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Final Fours then and now
2006-03-27 01:09
by Bob Timmermann

Although Jon wrote about UCLA basketball quite eloquently Thursday, I still felt that with UCLA making it to the Final Four that I should inflict upon readers another reminiscence about UCLA basketball. After all, I'm the one with the actual UCLA diploma (1987, History) safely stashed in a drawer with some sweat pants and shorts, sitting next to a UC Berkeley cousin (1988, Library and Information Studies). Someone who has seen UCLA play both an NCAA tournament game at Pauley Pavilion as well as TWO NIT games. I've got a lifetime membership card in the Alumni Association, although I didn't join until I had been out of school for 18 years. Do those years get added back to my life.

First things first. You should not feel sorry for anyone who roots for UCLA basketball. Since I crawled out on to this planet in 1965, UCLA has been to the Final Four 13 times. If you ask the NCAA, it's only 12. UCLA has had success in basketball that is remarkable. And if you want LSU to send UCLA back to California after a brief stay in Indianapolis, I can't say I blame you. Even though many of those Final Four appearances came when I was quite young, they are still there. The banners for the championships ring Pauley Pavilion (which only appears to be a nice place) as a tacit reminder as to just how remarkable the era of John Wooden was.

When I was growing up, I had no idea which college was which for the most part. I grew up rooting for USC in football because they won nearly all the time (I have given up that habit.) I also grew up rooting for UCLA in basketball for the same reason. UCLA never lost in basketball it seemed. I never visited either campus until I was in my teens. And I don't think I knew where UCLA was located relative to where I grew up (Granada Hills) until the late 1970s.

My brother Michael, the first of three in my family to graduate from UCLA, took me to my first UCLA basketball game in 1978 as a birthday present. UCLA was playing San Diego State. It was one week after UCLA had lost a game at home to Notre Dame, coached by History's Greatest Monster, Digger Phelps. UCLA's team was loaded, especially David Greenwood at forward and the team had a great pair of guards in Brad Holland and Roy Hamilton. The Bruins had no trouble with the Aztecs, clobbering them 97-73. They won the Pac-10, going 15-3 with losses at Stanford, Arizona, and Washington.

The NCAA tournament in 1979 still wasn't a big enough deal to guarantee neutral courts for all participants, so Pauley Pavilion was the host for two rounds of the West Regional. UCLA and DePaul had received byes and they faced Pepperdine and USC respectively in the next round. My brother Jim, the lone non-UCLA grad among us (he went to Pomona College) took me to these games and I got to see UCLA dispose of the Waves by 5 and then watched DePaul play just five players in a win over USC. UCLA moved on to the West Regional in Provo where they beat USF, but then lost to DePaul in the regional final. And UCLA coach Gary Cunningham took this as his cue to go find other work.

This brought in Larry Brown, who didn't seem like much of a UCLA kind of guy. His team started off slowly, losing at Notre Dame, losing at home to DePaul and then dropping conference games on the road to Oregon State and USC. These were followed by consecutive losses at home to Arizona State and Notre Dame (UCLA and Notre Dame used to have a single season home and home series for those who have short memories or are just young.) UCLA lost to Washington State in Pullman by 16 points. UCLA was 10-7 and had a home game against the #2 team in the country, Oregon State.

Oregon State had a center named Steve Johnson who used his ample posterior to post up anyone and score easily. The Beavers also had an extraordinarily annoying guard named Ray Blume, who specialized in flopping while drawing charges. By this time, Brown had decided it was time to unleash his freshmen, namely guards Rod Foster and Michael Holton and move 6'5" sophomore forward Mike Sanders to center and just play a small lineup. And it worked as UCLA destroyed Oregon State by 26. Oregon, USC, and Arizona all fell to UCLA, but Arizona State slowed down the Bruins in Tempe with an 92-80 win in Tempe. Washington State lost its rematch against UCLA in L.A. (Washington State rarely wins in L.A.), but UCLA lost to Washington 72-70 on a buzzer-beater by Bob Fronk. UCLA wrapped up its Pac-10 season with wins at Stanford and Cal. But they were in fourth place in the conference.

