The Bruins knew. They had this one figured all along. What the rest of us had seen before our very eyes when Notre Dame invoked the Golden Dome and Dwight Clay to upset UCLA a week earlier happens, well, only every 89 games or so. Maybe it did not really happen. Maybe, as Marquette Coach Al McGuire said before the two teams met again in Los Angeles on Saturday, it should not have happened.
"All Notre Dame did by winning was guarantee UCLA its eighth straight national championship," McGuire pronounced. Curtis Rowe, who had been around for championship Nos. 3, 4 and 5, came down harder. "If they expect to win in Los Angeles," he said, "they better bring some more players."
And so forth and so on until Irish Coach Digger Phelps finally asked, "What are we supposed to do, apologize to them for winning?"
It became apparent very early in UCLA's 94-75 victory at Pauley Pavilion that apologies would be neither necessary nor enough. Bill Walton was restoring the once and future kingdom.
"Bill's been psyching himself all week for this one," said Larry Farmer, the slender forward on Nos. 5, 6 and 7 who is now a UCLA junior varsity assistant coach. "He gets like this only a few times a year, but when he does he's unstoppable. He wants it, and don't let anybody fool you, the whole team wants it, too."
There were indications that John Wooden himself felt more than the usual concern. Early in the week he admitted, "I may have made some mistakes in the first game, and I see some things we can do better." One of them was to insert freshman Marques Johnson into the starting lineup. A 6'6" forward ordinarily, Johnson went to guard, where he did pretty much as he pleased offensively against the six-foot Clay. Johnson took Dave Meyers' spot on the right side of the offense, Meyers slid over to the left wing and Pete Trgovich went to the bench. "Dave does a little better job of getting Bill the ball from there," explained Wooden. With the adjustments Johnson shot eight for 11 and scored 16 points, Meyers got six assists and Walton turned in the Bruins' best performance of the year. He missed only three of 19 shots, scoring at will over John Shumate and finishing with 32 points.
The game was Walton's even at the beginning when he was committing two turnovers and an offensive foul before scoring the game's first basket, which did not come until after more than two minutes of play. For Notre Dame it was four more minutes before it would score, and at that time the Bruins were up 9-0. The Irish could make only one serious run, chopping a 16-point deficit to seven late in the first half. But two short jumpers by Keith Wilkes thwarted the surge and helped the Bruins to a 43-30 halftime lead that proved insurmountable.
"Yes," said Wilkes later, "I guess we played with a little more intensity than usual. We were motivated."
Walton was nowhere to be found at the finish. After fouling out with 5:39 to play, he turned to the UCLA bench at the far end of the court and with a wave and smile he was gone. He and his team had been devastating in their 60th consecutive victory at home, making 59% of their shots, outrebounding Notre Dame 43-29 and once running up a 27-point lead. At times, this game was reminiscent of UCLA's 32-point rout of Houston six years ago in the rematch following the Bruins' celebrated two-point loss at the Astrodome.
"I think there are times when a loss really can help a team," said Wooden as he sat sipping an orange drink after the game. Even a team that's No. 1.
For a few wonderful moments, Notre Dame was the whole game in college basketball. A diary of small vignettes tells of the road to glory and...
TUESDAY, JAN. 15
Digger Phelps is sitting in a South Bend restaurant with UCLA on his mind and three cold meatballs on his plate that for some time now have gone unattended. "Hey, Digger, how about that football team?" asks yet another intruder. "You gonna win too, aren't ya?" Phelps forces a smile as he looks across the table at Assistant Coach Dick DiBiaso. The fan leaves and Phelps quickly plunges his fork into a meatball with his left hand and opens a blue notebook with his right.
At the moment Phelps is feeling lousy. Tonight Notre Dame must play Georgetown. Saturday the Irish play UCLA. Phelps is trying very hard to take the games one at a time without missing any meals. Finally, the last intruder is gone, the last meatball has surrendered. He and DiBiaso begin discussing UCLA, a team Phelps has not seen in person since an 82-63 loss last season in which the Bruins established an alltime NCAA record with their 61st consecutive victory. Phelps did watch UCLA continue its streak with nationally televised wins over Maryland and North Carolina State. After the first game he concluded. "This isn't the same UCLA team I have seen in the past." After the second he noted, "North Carolina State was in the game as long as it held its poise." Such lore swells his blue notebook.
