The Start of Wooden's Winning Streak
Published Apr 1, 2014 8:00 AM
Some say it was the full-court press. Others say it was the snowstorm.
On March 20, 1964, UCLA took a 28-0 record into Kansas City's Municipal Auditorium for a national semifinal game against Kansas State. The Bruins trailed in the game when a quartet of UCLA cheerleaders, whose flight was delayed by inclement weather, rushed into the arena, igniting the crowd — and their team. UCLA immediately went on an 11-0 run and knocked off the Wildcats, 90-84. The next night the Bruins beat Duke in the national finals, 98-83, marking the first of Coach John Wooden's 10 national championships.
Fifty years later, Jaleesa Hazzard, widow of UCLA Hall of Famer Walt Hazzard '78, remembers it well. She was one of those cheerleaders.
Lessons From the End of the Bench
Read Kent Graham's reflections on playing a small part in a big win. Check it out here.
"The Bruins were losing when we got to the game, and people were shell-shocked," Hazzard says. "The cheerleaders came running in and people said we gave the team a bump. The team was always focused and never thought they were out of it, but we love taking credit for it."
Coach Wooden's first title came in his 16th season at UCLA. With no player taller than 6'5", the Bruins were not touted as favorites. But their perfect season came together when they combined a new strategy with the personnel to pull it off — including starters Hazzard, Keith Erickson, Jack Hirsch '64, Fred Slaughter '65, M.B.A. '66 and Gail Goodrich '65, as well as key reserves Kenny Washington '67 and Doug McIntosh.
"We needed to do something different to force the tempo and counteract our lack of size," says Jerry Norman '52, M.S. '57, a former Wooden player-turned-assistant-coach. "I suggested to Coach Wooden that we play a full-court press, explained why we needed to play it and designed for him what the rules of thumb would be and where the players would play."
The 2-2-1 press became a Wooden signature. The defense encouraged opponents to play faster than they liked, leading to errant passes and turnovers, which in turn led to clusters of fast-break baskets for the Bruins.
"The full-court press surprised everybody. All five of us were perfect for the positions we played. We even had two left-handers to protect that side of the court," Erickson says. "We trusted each other and had a great leader in Walt Hazzard. He and Gail were the best backcourt tandem ever in college basketball."
According to Norman, Wooden was not one to set specific goals like winning a championship. "His philosophy was setting goals in a different way, such as play to the best of one's ability. That included how one interacted with the other players. He believed if you did those things and you didn't prevail, it's not because you didn't play well; it's that the other team played better. But we were more likely to prevail."
"It was a true 'all-American' team," says Slaughter. "It showed that people from different backgrounds could come together for success. Off the court, we went in different directions. But when we came together on the court, we were able to put it all together."