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Byline: Jon Wilner Daily News Staff Writer

It began 50 seasons ago, with several uneventful meetings neither party remembers well. The rookie coach inspected his players and didn't see much. A few were transfers and one was a returning letterman. It was easy to tell why they had been picked to finish last.

The players, meanwhile, knew nothing of their coach. Apparently, he was a former All-American and had just arrived from Indiana State Teachers College, a small school near the Illinois border.

The no-names and the new coach would stun the experts, race through the division with their fast-breaking style and help establish a dynasty and a legend. But back then, as the 1948-49 season approached, the Bruins had no idea who Johnny Wooden was.

``He didn't know us and we didn't know him,'' said Ralph Joeckel, a forward on the 1948-49 team. ``We had no idea what would eventually happen. It's not like we looked at him and thought, `Here comes the next John Wooden.' ''

Lucky for Westood

UCLA as a basketball power almost never happened. Alcindor, Walton, Hazzard, Goodrich, 88 straight wins, 10 national titles - it almost never happened, because in the spring of 1948, two years removed from a non-combat army tour, John Robert Wooden had no intention of coaching UCLA.

He was the basketball coach, baseball coach, athletic director and English teacher at Indiana State, and his performance on the court caught the attention of three schools: Minnesota, UCLA and his alma mater, Purdue, which he quickly eliminated.

Wooden favored Minnesota. It was Big Ten country, his country, and he didn't know much about UCLA. ``It was just four letters,'' he said. There was one glitch: The Gophers wanted Wooden to retain his predecessor as the assistant; he wanted his own man, Ed Powell.

The issue went to the Minnesota Board of Regents, and Wooden asked for an answer on a prearranged day at 7 p.m. He told UCLA athletic director (and outgoing coach) Wilbur Johns to call him at 8.

History headed west that evening, for there was silence at 7 o'clock. The phone finally rang at 8 - it was Johns - and Wooden, clearly disappointed, accepted UCLA's offer.

An hour later, the Gophers called. Sorry, they said, a late-season snowstorm had knocked out the phone lines, but they were glad to report the issue had been resolved and the job was his. Stunned, Wooden said thanks . . . but no thanks.

``I could not go back on my word,'' he said.

Three months later, Wooden, then 37, loaded his tan Lincoln Mercury and headed west on Route 66 with his wife, Nell, and their children, Nancy and James. The trip took several weeks as they did some sightseeing. Upon arrival, they settled in a university-owned home in Culver City, near the MGM Studios.

He shared a small office at UCLA with several coaches on the top floor of Kerckhoff Hall with a spectacular view of nothing. No Drake Stadium, no Morgan Center, no Ackerman Union, no Medical Center and no Pauley Pavilion. Westwood was a fledgling suburb built around two theaters. UCLA was just a few decades old.

The Bruins played in the 2,200-seat Men's Gym, a cramped, stuffy, brick structure endearingly called the B.O. Barn. It was loud and intimidating, a definite homecourt advantage. Opponents constantly accused Wooden of turning up the heat. He never did, but he never denied it, either.

Truth was, Wooden despised the place. For one thing, he had to share the practice court with the gymnastics and wrestling teams and two trampolines frequented by women athletes in leotards - a distraction not even he could overcome. For another, there were no locker rooms. Every player from every sport had to share a huge dressing area that lacked private showers and toilets. It was not popular with recruits, and Wooden fought doggedly for his own facility until Pauley was built in 1965.

Winning system

No one gave the Bruins much chance that first season. They had a new coach with a strange style. They had no returning starters from Johns' 12-13 team, no star like Bill Sharman at USC, and average size. They were unanimously slotted for last place in the Pacific Coast Conference's southern division, behind Stanford, USC and Cal.

Before the season, Wooden was asked to assess UCLA's chances. His answer startled the press and touched his players: ``I have never played on or coached a losing basketball team, and I don't intend to start now.'' (That was a slight exaggeration. His first season as coach at Dayton, Ky., High School, when he was right out of college, was a losing one.)

He revamped UCLA's philosophy. Instead of using the slow, halfcourt style favored on the West Coast, he installed a fast-breaking system that became his signature and revolutionized basketball. Throughout the 1948-49 season, the L.A. press wrote about Wooden's ``racehorse style,'' but its structure was sound as DNA. The Bruins moved the ball quickly, each player taking a predetermined path to the attack zone. If there was no numerical advantage, Wooden ordered the Bruins to pull back and run their high-post offense.

To support the style, he turned UCLA into the best-conditioned team in the division, and he used an eight-man rotation to keep the legs fresh. His practices were organized to the second, his preparation immaculate. Everything that happened in games was carefully rehearsed in practice.