Phelps and DiBiaso discuss UCLA. There is no question about how it should be played. "I know them so well I could coach them myself," says Phelps, "and I think I'm learning how to beat them." Phelps says no slowdowns or stalls. No zones or double-teams. Attack the boards hard on both ends. Don't be afraid to take the play into the middle. The coaches' luncheon is about over when DiBiaso, an old friend from Beacon, N.Y., Digger's hometown, makes a suggestion. "We need something to ease the tension and reward the players for their hard work," he says. "So they can leave with a positive attitude."
Phelps agrees. "Let's try to come up with something special."
That evening Notre Dame beats Georgetown 104-77, the team's ninth straight victory and the one that lifts Phelps' record at Notre Dame to one modest notch above .500. The coach is in no mood to celebrate.
"For the life of me I can't understand what's wrong with some of you guys," he starts after the game. "Don't you understand? We're playing to win the national championship. If you don't believe in that commitment, don't interfere with those who do. We're trying to build depth and we're trying to beat U-C-L-A. Are you ready, Shu? Are you ready, Goose? Ready, Broke?..."
WEDNESDAY, JAN. 16
Phelps comes into his wood-paneled office a few minutes after 9 a.m. He and DiBiaso evaluate last night's game, noting that the backcourt made too many turnovers (12), that there was not enough penetration on offense and that the team did not get back quickly enough on defense. Gary Brokaw, Notre Dame's best shooter, is mentioned. "Sometimes," says Phelps, "Gary doesn't concentrate on what he is doing. When he does he is really something."
The two discuss the UCLA game plan. Notre Dame hopes to force UCLA to the left, away from Keith Wilkes and toward Walton's low post position. John Shumate, the strong 6'9", 235-pound junior center, will play behind Walton and try to keep him away from the basket. "Our objective is to take away the lob pass and not worry if Walton gets 25 points," says Phelps. "Shumate can't let this become a crusade, him against Walton. If Walton beats us with 10 hook shots, let him."
Even though he has yet to play well against UCLA, Gary (Goose) Novak, Phelps decides, will guard Wilkes. Freshman Adrian Dantley will check the taller Dave Meyers, with Guards Dwight Clay and Brokaw picking up Tommy Curtis and Pete Trgovich.
When the Notre Dame players arrive for practice each finds a 3 x 5 card that carries a special message taped to his locker. For Shumate it is "Defense—Boards." Says Shumate: "Digger has given us confidence by saying we are going to play UCLA straight up. I thought some of the things we did last year played right into their hands."
In today's 2½-hour practice a blue-shirted team runs the Bruins' offensive and defensive patterns and the golds (the regulars) are taught to react. One drill gives the golds ball possession with three minutes to go and an eight-point lead. They must hold on as the blue team presses. They do. "You know what happens now?" Phelps asks. "Shu, you go to one basket and Goose, you go to the other. The rest of you guys lift them up like they're cutting down the net." Practicing net cutting? Yes. It is the gimmick DiBiaso was looking for.
The practice ends as it always has in Phelps" eight years of coaching at Pennsylvania, Fordham and Notre Dame. The players gather at midcourt and he asks them three times, "No. 1?"
"Notre Dame!" they answer.
One more chore remains. After dinner the team is shown the first 10 minutes of the two games with UCLA last year. In the whirring darkness the Bruins take the lead both times but the advantage is slight—the slaughter at the end of both games is not shown. "You've got to believe you can beat them after looking at this film," Phelps says. The lights come on and the players clap. As they walk out Brokaw says, "I can't wait."
