My thoughts on UCLA
Video Credit: Courtesy of UCLA
My eyes were seeing it, but I couldn’t believe what I saw. I had stumbled across my grade school graduation – autograph book and saw in the “favorite college slot” UCLA. This choice was made by me at a time that I couldn’t recall. A time before I was an accomplished basketball player with scholarships being offered at every turn.
My current memories of how I became a UCLA fan were connected to a time some three years later June 1961 -- when I graduated from grade school. It really made me stop and think about how I was to become a Bruin.
One evening stood out in my memory. I am thinking of watching the "Ed Sullivan Show" and Rafer Johnson was introduced on Ed’s show. Rafer had been a world renowned athlete at this time, but he was introduced to the audience as the student body president of UCLA. I was impressed by the fact that his athletic achievements were not given any emphasis.
At a time when violent demonstrations by racist white mobs were common on college campuses that were being integrated, UCLA was showing the world that a black man could be more than a “jock” at UCLA. This was an impressive statement that spoke of commitment to equal opportunity. Rafer was definitely not being exploited for his athletic talent. He was given the opportunity to achieve on the most meaningful levels at UCLA. I, for one, was very pleased to see this attitude by the university being shown on national TV. I’m sure this show aired before I even thought about attending UCLA as a student-athlete.
UCLA next got my attention during the '63-64 college season. They had a small team, no starters over 6-foot-6, but they managed to win consistently against bigger teams. The name John Wooden became familiar to me by the time the NCAA Tournament rolled around. In those days you could only follow teams in various areas of the country by reading box scores. ESPN had not yet made its appearance, so reading box scores was the only way to follow any team, and I thought that Walt Hazzard and Gail Goodrich were pretty good, but I kept thinking they would lose to a bigger physical team. Lo and behold, UCLA entered the tourney undefeated -- its trademark being a suffocating full-court press and a quick fast-breaking offense featuring the deadly outside shooting of Goodrich and fast-break buckets created by the penetrating and quick accurate passing of Hazzard.
On the night of the Finals, I was supposed to attend the birthday party of a good friend, Lazette Suttles. Lazette’s dad, though, was a serious sports fan. And he allowed myself and two or three other fans to watch the game on his bedroom TV. The game was a rout, as UCLA ran Duke off the court in a dominating performance. At this time, I was an All-American center, but the speculation by many sports writers was that I was not hefty enough to be a dominant center in college. I saw that night how a team playing in the style of UCLA could beat a physical team with speed, finesse and tenacious defense. As skinny as I was, I felt I could be an important player on such a team. My high school senior year was one when my team as well as myself received a lot of attention, and we repeated as champs of the New York Catholic League. The NCAA Finals again were on during Lazette's next birthday party, and her dad was equally gracious again and let us fans watch the game on his bedroom TV. UCLA ran a larger, more physical team off the court … this time it was the Michigan Wolverines, who were led by All-American Cazzie Russell.
I had seen the Michigan team play in the Holiday Festival, which they won. The Final was a matchup of All-Americans, with Princeton’s Bill Bradley going against Cazzie head to head. Bill scored 50-something, but Michigan’s balance and Cazzie's leadership were too much for Princeton. Again, UCLA really got into it at the critical moments. I was very impressed with John Wooden’s approach to the game.
I went to visit only four schools that spring: UCLA, St. Johns, Michigan and Holy Cross. My high school coach, Jack Donohue, took the job at Holy Cross, so I paid them a visit. I had known St. John’s coach Joe Lapchick throughout my high school years and became good friends with his son Richie, who attended my coach’s summer camp in upstate New York. Michigan had done well in the Big 10 and NCAA, so that seemed to round things out in terms of potential choices. I received two letters from UCLA alumni which were influential with regard to my choice. One was from Jackie Robinson, who was certainly a hero to me. I was a die-hard Dodger fan as a kid, and Jackie was still very high on my list of great people. Dr. Ralph Bunche also wrote me, saying that UCLA would be a great choice for someone who had my aspirations as a student-athlete. My visit to the campus seemed to confirm my hopes about the possibilities at UCLA. It was a great school academically and it had a great basketball program run by a superior coach. When I left New York on my visit, there was ice on the ground. When I got to L.A., the palm trees were in all their glory. It was an easy choice to make and one that I have never regretted.