were very, very confident,” Goodrich said. “We were convinced that nobody could beat us, and nobody did.”
The NCAA Tournament would test that.
Seattle, led by an unimpressed, 6-foot-8, 245-pound center from Santa Ana College named L.J. Wheeler, elected to run with UCLA and only lost, 95-90.
In the regional final, San Francisco led UCLA by 13 in the second half before the storm hit, and Hazzard scored 14 points in the final 14 minutes of the Bruins’ 76-72 victory.
UCLA beat Kansas State in the semifinals, 90-84, but Duke’s victory over Michigan was widely considered the de facto championship game.
But Tex Winter, the future Lakers assistant who coached Kansas State, warned everyone that “if you talk about effective height, UCLA is a tall team.”
In his hotel suite before the final, Duke coach Vic Bubas laughed as a daughter brought in a banner that proclaimed “Ruin The Bruins,” although it looked more like “Run The Bruins.”
“You’d better dot that ‘I’, honey,” Bubas said.
The game was not as close as the letters. UCLA used a 16-0 run to get a 50-38 halftime lead and won, 98-83. No championship-game winner had scored that many.
Hazzard addressed the skeptics: “Send Duke back to Dixie.”
And, for years, Bubas jokingly told Wooden, “You should publicly thank me for launching your career.”
Slaughter remembers that game because he barely played in it. Duke’s Hack Tison pushed down on his shoulder and injured Slaughter’s back on the center jump.
But Doug McIntosh, at 6-foot-7, gallantly relieved Slaughter, and Washington leaped off the bench to deliver 26 points and 12 rebounds.
And after the buzzer, Washington was greeted by the last person he expected to see.
Fred Washington had come from South Carolina, curious to see exactly how far his son had taken this madness.
They hugged, thinking they’d climbed a mountain, neither realizing that UCLA had just begun to build one.