THURSDAY, JAN. 17
The morning staff meeting includes Frank McLaughlin, who had been away scouting Kansas, an opponent coming up next Tuesday. There is a strange irony when Phelps, whose attitude about UCLA has been so positive, so confident, asks McLaughlin, an assistant with Phelps since Fordham, "Can we beat Kansas?"
"We can, Digger," he says. "But it will be tough."
The distractions are becoming enormous. One quarter of Phelps' working day is given to the press, but the hassle is worse for the players, who have no secretary to screen phone calls. Clay says, "The students are getting me too excited." In practice Clay makes a bad pass and Phelps chastises the little guard. Standing at midcourt Clay says quietly, "Don't worry, Coach. I'll be ready."
Now it is "spurt time," concentrated basketball, the kind a team must play when it is trailing late in a game. Press, steal, score. The drill works well.
After practice Phelps and his assistants drive to Chicago for a look at UCLA, which has come east to meet Iowa. The game is poorly played. UCLA wins 68-44 without Walton, who has been hurt and out of action. On the way home Phelps says, "I really don't care if Walton plays or not, but I think he's going to. I don't know what all this secret stuff has been about. He's going to play."
FRIDAY, JAN. 18
There is nothing new to discuss in the coaches' meeting. "The kids are ready," Phelps says.
The team, however, is not as sharp in practice as it was the day before. The coach suddenly ends a scrimmage with the blue team pressing the golds hard. Nevertheless, Phelps repeats the net-cutting scenario. A few hours later, 3,000 students pour into bare, round Stepan Center for a pep rally. The crowd presses against the island platform where the players, coaches and guests sit. Among them is Sid Catlett, who played three years before. After the band marches in to the rousing cadence of the Irish fight song, after 12 cheerleaders and one costumed leprechaun have warmed the audience with their familiar appeals to school pride, Catlett speaks. "I have a telegram," he tells the churning students below him. "It says, 'Sorry, John, I won't be able to play with you tomorrow. I've got a yellow streak coming on. Signed, Bill Walton.' " The crowd roars.
Finally it is Phelps' turn. He pledges that since "you never let us down, believe me we won't let you down."
The Alma Mater is played, the band wakes up the echoes and the rally is over. The players go back to their dorms. The first floor of Fisher Hall, where Shumate, Dantley and Martin live, is quieter than usual this Friday night. Shumate personally appoints monitors to keep peace so he can sleep.
SATURDAY, JAN. 19
At 6:30 a.m. Shumate is aroused by a ringing telephone. His parents are calling from Elizabeth, N.J. and for 15 minutes they talk about the game that afternoon. In the small, dark room Shumate is told that no matter what happens today he should keep his confidence and faith in himself, that he may lose a game but not his pride. When they hang up Shumate is wide awake. He opens the door and yells out, "Wake up, everybody, it's Bruin time!"
The pregame mass is conducted by Father Edmund Joyce, the school's executive vice-president. He prays for "the grace to do our best, to contribute to the success of the team and not for personal help." Novak, who had given Walton hell at last night's pep rally, gives his team a reading from Hebrews.
Two hours later Novak comes into the locker room singing. The air is heavy with the smell of Tru-Balm, a heating salve. Shumate tells a manager to turn on the tape deck. "I need music to psych me up." Brokaw joins Shumate in singing. Clay slowly puts on his uniform, nodding with the beat. Suddenly Shumate, the son of a preacher, yells, "I had a dream last night, brothers."
The players have heard this before. They assume the role of Pentecostal worshipers. "Tell it, brother!"
"I dreamed I was running from a big bear."
"He had me scared for a while."
"We know. We know."
"I ran into the woods and there was a leprechaun there."
"Tell it, brother."
"I said, 'Lep, a bear is after me. What can I do?' "
"The bear said, 'Shu, lay down a Bear Bryant trap.' "
"So I lay down a Bear Bryant trap and the trap say 'Snap!' "
What it lacks religiously, it surpasses in symbolic fervor. Phelps, meanwhile, is hurriedly scrawling the team's game plan on the blackboard. It adds up to: keep your poise and confidence. Around 11 o'clock the music is turned off and calm returns to the room as the team goes out on the court to loosen up. Then the players are back for final instructions. Phelps warns them to stay away from the UCLA bench because of John Wooden's habit of riding opposing players.
