Stueve, Spencer, and Johnson, Marques (forward). UCLA Basketball Encyclopedia: The First 100 Years. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, Inc., 2019. Pp. 281. Photos, black & white. No index. $26.99 paperback.
Reviewed by Richard A. Macales
Before the Los Angeles Lakers and the NBA became global phenomena, there was the UCLA Bruins collegiate men’s basketball team. The Bruins recruited the best players, won titles regularly in the 1960s and 1970s, and shared the L.A. media spotlight with Major League Baseball’s Dodgers and the NFL’s Rams. UCLA was L.A.’s entrée into sports dynasty, via basketball. It could be suggested that the Lakers may not have achieved their later success without UCLA’s unparalleled 10 NCAA Division I national championships in the span of 12 years (1964-1975).
This past spring, a new generation of fans came close to getting a taste of UCLA basketball’s glory years; the Bruins (this time in the role of the underdog, a rarity for them) came within a basket of making it to the NCAA Division I championship game.
The architect of UCLA basketball’s success and mystique was legendary coach John Wooden. And the Bruins’ popularity and sellout crowds were very much noticed by a succession of envious Lakers’ owners. If UCLA could attract the best talent from the high school ranks, so too would the Lakers from collegiate and professional teams. If UCLA could build its own arena, Pauley Pavilion, so too would the Lakers (initially, The Forum; currently, Staples Center). Ninety-nine UCLA Bruins have played in the NBA and/or ABA (11 currently); six are enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
The Lakers, who moved to L.A. from Minneapolis in 1960, did not earn their first NBA championship until 1972. And, as in any good Hollywood script, that Lakers team featured two former UCLA national championship team players from 1964 and1965 (Gail Goodrich and Keith Erickson). The Lakers’ next NBA title would not come until 1980, with the premiere of their much heralded “Showtime” dynasty, captained by UCLA’s (and perhaps collegiate basketball’s) greatest player ever, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (known as Lew Alcindor at UCLA, 1965-69). From that point on, the Lakers (2020 NBA defending champs) replaced the Bruins as L.A.’s basketball elite, headline grabbers…and dynasty.
Spencer Stueve, author of the UCLA Basketball Encyclopedia: The First 100 Years (published in 2019, on the centennial of the university), most deservedly devotes the largest number of pages (72) of his 282-page reference work to John Wooden, and the Wooden years (1948-75). In Stueve’s brief biography of Wooden, dubbed by the media as the “Wizard of Westwood,” and of UCLA’s 13 other coaches before and after him, we learn that the road to UCLA basketball’s winning tradition began 1,762 miles away (by car) to the lush green trails of West Lafayette, in Wooden’s native Indiana. At Purdue University, Wooden’s alma mater, Wooden captained the Boilermakers’ 1932 national championship team (by Helms). In so doing, he was named national Player of the Year. Like so many of the UCLA Bruin players he coached in later years, Wooden, a 5’10” guard, was himself the first player to be voted a three-time all-American. After receiving his B.A. in English from Purdue, Wooden played in the National Basketball League (a forerunner to the NBA) for teams in the Hoosier state. He was named to the all-NBL team in 1938. Wooden’s participation and significant honors attained in pro basketball, however, are not included in Stueve’s otherwise informative, compact-sized bio (six pages) of the man that his players reverently called “Coach.”
Wooden launched his collegiate head coaching career at Indiana State Teachers College (now Indiana State University) following World War II. (Honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy, he held the rank of lieutenant.) Following his two-year stint at Indiana State, Wooden and his young family moved to L.A. in 1948 where he began his 27-year career at UCLA. As the Wooden era came to a close in 1975, due to the mandatory retirement age of 65 (no longer law), his overall won-loss regular season record (including Indiana State) was 664-162, an incredible .804 winning percentage. He also won 19 conference championships at UCLA.
To better understand how the Bruins became synonymous with collegiate basketball greatness, we must go beyond the hardwood and reach back to the pre-Wooden years. Since its founding in 1919, the University of California, Los Angeles (its official name since 1927) has embraced racial diversity in its student body. According to Stueve, the first Black player on the basketball team, Ralph Bunche (1924-27), graduated Summa cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa. Dr. Bunche would later go on to become one of the most influential United Nations’ mediators in history. This earned Bunche the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950.
Another former UCLA basketball player (1958-59) was Rafer Johnson. Johnson, who passed away in 2020, is best remembered as the gold medalist in the decathlon at the 1960 Rome Olympics, and as the longtime president and chairman of the Special Olympics. During the 1950s, while an undergraduate, Johnson was elected student body president of UCLA, the first Black student to hold that office at a major American university. Bunche, Robinson and Rafer Johnson encouraged Black prep athlete/scholars to choose UCLA. And John Wooden was the major beneficiary of their efforts. It is no coincidence that UCLA had a magnetic appeal to Black athletes at a time when the civil rights movement’s CORE and the Freedom Riders, who desegregated public buses in segregated areas of the U.S., were among the prominent student activist causes on campus. The big reward was landing a much-impressed 7’2” center, Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), in 1965, himself a civil rights activist during high school in New York at Power Memorial Academy.