Fortunately, the NCAA tournament that year expanded to 48 teams and UCLA was able to get in with a 17-10 record. And they got to stay relatively close to home in Tempe.

After handling Old Dominion in the opening round, UCLA faced DePaul, the #1 team in the country, a team that had lost just once all year, a team that had gone to the Final Four the year before. And UCLA won 77-71 to move on to the West Regionals in Tucson. I still recall seeing the photo of a crying Mark Aguirre after the game. Ahh, DePaul, you were always so good at choking in the NCAA tournament. (DePaul would be eliminated the next two year in its first games by St. Joseph's and Boston College.)

The next team UCLA faced was Ohio State, which had routed Arizona State in Tempe by 14. But the Bruins won 72-68. In the regional final, UCLA drew Clemson, which had advanced with a win over Lamar, the team that knocked Oregon State out of the tournament. In a relatively easy game, UCLA won by 11 to move on to the Final Four in Indianapolis.

The Final Four was an odd group. Only one favorite, Louisville, had made it and they weren't even seeded #1 (LSU was the #1 seed in that region). Besides the Bruins, two Big Ten teams, Iowa and Purdue, earned spots. UCLA drew Purdue, with its big center Joe Barry Carroll in the semis. Purdue was favored as the smaller Bruins weren't supposed to be able to have any answer for Carroll. But Brown shuttled in players all game to pick up fouls on Carroll and even brought bench warming senior center Gig Sims off the bench to go foul Carroll. The strategy worked as UCLA led by 8 at halftime and ended up winning 67-62. The Bruins would face Louisville in the final.

The Cardinals were known as a team of fast players who could leap and jump better than anyone else. UCLA appeared to be overmatched.

But the Bruins led by two at halftime and they were up 54-50 with 4:32 left. And Kiki Vandeweghe was going in for a layup that would have put UCLA up by six. In an era with no 3-point shot or shot clock. The 11th banner was being readied. But Vandeweghe missed the layup and Louisville ran off 9 straight points to end the game and avenge a crushing loss to UCLA in the 1975 semifinals.

The next year, the Bruins played better, but a dispute between Brown and freshman Kenny Fields, who was suspended and then reinstated, set the state for a first round exit against BYU and History's Second Greatest Monster, Danny Ainge. Brown quit at the end of the year and longtime assistant Larry Farmer took over.

In Farmer's first year, UCLA went 21-6, but sat out the NCAA tournament after being hit with probation for Sam Gilbert-related crimes. The 1980 Final Four was officially vacated. In 1982-83, UCLA went 23-5 in the regular season and won the Pac-10. They were a #2 seed in the West and faced Utah in the second round in Boise after getting a bye. The game was played on a Saturday afternoon and, at the same time, I had to go for an interview to see if the UCLA Alumni Association would give me a scholarship. As I showed up at the interview, the alums had a TV going, but they said they were instructed not to talk about the game with me, so as not to influence the interview. Of course, I would have preferred to just sit and watch the game, but there was money on the line. In the end, I fared better than UCLA. I got a partial scholarship, while the Bruins were sent packing by Pace Mannion and the Utes, 67-61.

By the time, I showed up at UCLA, the basketball program was sliding precipitously. The 1983-84 team went 17-11 and finished fourth in the Pac-10 and didn't go anywhere. Farmer was fired and the revolving door of coaches turned again and Walt Hazzard was there to walk in.

There wasn't much difference the next year. UCLA went 16-12 in the regular season. They lost a game at home to Santa Clara. They were swept by USC, once in double overtime and another time in quadruple overtime. Despite having a worse record than the year before, UCLA got an NIT bid. And in those days, they pretty much made up the matchups as they went along for the NIT. And UCLA likely demanded to play its early round games at home. And with that edge, they swept past Montana, Nebraska, and Fresno State to earn a trip to New York. UCLA went on to beat a mediocre Louisville team in the semis and then gave John Feinstein more copy for his book by beating Indiana in the final.