"All right," he says, "I want you to act like men, play like men and win like men." It is 11:53 when the men storm onto the court.
The team comes in at halftime trailing by nine points. Phelps notes it has come back from 17-down and orders "the same intensity, the same game plan."
When Shumate seals the Notre Dame victory by grabbing the last rebound, Phelps hugs DiBiaso; Brokaw is in the arms of his father; Clay, his mother. At one end of the floor Novak is taking down the net, but Shumate is not to be found. He is pounded in the crush and fights his way to the dressing room, where he asks for smelling salts.
Among the 450 people who come to a party at Phelps' home is the governor of Indiana. At the South Dining Hall two players who did not even get into the game are given a standing ovation when they walk in for dinner.
SUNDAY, JAN. 20
The coaches' meeting before the evening practice is subdued. There is almost no indication that Notre Dame has done anything more than win another basketball game. The offense, it is decided, was not hurt by the UCLA press. The Irish press, especially with Freshman Guard Ray Martin in the game, is judged to be very effective. Wilkes was much less a problem after Brokaw took over for Novak. Shumate ended up playing Walton the way he wanted to, fronting sometimes, playing behind others. Generally, the team could have done better.
And, like that, UCLA is put aside. It is a proud and confident team that takes the practice floor, but it is a tired one also, drained by Saturday afternoon's emotion and Saturday night's celebration. "I got in at five," says Shumate, "and the phone was still ringing." The only mention of the team's new place in the college basketball universe is made by Phelps. He predicts a funeral if the squad does not shape up by Tuesday. "I'll be damned if we're going to lose to Kansas," he shouts.
At 10 o'clock practice is over. The players grin as they move to center court for the traditional cheer. "All right," says Phelps, smiling self-consciously. "The first time ever...No. 1?"
They do it three times.
MONDAY, JAN. 21
After traveling for six hours Notre Dame arrives in Lawrence, Kans. weary and hungry. Practice at Allen Field House is not the stuff of which national champions are made. The players are listless. Phelps angry. "There are going to be 17,000 people wanting to see you beaten tomorrow," he says. But no one seems to care. Phelps senses the peril.
TUESDAY, JAN. 22
Notre Dame does not defeat the Jay-hawks so much as it survives them. For 20 devastating minutes the Irish play like a national champion, breaking away to a 49-35 lead with near-flawless basketball. At halftime Phelps tells the team not to let up, but it is soon apparent that the earlier determination has evaporated. Kansas closes to within two points, 61-59. After Shumate draws his fourth foul he sits down, but somehow the Irish extend their lead to 71-67. They hold on and win 76-74 by controlling the last four minutes of play.
"I don't care if it was by one or 30," a relieved Phelps tells the players later. "It was a super win." Then he warns them not to give the waiting press "anything UCLA can use for its locker-room bulletin board." But the players are not of a mind to crow about anything. "If we were on any kind of cloud," says Martin, "we're sure down to earth now." Shumate is "glad the team didn't lose because of my bad play. I'm humbled, man. I got my head handed to me."
Back at the motel Phelps is finally allowing himself a moment's relaxation. "We had to win," he says. "We just couldn't be No. 1 for only a day." His thoughts ramble on to Saturday's rematch. "We're going to do something different," he says, "something they won't expect. If they think this one is going to be easy they are in for a surprise."
WEDNESDAY, JAN. 23
A 5:45 wake-up call shakes the Notre Dame team out of bed and onto a bus for a ride to Kansas City and an early-morning flight back through Chicago to South Bend. The players are tired but for now the pressures of the season are far below them. Cued by Phelps, the stewardess announces to the other passengers that the No. 1-ranked basketball team in the whole country is aboard. Applause at 25,000 feet.
