Tonight, the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team set the record for consecutive wins by a NCAA basketball program. The previous record was an 88 game winning streak by UCLA from 1971-1974. In 1974, Americans were in the midst of the greatest streak that will never likely be matched again. Sure, UCLA won 88 games in a row, but they also won 7 NCAA championships in a row and 10 in 12 years before Coach John Wooden retired. Nothing like that will be seen again in Men’s basketball. In today’s era of one and done college players, the ability to win year in and year out at the collegiate level is gone. Wooden for 12 years had the best players in the country play for him including: Gail Goodrich, Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Henry Bibby, Keith (Jamaal) Wilkes, Sidney Wicks, and Bill Walton.
When January of 1974 arrived, I was all of 10. But I was also the king of the Nerf hoop basketball court. I often dreamt I was Gail Goodrich, Jerry West, Pistol Pete Maravich, or Julius Erving. Unfortunately for me, my basketball prowess would peak in a couple of years as I was vertically challenged throughout my adolescence. However, on the Nerf court, I was the man before there the man. But in reality, the man was, and always would be John Wooden.
Wooden was able not only able to recruit and coach the best players, he was also able to teach them how to properly put socks on and tie the shoelaces on your shoes. That’s how precise and detail oriented Wooden was. Wooden expected nothing but perfection from his players. And from 1971-1974, they delivered. At the heart of the team for those 88 wins was Bill Walton. The Big Red Head (like yours truly) was a rebounding and scoring machine who had soft hands. As a sophomore and junior, Walton was the player of the year and led UCLA to NCAA titles both years. In the 1973 title game, Walton went 21 for 22 from the field with 2 free throws for an amazing 44 points.
When the fall rolled around, everyone expected more of the same. Come January, UCLA had just beaten Iowa by 22 points when the team rolled into South Bend, Indiana for a game against Notre Dame. For most of the first half, UCLA dominated by as many as 17 points. With three minutes to play in the game, UCLA led 70-59. As a ten-year old, I thought UCLA had it in the bag. UCLA did not score the rest of the way. Notre Dame went on a 12-0 run. Future NBA players Adrian Dantley and John Shumate led the way for Notre Dame along with Dwight Clay’s go ahead jumper with 29 seconds left. Wooden shrugged off the loss. He stated, “Winners do the talking. Losers keep quiet.”
What most people do not remember about the game was the two teams met a little over a week later at UCLA. Wooden started true freshman Marques Johnson and UCLA dominated the whole game 94-75. The season would not end well for UCLA. The great North Carolina State team led by David Thompson, Tom Burleson, and Tim Stoddard (father of my friend, Ellen), defeated UCLA in the semifinals 80-74. For Notre Dame, they never qualified for the then 32 team tournament. Instead, the Fighting Irish went to the NIT and came in second. The victory turned around a struggling Irish program and vaulted Dantley, Shumate, and coach Digger Phelps into the national spotlight. For Wooden, he would retire after winning the title again in 1975 and UCLA would not return to basketball glory for another 20 years.
Here are the last few minutes of the game…