And we were happy about this on campus. Really! We were! Wow! We were the 65th best team in the country! The next year, a tiny banner went up to commemorate the win. And Reggie Miller would be back! Hotshot recruit Pooh Richardson was on his way from Philadelphia! Optimism ran high in Westwood for the 1985-86 season.

UCLA started the season at North Carolina. And lost 107-70. It didn't get better. UCLA went 15-13. And 9-9 in the Pac-10. The NIT dawned again.

Looking for regional appeal, the NIT sent UC Irvine to play their older cousins in Pauley. And the Anteaters added the final indignity with an 80-74 win.

But there was next year! And 1986-87 started off well, including an early season 89-84 win over North Carolina. That got the team ranked 11th. And they went on to beat Pepperdine. Then they lost at St. John's. And then at Temple. And at Washington State. And Washington. UCLA wasn't ranked again for a while.

However, Hazzard righted the ship and UCLA won 14 of its next 15 games and then finished off the regular season with a win over Louisville. That brought on the first Pac-10 basketball tournament and it was held at Pauley. The Bruins used the home court edge to beat Arizona State, Cal, and Washington to win the title and the #4 seed in the West regional.

I was quite excited to see UCLA play its first NCAA tournament game while I was a student (seemingly I didn't get as excited over the fact that UCLA went to the Rose Bowl twice when I was there and I declined to go to the one against Iowa because "I had been too often." Note to self: don't say stupid things like that.) In the opener against Central Michigan in Salt Lake City, Miller scored 32 points as UCLA won 92-73. Next up was #12 seed Wyoming, which had upset Virginia. And then Fennis Dembo happened. Seemingly out of nowhere, Dembo dropped 41 points on the Bruins. Eric Leckner added 20 more and Wyoming won 78-68.

After that, I graduated and going to see UCLA play basketball became a much different experience. For one, I had to buy more expensive tickets. And drive to the games. Jim Harrick took over as coach in 1988-89 and had some good teams that couldn't quite get anywhere until the 1994-95 squad all came together to win it all. The NIT banner came down to make room for NCAA Championship Banner #11. And soon as that happened, all the magic disappeared again. UCLA lost to Princeton in the first round the next year and Harrick was fired before the start of the 1996-97 season and replaced by Steve Lavin.

Lavin's teams were puzzling. He recruited great athletes, but he could never seem to get as much as you would expect out of them. The Bruins would pull off an upset here or there and sneak into the Sweet Sixteen, but then get clobbered. Finally, it all fell apart in 2002-03 and UCLA nosedived to 10-19 and Lavin was sent packing and current coach Ben Howland came in. And so here we are again. I certainly didn't expect a season like this. But the last time UCLA was in Indianapolis for the Final Four in 1980, I certainly didn't expect that either. What will happen Saturday? I don't know, maybe Rod Foster and Mike Sanders will suit up to help inject some offense. I'll be watching from the comfort of my couch, pulling for the big bully that already has won a lot. It's something I can learn to live with.

2006-03-27 07:27:38
1.   Daniel Zappala
Nice article, Bob. Now that I am at BYU, I have heard of this famous Danny Ainge game. The mark of a truly great program is that when you lose to a lesser school you make them happy for a decade.
2006-03-27 07:39:41
2.   Jon Weisman
Perhaps my favorite encounter with an athlete ever was in the early '90s, when I found myself pumping gas at the northwest corner of Winnetka and Ventura next to a childhood hero, "Rocket" Rod Foster, and got the nerve to tell him how big a fan I was of his. He seemed to appreciate it.

(It was self-serve, by the way. Though if we were both working there, the story would have been that much more interesting, I suppose.)

2006-03-27 09:34:39
3.   Bob Timmermann
I forgot to mention that in 1981, History's Second Greatest Monster beat History's Greatest Monster in the regional semifinal.
2006-12-10 08:12:59
4.   mhurst

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