John Clay

John Clay: Viewing UCLA's past from a different perspective

Former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden stands with his former star centers, Kareem Abdul- Jabbar, left, and Bill Walton during a jersey retiring ceremony at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles, Feb. 3, 1990.  (AP Photo/Bob Galbraith)
Former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden stands with his former star centers, Kareem Abdul- Jabbar, left, and Bill Walton during a jersey retiring ceremony at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles, Feb. 3, 1990. (AP Photo/Bob Galbraith) AP

I hated Led Zeppelin.

Back in my youth, all my friends loved the British rock band. They mimicked Jimmy Page's double-necked guitar. They worshiped Robert Plant's wail. They dragged me to a midnight showing of the concert movie The Song Remains the Same and pronounced it brilliant. I pronounced it a waste of two hours.

As I aged, I either softened or grew wiser. I came to appreciate the band's music, even enjoy it. I bought CDs of Led Zeppelin albums I swore I'd never purchase. Whenever The Ocean pops up on the classic rock station in my car, I crank it up.

I feel the same way about UCLA basketball.

Back in my youth, when John Wooden and UCLA were winning 10 titles in 12 years between 1964 and 1975, basketball fans were divided into two camps. You either loved the Bruins or you rooted for whomever the Bruins were playing at the time. I was an enthusiastic member of the latter.

I remember March 23, 1974, semifinal Saturday of the Final Four, and I was at a high school speech tournament at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond. Only I didn't care about my speech. All I cared about was finding a television somewhere on the EKU campus.

UCLA was playing North Carolina State. I loved North Carolina State. I loved David Thompson, the 6-foot-4 forward whose amazing leaping ability allowed him to touch the top of the backboard. I loved Monte Towe, the 5-7 point guard who was the hero to the undersized (me) who loved college basketball (me). I lived to see the Wolfpack take down the Bruins.

Then finally, in a corner of the EKU Student Center, there was a television showing the game. That is if you could see the game. A crowd had gathered in the small space watching what was then considered a big screen. And I quickly found I had new friends.

When North Carolina State scored, we cheered. When UCLA scored, we groaned. I remember the despair when North Carolina State fell behind (by seven points) in the second overtime and the elation when the Wolfpack rallied to win (80-77) and stop UCLA's streak of seven straight titles.

I remember UCLA's Bill Walton walking off the floor with head bowed. I remember the cover of the next Sports Illustrated showing Thompson rising over Walton with the headline: "End of an Era."

I couldn't for the life of me tell you now how I did with that speech.

I'm 55 now. John Calipari is 55. We were born 11 days apart. So as Kentucky plays UCLA on Saturday, I asked the UK coach about when he was a kid. Did he root for the Bruins? Or against them?

"I liked North Carolina growing up," said Calipari, who grew up outside Pittsburgh. "I liked UCLA, but I didn't have a (team) because Pitt wasn't, when I was younger, like Pitt is now. But we had some guys on our high school team play (at Pitt) so you followed some of that stuff.

"UCLA, they were like faraway lands. I mean I didn't even go on vacation until I was 19 and that was to Maryland. We drove to the Maryland shore. I was not on an airplane until I was 20. So when you start talking about UCLA, it's like 'Where in the world? Is that in our country?'

"It's just different now than it was then. So I wasn't a (huge fan), but I liked them, respected them."

That's me now. To me, UK has the stronger tradition. Kentucky basketball has been relevant for decade after decade after decade. That hasn't been the case in Westwood. Still, it's utterly amazing what the Bruins accomplished.

Lew Alcindor. Bill Walton. Keith Wilkes. Gail Goodrich. Lucius Allen. Sidney Wicks. Curtis Rowe. I watch the old clips, the YouTube videos and am mesmerized.

Spare me your outrage over Sam Gilbert, the program's not-so-secret sugar daddy. I'm sure no other program was providing extra benefits. Spare me your argument about it was a smaller tournament back then. The Bruins still had to win.

And they did win, year after year, doing something that will never be duplicated. Back then, I was too busy rooting against the Bruins to appreciate them. I do now.

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