11.07.2012

Sidney Wicks, Curtis Rowe, Bill Walton and the UCLA 88-Game Win Streak

  

LOS ANGELES

On Sunday, Jan. 24, 1971, Sidney Wicks sat on a curb outside the baggage claim area at Los Angeles International Airport, his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands, a picture of abject misery.

The day before in South Bend, Ind., Wicks and the UCLA basketball team had been laid waste by Austin Carr of Notre Dame, who had scored 46 points in an 89-82 victory by the Irish.

Wicks felt even worse because he had been one of five Bruin defenders who had futilely chased the runaway Carr.

"I was thinking, 'I can't believe we lost,' and it was really bothering me."

Then UCLA Coach John Wooden walked past.

"Sid, what's wrong?" Wooden asked.

"I just can't believe we lost," Wicks said.

Wooden took a step closer to Wicks.

"Then I suggest not to do it again," Wooden said.

Wicks thought about what Wooden had said.

I suggest not to do it again.

"Okaaaaaay ... that's what he said. For some reason, that has stuck with me the rest of my life."

And the Bruins didn't lose again, for a very long time. UCLA didn't lose for the rest of the 1970-71 season. Or all of the next season. Or all of the season after that. Or for the first 13 games of the season after that.

In fact, UCLA won every basketball game it played for two full seasons and parts of two others, a streak of 88, a record of success unmatched in the history of basketball. The National Basketball Association record is 33, set by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1971-72, during the same period that the Bruins were on their rampage.

UCLA tied the college record of 60 consecutive victories set in 1955-56 by the Bill Russell-K.C. Jones teams at the University of San Francisco and then kept on going for 28 more games, or what amounted to a full season, after that.

The longest-running hit play in college basketball had several cast changes. It went from Wicks and Curtis Rowe and Henry Bibby and Steve Patterson, to Bill Walton and Keith Wilkes and Greg Lee and Swen Nater, then on to Walton, Wilkes, Lee and David Meyers, Tommy Curtis, Pete Trgovich, Andre McCarter, Marques Johnson and Richard Washington -- they kept on winning.

After a while, the streak seemed to have a life of its own and Lee thinks he knows why.

"We just had an incredible, incredible string of excellent, excellent athletes."

The Bruins were in the midst of their string of seven consecutive NCAA championships from 1967-73, which meant that winning games was something that came easily.

"It never ever entered my mind that we would possibly lose," Lee said. "It got to be a little bizarre after a while ... It's been so long that you lost, it doesn't even appear to be an option in your brain. You can't envision it."

As it turned out, the Irish of Notre Dame were bookends to the streak. The Irish ended it on Dwight "Ice Man" Clay's 18-foot jump shot with 29 seconds to play.

"That's pretty odd, how Notre Dame could be so involved," Walton said.

A week after the Bruins had rebounded from the loss at Notre Dame with a 74-61 victory against Cal State-Santa Barbara, there was a showdown at the Sports Arena. On Feb. 6, 1971, in the Pac-8 Conference opener, No. 1 USC played No. 2 UCLA.

While Bob Boyd's USC team was busy ascending to No. 1 -- thanks to losses by the Bruins and Marquette -- UCLA had failed to impress Wooden in its 13-point victory against the Gauchos at Pauley.

Afterward, Wooden had told the media: "I am going to initiate this conversation by saying I am not at all pleased."

But most of the 15,307 in the Sports Arena would have been shocked if they had known beforehand that USC would lead, 59-50, with 9 1/2 minutes left.

But USC scored only one point the rest of the game and Kenny Booker's steal and layup with 5 1/2 minutes left put UCLA ahead, 61-59, and sent the Bruins into a three-minute stall. Wicks finished the 64-60 victory with 24 points and 14 rebounds and Boyd ended up with a tried but true loser's lament: "We went dead in the water."

On March 25, 1971, 31,428 in Houston's Astrodome saw UCLA bag No. 14 of the streak, a 68-60 victory against Kansas in the NCAA tournament semifinals. In the process, though, Wicks stubbed a toe and knew he would be limited in the final against Villanova.