In his excellent introduction to the encyclopedia, Marques Johnson, former Bruin all-American player on Wooden’s last championship team (1975), and later an NBA all-star, writes:
My parents would read about the athletic exploits of the great Jackie Robinson or the high-level diplomacy of Dr. Ralph Bunche. They knew both these gentlemen attended UCLA. The school became a symbol of hope and upward mobility, and Los Angeles represented the opportunity for social and economic advancement [for] Blacks…
Both Jackie Robinson (1940-41) and Bunche used their close ties to their alma mater to convince Alcindor, the most sought-after high school player since Wilt Chamberlain, to play collegiate ball for UCLA. Alcindor graduated with his class, in 1969, with a degree in history. In his post-basketball life, he became an author, columnist, commentator, and documentary filmmaker of renown. He personified the student-athlete (in that order) that UCLA and Wooden had sought. Alcindor, the UCLA athlete, also transformed collegiate basketball into a truly Big Time sport, along with football. As a result of its newfound popularity – particularly among America’s younger generation — national TV and Madison Avenue discovered that collegiate basketball had a powerful new demographic (the so-called “Baby Boomers”) to sell cola, cars, and candy bars.
Author Stueve explains that the defining moment for collegiate basketball came as a result of one game in particular, featuring, of course, UCLA. Dubbed by promoters the “Game of the Century,” it took place in front of a sold-out crowd (52,693) at the Houston Astrodome on January 20, 1968 (before the assassinations of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and presidential candidate Sen. Robert F. Kennedy would once again shake America in the spring and summer of 1968; a brief moment of relative calm after the 1967 riots roiled all across the nation). The first collegiate game to be nationally televised, according to Stueve, “…[drew] the largest audience to ever watch a college basketball game at the time.” It featured two undefeated teams – UCLA and the University of Houston Cougars – and the two best centers and biggest names in collegiate basketball at that time in the Bruins’ Lew Alcindor and the Cougars’ Elvin Hayes. Writes Stueve, “Sports fans would never again consider college basketball to be a minor sport. It had reached the status of big-time entertainment.” At the end of his UCLA career, Alcindor was unanimously named College Player of the Year three times (1967-69), which coincided with leading the Bruins to a three-peat in the NCAA Division I men’s basketball national championship.
By the 1970s, the focus among the student body broadened to anti-Vietnam War protests, feminism, and exploring the spirituality of East and West. These “draws” landed UCLA men’s basketball a 6’11” white hippie from conservative San Diego, Bill Walton, as their next prep recruit at the pivot. The success of the outwardly straight-laced Wooden would seem antithetical to Walton’s personal beliefs and lifestyle. But Wooden adjusted to the “New Generation” that dominated the mindset of student life during his greatest years as a coach in the “Seismic” Sixties and Seventies. He accomplished this without compromising his own principals or by using profanity to express his disappointment.
As focused as Wooden was in winning-basketball, he had picked up motivational skills by effectively communicating with students on the high school and college levels as an English instructor (in Indiana) before joining UCLA. At Indiana State, he concurrently completed his M.A. degree in education while teaching and coaching. Having the gift to understand the independent mindset of students/athletes from that era was challenging indeed for him. But, by keeping his players’ off-the-court activities and affinity for the counterculture separate from their basketball teamwork responsibilities (which included mandatory haircuts and no facial hair) it earned Wooden their respect during the basketball season.
One big exception: Wooden’s ultimate “prodigal son,” Bill Walton, the best collegiate center “this side” of Alcindor. The controversial Walton rates a five-plus page bio in Stueve’s work. Walton, a unanimous three-time selection for College Player of the Year (1973-75) who is now a college basketball television analyst, is described by the author as “a hippie who grew up, but never lost his love for the 1970s teenage lifestyle that shaped him.” Stueve, however, steers clear from Walton’s many controversial associations. A broader perspective of the life and career of Walton can be found through ESPN Classic SportsCentury – Bill Walton.
As author Stueve, an alumnus of UCLA (2015) points out, back then, as today, championship basketball in L.A. was expected…every year! In reality, it has been 26 years (1995) since UCLA’s last national championship, and 46 seasons since the last title coached by John Wooden. But the mystique remains for generations of fans who have followed Bruins basketball some four decades after the unmatchable Wooden years.
The unparalleled success of Wooden, THE Coach, placed his successors under immense pressure. The first three lasted two seasons each, each with no title. But with Wooden carefully looking on from the stands of Pauley Pavilion, the fabled on-campus home court of the Bruins that he lobbied to have built. In Stueve’s thumbnail bios of Wooden’s successors, he is highly critical of most of them. One exception is Jim Harrick, who led UCLA to its only non-Wooden-coached national championship in 1994-95. Harrick, a longtime fixture as a collegiate coach in Southern California, formerly led Pepperdine University to five West Coast Athletic Conference championships during the 1980s. He is currently closing out his distinguished career at California State University, Northridge, as an assistant coach.
