In his memoir, “The Greatest: My Own Story,” the late Muhammad Ali embraced the idea of revenge. “I believe in the eye-for-an-eye business,” he said. “You kill my dog, you better hide your cat.”
College basketball coaches generally recoil at the mention of revenge. But former players for Kentucky and UCLA said revenge was a perfectly valid story line for Friday’s South Region semifinal between the Wildcats and the Bruins.
Of course, UCLA beat Kentucky, 97-92, in Rupp Arena on Dec. 3.
“I think Kentucky’s got to be licking their chops for revenge,” former UK All-American Kevin Grevey said this week. “They got beat on their home court.”
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Lynn Shackelford, a good-shooting forward on three of UCLA’s national championship teams (1967, 1968, 1969), also said the regular-season game could heighten Kentucky’s resolve.
“I suspect of the two teams, Kentucky will be easily the most motivated,” he said. “I think Kentucky will be highly motivated, and I think that works in their favor.”
At least for public consumption, coaches pooh-pooh revenge as a motivational tool.
Shackelford said his iconic coach at UCLA, John Wooden, was not a believer in revenge.
“He wanted no peaks and valleys,” Shackelford said. “He didn’t like the idea of revenge. There should be no motivation needed for you to go out and do your best.
“But,” Shackelford said, “when you’re 19 years old, I think you think a little differently.”
Grevey and his Kentucky teammates certainly had vengeance on their minds in the 1975 NCAA Tournament. In arguably the most famous example of retaliation in UK basketball’s storied history, the Cats avenged a 98-74 loss at Indiana by beating the undefeated Hoosiers 92-90 in the Mideast Region finals.
Mike Flynn, a native of Jeffersonville, Ind., made no secret of his desire for revenge.
“Mike talked openly of how much he wanted those guys,” Grevey said. “‘We got to get those guys.’ ‘We got to kick their (butt).’ He was vocal about it.”
The regular-season loss at Indiana whetted Flynn’s appetite for payback. Late in a thrashing of Kentucky, Indiana Coach Bobby Knight poured salt in the wound with a condescending slap on the head of UK Coach Joe B. Hall.
“I was fired up,” Flynn said. “I wanted to teach Bobby Knight a lesson for what he did, the way he bullied people, the refs. I didn’t like that. I didn’t care for that.”
When the NCAA Tournament draw was announced (this was well before the hype of Selection Sunday), Grevey committed another no-no: He looked ahead.
“You don’t look ahead,” Grevey said. “You’re supposed to look at that first game. But who doesn’t extend it? ‘OK, if we beat these guys, we’ll play the winners of these two guys.’”
Kentucky played Central Michigan in the region semifinals. Indiana played Oregon. Grevey’s desire for revenge did not blind him to a practical consideration.
“I know in my heart, I wanted Oregon to beat Indiana,” he said. “Get (the Hoosiers) out of the way. We’ll play Oregon.”
Of course, that didn’t happen.
When UK won the tournament game, which incidentally was the first time in five games that the seniors beat Indiana in their college careers, Flynn made sure everyone knew that revenge was sweet. During the cutting-down-the-nets ceremony, his teammates saved the last strand for Flynn. After the last snip, he balled the net into a fisted hand and shook it at Hoosier fans.
“You can call it revenge,” Flynn said, “or whatever you want to call it.”
Perhaps UCLA’s greatest moment of revenge came in 1968. Houston had beaten UCLA 71-69 in the regular season. The game was played in a domed football stadium (the Astrodome in Houston) and televised nationally, the former precedent-setting and the latter a rarity for a regular season at the time.
It was the first of only two losses Shackelford’s class suffered in three varsity seasons. “That was a real slap in the face to who we were,” he said.
To stoke his motivation, UCLA center Lew Alcindor (aka Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) taped to his locker a Sports Illustrated cover photograph showing Houston’s Elvin Hayes scoring over him.
The rematch came in the 1968 Final Four.
“It meant everything,” Shackelford said of the national semifinal game against Houston. “It was the most — I don’t want to say nervous, but the most — anxiety we ever had as a team.”
As Shackelford recalled, Houston players stayed at the Beverly Hills Hilton and were seen wearing cowboy hats. “They were enjoying the moment and probably took their eyes off the ball a little,” he said. “I don’t think UCLA this year will allow something like that to happen.”
UCLA beat Houston 101-69 in the semifinals and then won the national championship.
“We won by 32, but we could have won that game by 50,” Shackelford said. “We were so motivated.”
In terms of basketball drama, Kentucky-Indiana of 1974-75 and UCLA-Houston of 1967-68 are all-but-impossible acts to follow. But, in Grevey’s mind, the Kentucky-UCLA game Friday has the elements for revenge.
“The whole thing, being beaten on your home court is just another card that needs to be played,” he said. “‘Hey, they beat our butts.’”
Kentucky vs. UCLA
What: NCAA Tournament South Regional Sweet 16 game
When: About 9:40 p.m. Friday
Where: FedExForum in Memphis
Records: No. 2 seed Kentucky 31-5, No 3 seed UCLA 31-4