As it turned out, Wicks and Rowe scored only 15 points between them, and the star of the championship game was Steve Patterson, a 6-9 senior center. Until then, Patterson had not played well, worrying whether he would get a chance in the NBA, but Wicks' sore toe changed the Bruins' plans.

Patterson scored 29 points and set a screen for a key basket by Bibby late in the game as UCLA beat Villanova for its fifth consecutive NCAA title, 68-62.

Patterson's reaction after the game?

"I might as well die tonight."

Instead, Patterson went on to an NBA career -- he and Austin Carr were both first-round selections of the Cleveland Cavaliers -- and now is in his seventh year in the community relations department at Arizona State University in Tempe.

And the streak?

"We didn't consider it a streak at all," Patterson said. "We considered the championships a streak, the fact that we (seniors) passed the torch, the burden belonged to a different era. But we did have some idea how good they were going to be."

Enter Walton, direct from Helix High in La Mesa, Calif.

"Walton (as a freshman) used to come up and work out with us two or three days a week because he just wasn't getting any work against the freshman team," Patterson said. "I remember he would block two, three, four, five shots in a row sometimes. Wooden would just go ... nuts. I remember him using Walton as a stick to kind of beat us to keep us hungry and sharp. So we had a pretty good idea already that he was a force to be reckoned with."

Does this figure? UCLA loses four starters from an NCAA title team and is still the 1971-72 preseason pick for No. 1?

It does with the 6-11 sophomore Walton, who led a 20-0 UCLA freshman team that also featured Keith Wilkes and Greg Lee and won by an average of 38 points.

In his first year on the varsity, Walton averaged 21.1 points, 15.5 rebounds, shot 63.9 percent and didn't come close to playing a full 40 minutes in any game. The Bruins extended their streak by going unbeaten in 1971-72 and winning by an average of 30 points en route to their sixth consecutive NCAA title.

By tournament time, UCLA's streak stood at 41. The Bruins arrived in Provo, Utah, for the West Regional and blew out Weber State, 90-58, bringing up a familiar tournament foe, Jerry Tarkanian's Cal State-Long Beach team.

UCLA wasted no time on the 49ers this time, winning by 73-57.

And once again, UCLA was off to the Final Four, which was across town at Los Angeles' Sports Arena. The semifinal was against Louisville, led by first-year Coach Denny Crum, who had worked on Wooden's staff. Walton scored 33 points and UCLA rolled, 96-77, setting up a championship game against Florida State.

An 81-76 victory against the Seminoles meant UCLA's sixth consecutive NCAA title and eighth in nine years, but it left Walton strangely dissatisfied. The Bruins hadn't dominated, as Walton had expected, although both Walton and Wilkes finished with impressive numbers. Walton had 24 points and 20 rebounds and Wilkes had 23 points and 10 rebounds.

Afterward, though, Walton, choosing his words carefully, stunned reporters when he said, "I don't like to back into things. I like to win convincingly. I feel like we lost it."

Beginning the 1972-73 season with 45 consecutive victories, the Bruins were older and better than the year before. An 81-48 victory against Pacific and first-year coach Stan Morrison was No. 48, a UCLA record.

Walton had 32 points and 27 rebounds in UCLA's 87-73 victory against Loyola of Chicago, a victory that tied the University of San Francisco's NCAA-record 60-game winning streak. It coincided with a deepening interest in the Bruins and Walton, who had gained a national reputation as a basketball-playing anti-war protester.

He had been arrested and fined $50 for lying down in the middle of Wilshire Boulevard during a peace protest. On campus, Walton had marched through classrooms, barricaded doors with wooden horses and decried the mining of North Vietnam's Haiphong Harbor.

The record became UCLA's alone Jan. 27, 1973. Getting 20 points from Wilkes and 17 points and 15 rebounds from Walton, the Bruins rolled over Notre Dame, 82-63, before 11,343 in South Bend, Ind.