Stueve, who provides year-by-year summaries of each UCLA basketball season, from 1919 to 2019, devotes the most number of pages (nine) to the 1995 national championship team. They are an obvious favorite of the author’s. During the Wooden dynasty years, Stueve typically writes three to four pages — maximum. Given all the enduring records set by UCLA in the 1960s and ‘70s, they deserved more coverage, as well as yearly standings, complete post-season results and rosters. In particular, many UCLA starters earned all-American honors and had long productive careers in the NBA which should have been included.
Stueve does include a highly informative bio on the first (and, sadly, little-known today) UCLA player to play in the NBA, Don Barksdale. A member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, Barksdale (UCLA, 1946-47) was the first Black player on the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team, at the London Games of 1948. Among the teams Barksdale played for in the NBA were the Boston Celtics, but he retired one year before Bill Russell arrived and their own dynasty began (1956-69). Barksdale played for Wilbur Johns, Wooden’s predecessor as UCLA head coach. He would later become the first Black radio disk jockey in his native San Francisco-Oakland Bay Area. Unfamiliar to most followers of UCLA, Barksdale’s number, 11, was retired by UCLA. Writes Stueve, “His impact on the United States is undoubtedly significant, and his impact on UCLA athletics is worth remembering.
In addition to Barksdale, as well as Alcindor and Walton, the author includes informative mini- biographies of Gail Goodrich and Jamaal (ne Keith) Wilkes (UCLA national championship team, 1972 and 1973), both of whom went on to became NBA all-stars, members of Lakers’ championship teams, and Basketball Hall of Famers. Marques Johnson, author of the forward to the encyclopedia, also has a bio. Johnson went on to have an all-star career in the NBA, including one season garnering that honor for the “crosstown” Los Angeles Clippers, one of the few star players given such recognition by L.A.’s “other” NBA club. Sidney Wicks, who played on three championship teams (1969-71, the last two post-Alcindor and pre-Walton), was named The Sporting News’ Player of the Year in 1971.
A post-Wooden star, Reggie Miller, who overcame severe physical handicaps at birth, has a very interesting thumbnail sketch. Following a solid career at UCLA (1984-87), he went on to play for the NBA’s Indiana Pacers for 18 seasons (second in NBA longevity among former UCLA players only to Abdul-Jabbar’s 20 years in the NBA). His sister, Cheryl Miller, who played for collegiate crosstown rival, USC, was a member of the two-time champion Division I women’s basketball team and a three-time winner of the Player of the Year award (matching this honor with UCLA’s Alcindor and Walton). USC’s Cheryl Miller, like UCLA’s Reggie Miller, is also a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, making them the first brother-sister duo to receive this recognition.
The final player who rates a bio is Ed O’Bannon, star on UCLA’s last championship team in 1995. Unlike UCLA’s other players in which author Stueve gives recognition, O’Bannon had a mediocre career in the NBA and for several European clubs. But to the author it does not tarnish his greatness in the collegiate ranks. Writes Stueve, “When Ed O’Bannon walks into Pauley Pavilion, the cheers are as loud now as they were nearly a quarter century ago. It is a flashback to…a time when the greatest show in hoops was in Los Angeles.” (Whether or not one fully accepts the author’s enthusiastic analysis, one thing is for certain about the 1995 Bruins championship team: Unlike 10 previous UCLA basketball championship teams, only the 1995 Bruins had two brothers in the starting lineup – Ed and Charles O’Bannon.)
Stueve’s UCLA Basketball Encyclopedia: The First 100 Years provides a very thorough written narrative of every season of one of the greatest dynasties in men’s Division I collegiate team sports; and how it was achieved. Stats are now available online: https://static.uclabruins.com/pdf/mbkb_14mg_134_151.pdf and https://www.sports-reference.com/cbb/schools/ucla/.
The encyclopedia is best utilized when concurrently surfing the aforementioned Web sites to provide the scoring averages, rosters, the yearly standings, and the post-season records. With more than 100 books written over the many decades about UCLA men’s basketball and the Wooden years, Stueve’s encyclopedia is at its best in showing how the UCLA program evolved before “The Wizard” arrived in Westwood – the location of the UCLA campus and its men’s basketball teams since 1919.
Rich Macales, a native Angeleno, was a former longtime senior writer and public information officer at UCLA. He is a contributor to the anthology/encyclopedia, American Sports: A History of Icons, Idols and Ideas, edited by Prof. Murry R. Nelson, ABC-Clio. Macales wrote the basketball entries on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant, and the Los Angeles Lakers, as well as on Rafer Johnson, Olympic decathlon gold medalist, who played basketball at UCLA under coach John Wooden.