``I remember one game against Cal,'' said Powell, the former assistant. ``We had a player throw a low bounce pass to a cutter on the fast break, and the cutter had trouble catching it. By the time he did, his shot hit the bottom of the rim.

``The next week in practice, coach Wooden told the players to run downcourt at full speed. He rolled the ball to them, and they had to reach down, grab it and make a layup. He figured there was no pass lower than a roll.''

Wooden's first game was Dec. 3, against Cal-Sa nta Barbara before 2,200 in the Men's Gym. The Gauchos rallied early in the second half and grabbed a 26-25 lead before the Bruins dashed to a 43-37 win. Center Carl Kraushaar, a transfer from Compton JC, was the high scorer with 15 points. Newspaper accounts called referred to ``Johnny'' Wooden and ran a small photo of the handsome young coach - his face long and thin, his hair army short.

The Bruins started 6-1 and the conference took notice of Johnny Wooden's team. One newspaper report tagged the Bruins, ``darkhorse threat for division laurels.''

And why not? Wooden's system was slowly taking hold, and his coaching style - no favorites; all playing time earned in practice - injected confidence throughout the roster. Sure, the best early-season player was Chuck Clustka, ``the loose-jointed forward with the sloping shoulders and sharpshooting eye.''

But Wooden also relied on Kraushaar, guard George Stanich, an Olympic high jumper, and forward Alan Sawyer. The bench was versatile and productive, with Joeckel and his horned-rimmed glasses, Don Seidel, an army vet who snuck cigarettes, and Eddie Sheldrake, a jokester who was once detained by the Secret Service for tresspassing on Harry Truman's property in Independence, Mo.

``The whole thing was based on Wooden's ability to put extraordinary self-confidence in individual players,'' Joeckel said. ``Without him saying we were invincible, we all believed it, and we won a lot of games we shouldn't have. I don't know how he did it. I never have.''

At the inaugural Pacific Coast Conference tournament - a three-game, eight-team event in the Cow Palace - the Bruins lost to the conference's best teams, Stanford and Oregon State. A few days later, they dropped their third straight, to Stanford in the division opener.

Before a mid-January break for exams, Wooden faced USC for the first time in a two-game series. The Bruins rallied from a nine-point deficit with eight minutes left to win 74-68 in overtime in the highest-scoring game in PCC southern division history. A night later, USC responded with a 59-52 win that featured 53 fouls.

One newspaper account said, ``There were enough fouls to start a poultry farm.''

When exams arrived, the Bruins were 9-5 overall and 2-2 in the PCC, good for third place in the four-team division. But Wooden's system solidified each week, each practice, and UCLA returned from exams oozing confidence and efficiency. The Bruins smashed Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, Fresno State, 20th Century-Fox and Pittsburgh during a four-game nonconference series.

Clustka injured his back in the Pitt game, but it made no difference. The Bruins were in high gear by that time and Sawyer, the ``baby-faced bean pole,'' became the top scorer. He totaled 31 points as the Bruins rolled through the Bay Area, then scored 22 as UCLA defeated Stanford in the Men's Gym without Wooden, who had the flu.

Entering the final weekend, UCLA and USC were tied at 6-2. The Bruins were 9.5-point underdogs and without several top players at the Olympic Auditorium. Sawyer, the leading scorer, had suffered a ruptured appendix 48 hours earlier and listened to the game with a bedside radio at a Hollywood hospital. Clustka's back had not healed and starting guard Ron Pearson had the flu.

There were seven ties and neither team led by more than six. In the end, though, Stanich held Sharman to eight points and a reserve center named Ray Alba - it was someone different every night - made a free throw with 13 seconds remaining to give the Bruins a 51-50 win. ``One of the most stunning, nerve-tingling basketball upsets ever witnessed on a local court,'' one newspaper account said.

Another report called UCLA a ``team of destiny,'' and said the Bruins ``Wooden-be-beaten.''

UCLA trounced the Trojans 63-55 the next night in an anticlimactic game at the Men's Gym, clinching the division title. Although they would lose a three-game series at northern division champ Oregon State - and with it, the PCC title - the Bruins had carved a special place in their coach's heart.

``I consider that team as successful as any I had,'' Wooden said. ``It was as close to reaching its potential as any I had. That's a credit to the players. I had a lot to learn about college coaching.''

He didn't do badly that first season.


2 Photos

PHOTO (1) Before the title years, John Wooden had a group of overachievers in 1948-49.

(2) John Wooden, center, with Swen Nater, left and Bill Walton in 1972.

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Article Details
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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 10, 1999

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