In a rare move, Wooden allowed reporters inside the locker room. Meyers clearly remembers how uncomfortable he felt.

"We were all just sitting there. The media just kept looking at us like the monkey cage at the zoo (and they seemed to be saying,) 'The monkeys aren't doing anything today, what's going on here?' We acted the same way whether we won or lost."

The Bruins closed out the 1972-73 regular season with 10 more victories and entered the West Regional at a familiar location, Pauley Pavilion. Two games later, UCLA was in the Final Four at the Arena in St. Louis. The Bruins blitzed Arizona State, 98-81, as Walton finished with 28 points and 14 rebounds, then survived a slowdown against San Francisco in a 15-point victory.

In the Final Four semifinal, UCLA led Indiana by 22 points early in the second half but the Hoosiers cut it to 57-55 before the Bruins pulled away.

Standing between UCLA and its seventh consecutive NCAA title and a 30-0 season was Coach Gene Bartow's Memphis State team. It was close for a half. In one of the most lopsided championship games, Walton scored 44 points, made 21 of 22 shots and had 13 rebounds in an 87-66 UCLA victory.

How good was he?

"Quite truthfully, he was phenomenal," said Lee, who had 14 assists. "But they played an incredibly ill-advised defense. They switched to a 3-2 defense where there were three people above the free-throw line. They were playing, like, above Bill without that much pressure on me. I was just basically throwing the ball to him and he was just catching it and putting it in. Nowadays, he would be dunking."

The second game of the 1973-74 season brought Maryland to Pauley Dec. 1, 1973. The Atlantic Coast Conference powerhouse featuring John Lucas, Len Elmore and future congressman Tom McMillen, seemed on the verge of a stunning upset when UCLA freshman Richard Washington missed the first of one-and-one free throws with 22 seconds left. Trailing, 65-64, Maryland rebounded and had a chance to end the streak with the last shot.

"I remember that last timeout," UCLA forward David Meyers said. "They had the ball and there were people leaving Pauley Pavilion. They didn't want to see UCLA lose the streak. It all kind of hit us. I remember just going out thinking, 'We can't let them have a good shot.' "

Lucas dribbled the ball into the corner and passed up an open shot. Then Meyers jumped out at him from the baseline.

"It was funny," Meyers said. "He just kind of looked at me like, 'I don't know if I want to take this shot or not,' so I just kind of reached out and the ball fell right into my hands. I hardly touched it. He just stood there. He didn't react. So I shoveled it to Tommy (Curtis), he took off downcourt and that was it."

On Jan. 7, 1974, with 10 1/2 minutes left in UCLA's 55-45 victory against Washington State at Pullman, Walton was low-bridged as he jumped up for a lob pass and crashed to the floor on his back.

"I never saw it coming," Walton said.

The official explanation was that he had a deep bruise above his hip. Actually, Walton cracked two small bones that the muscles attach to along the spine.

He missed the next three UCLA victories as Ralph Drollinger replaced him at center. The Bruins beat California and Stanford easily and then, on Jan. 17, 1974, blasted Iowa, 68-44, for their 88th consecutive victory.

Next up: Notre Dame.

Twelve days after Walton's spill at Pullman, he put on a corset and said he was ready to play against Notre Dame in South Bend. It was Saturday afternoon, Jan. 19, 1974.

"I didn't want to miss Notre Dame," Walton said.

The Irish, who were 9-0 coming in, fell behind at the half, 43-34, and still trailed by 11 points, 70-59, with 3:30 to go. But UCLA did not score another point.

And Notre Dame scored the last 12 to win, 71-70.

Pittsburgh-native Clay hit a corner shot with a half-minute left and Notre Dame led, 71-70. UCLA called time out with 21 seconds remaining, then set up quickly on offense to try to get a good shot. Actually, it got five of them -- and missed every one.

The streak was over.

Walton believes the Bruins might have won that game if he had not played.

"I don't know, but probably. When players come back from injury, they often slow the team down. I couldn't bend. My back just hurt too much. I was in pain for a long time after that."

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