UCLA alumnus H.R. Haldeman, who later was the crew-cut and ramrod straight chief of staff in the Richard Nixon presidency, led the fund-raising effort to build Pauley Pavilion.
Among those who have played there are basketball greats like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor), Bill Walton and Reggie Miller. Musical greats Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Luciano Pavarotti performed in Pauley Pavilion.
And on Thursday, in Pauley Pavilion’s 50th year, Kentucky plays its first game in one of college basketball’s iconic arenas.
Kentucky played at UCLA previously. Once. Dec. 4, 1959. UK won 68-66. Pauley Pavilion would not exist for another six years. At that time, UCLA was something of a vagabond program. Earlier that decade, the Los Angeles City fire marshal had declared the school’s 2,400-seat on-campus gym unsafe for crowds numbering more than 1,300.
So the Bruins played home games in the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, which was (ugh) next to the University of Southern California campus, and other venues around the city.
After UCLA won the 1964 and 1965 national championships, it was decided the program needed an arena more befitting such exalted status.
Haldeman led a campaign that raised $1 million. University of California regent Edwin W. Pauley, who had made his fortune running oil companies, contributed $1 million. The State of California contributed $2 million, and another $1 million came from an increase in student fees.
For $5 million, UCLA had a new arena that seated 12,800.
“A huge leap for the West Coast in terms of on-campus arenas,” Lynn Shackelford said last week.
1The number of times Kentucky has played in UCLA’s home arena, but that was before Pauley Pavilion was built
Speaking of huge leaps, Pauley Pavilion’s opening night for basketball included a bang heard around the roundball world. Shackelford, then a UCLA freshman, played in that first game. Nov. 27, 1965. UCLA’s varsity, the two-time defending national champion and preseason No. 1 team, against UCLA’s freshmen.
The echo can still be heard in this day of one-and-done players. With Alcindor/Abdul-Jabbar scoring 31 points and grabbing 21 rebounds, the freshmen won 75-60.
“Coach had to take us out with a minute or two left in the game so we wouldn’t run up the score,” Shackelford recalled this week. “That really spring-boarded Pauley Pavilion and UCLA basketball and dominance from that point out.”
Later, Shackelford asked one of the varsity players, Mike Warren, how Coach John Wooden handled the varsity’s defeat.
The locker room was deadly quiet, Warren reported. Wooden said nothing as he paced back and forth.
“After a couple minutes, he stopped, looked up and said, ‘Well, looks like we’re going to be pretty good next year,’” Warren told Shackelford.
“And that was typical Wooden,” Shackelford said. “‘I made a mistake in scheduling the game. It’s done. It’s over. Let’s move on. Let’s look to the future and let’s make the best out of how things turn out.’”
With Alcindor dominating, UCLA didn’t lose in Pauley Pavilion until the final home game of the freshmen’s senior season of 1968-69. The Bruins, who would go on to win a third straight national championship, lost to crosstown rival Southern Cal 46-44.
“Fans were in disbelief,” Shackelford said. “They were stunned. They were silent. Nobody could believe it. That UCLA would even lose a game in Pauley Pavilion.
“Yet, at the same time, going into the NCAA Tournament, there were some positives (Wooden) thought of. Our practices were always the best after our losses. You go from playing not to lose to playing to win again.”
Of course, the UCLA dynasty that Wooden created is long gone. The Bruins have won one national championship since Wooden retired in 1975, and that title came 20 years ago.
Alex Wolff, the longtime writer for Sports Illustrated, recalled an old joke told at Pauley Pavilion’s expense. “By the ’80s,” he said, “ Pauley Pavilion was a set on the Today show.”
You can’t miss it. They’ve got 11 national championship banners in there. And they don’t have any other banners. Like they don’t have Pac-12 banners. They’ve got national championship banners, and that’s it.
Jay Bilas, college basketball TV analyst, on Pauley Pavilion
That was a reference to one of the then co-hosts of the Today show, Jane Pauley.
During the dynasty days, UCLA was annually among the nation’s leaders in home attendance. The Bruins haven’t been in the top 25 since 1983. So far this season, UCLA has averaged 7,711 in home attendance, which means Pauley Pavilion is usually a little over half full (capacity 13,800).
“It’s not the kind of arena you’re afraid of,” said Jay Bilas, who will work ESPN’s telecast of the UCLA-Kentucky game. “The crowd is not like it is at other places. It’s not a frenzied atmosphere.”
Ben Howland, who coached UCLA’s teams from 2003-04 through 2012-13, did not dispute Bilas’ contention that Pauley Pavilion is a relatively friendly place for visiting teams. Tip-offs at 6 p.m. Pacific Time, which television wants for its East Coast viewers, does not help, he said.
“In a place like Los Angeles where traffic is such an impactful situation, people really struggle to get to a 6 o’clock game,” said Howland, who is in his first season as Mississippi State coach. “It’s just that simple.”
But Howland saw No. 1 Kentucky attracting a large and likely enthusiastic crowd. “I think people will work it out to get there for that game,” he said.
The game against Kentucky is a sellout. UCLA is also staging a “gold out.” As guard Bryce Alford said this week, Pauley Pavilion “is going to be rockin’.”
UCLA had a back-to-the-future moment earlier this decade. A water main break flooded the campus, forcing the Bruins to again play home games off campus in 2011-12 as Pauley underwent a $136 million renovation. Capacity increased to 13,800.
“It was getting a little tired and a little old,” Howland said. “The remodel they did was really well done. . . . It still retained the footprint of Pauley.”
In case anyone forgets Pauley Pavilion’s place in history, there’s a reminder. Actually 11 reminders.
“You can’t miss it,” Bilas said. “They’ve got 11 national championship banners in there. And they don’t have any other banners. Like they don’t have Pac-12 banners. They’ve got national championship banners, and that’s it.
“It’s pretty cool in that regard.”
Kentucky at UCLA
When: 9 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 7-0, UCLA 4-3
Series: Kentucky leads 7-4
Last meeting: Kentucky won 83-44 on Dec. 20, 2014, in Chicago.