The afternoon practice is shorter than usual. The team is listless. The next opponent, St. Francis of Pennsylvania, is not in Notre Dame's class, and besides, a local television station is going to re-broadcast the UCLA game at 6:30. That evening the players gather in small groups wherever they can find a set. Sitting in his den Phelps does not doubt the ability of his team to play UCLA head to head. That has been proved, but there are all the other factors to be considered. Since defeating Kansas he has been struggling with an idea: to run a four-corners delay offense with Dantley controlling the ball. That could be the surprise he is looking for. He calls DiBiaso.
THURSDAY, JAN. 24
In the afternoon before the night's game with St. Francis, the Notre Dame staff gathers—to discuss UCLA. Phelps rejects McLaughlin's notion that they should pay special attention to Walton. "We can't change our whole strategy to concentrate on one man," he says. "We know it doesn't work."
Later, McLaughlin has another idea: "I wonder if Wooden would let us hang the nets we took down Saturday?" Phelps smiles. If only everything could be the same.
The players consider St. Francis a useless evening's assignment. "We should blow them out of here," Phelps tells them, "but don't let them make up in enthusiasm what they lack in ability. Don't let them get hungry."
Notre Dame jumps out to a 10-2 start but obligingly lets St. Francis move into the lead midway through the period. At halftime, ahead by only nine, the players sit quietly, knowing what is to come. "You did a great job," Phelps says sarcastically. "If you want to be No. 1 a day or two, you can have it. I smelled this all day. I smelled it with your cocky attitude. You asked for it and you deserve it."
"C'mon, let's go," says Clay. "We'll get 'em. We just have to play tougher."
In the second half the Irish do not look better but they are more dedicated. Following the 78-58 victory Brokaw says, "I never play well before a big game."
The big game is exactly what Phelps wants to talk about. "I want you to sacrifice the next two days," he tells the team. "When we get to Los Angeles tomorrow I don't want you leaving the hotel. I don't want you thinking about the beach, your relatives or anything but beating UCLA. We're going out there to defend what we've already won. You are going to win. Any time you can come back from 17 points and outscore a team 12-0 in the last three minutes you are better than they are."
FRIDAY, JAN. 25
The players are eager for the morning workout, because it is the first of the week devoted entirely to the Bruins. "Oh, man, am I ready," says Clay as he jukes onto the court. The team goes over the same defensive strategy it used in last Saturday's game. Phelps tells Brokaw to be more aware of the backdoor pass from Walton to Trgovich breaking underneath and reminds Shumate to block Walton off the boards. Offensively, the team runs through what it hopes will be a few unexpected twists designed to create more scoring opportunities for Brokaw and Dantley and to take advantage of Shumate's outside shooting. He doubts that Wooden has done such adjusting.
Thirty minutes after practice is over a police escort is hurrying Notre Dame to the South Bend airport. Dantley, head back, smiling and with his arms spread out on the back seat of the speeding bus, says, "This is what it's all about, man, the way it ought to be."
Phelps, in a reflective mood on the flight from Chicago, says, "No matter what happens, nobody can take Saturday's game away from us. It was the highlight of the entire season and, considering the circumstances, one of the greatest comebacks of all time. The point is we beat them, something no one else has been able to do for a long time."
The team is met at the Los Angeles airport by well-wishers and a battery of television cameras. The players share Phelps' concern about such distractions. "This limelight is bad for me, makes me blow my cool," says Clay. Pete Crotty, a starter last year and a substitute this season, frowns and says, "C'mon, Digger, this is bad, let's get out of here."
In the lobby of the Century Plaza Hotel Phelps gathers the players before they go to their rooms. "Don't bother to read a newspaper," he tells them. "There won't be anything in them worth seeing." Later everyone goes to Phelps' room to watch a film of the first half of last Saturday's game. "Don't get discouraged about the officials," he says. "I'll take care of them. You just keep your poise and show your class no matter what happens. UCLA and their fans want revenge. If you can accept the crowd and UCLA's intensity, we will win again. That is all it takes to shut people up."
The players have been given money so they can eat dinner on their own. Phelps tells them to be in bed by 11 o'clock. Most have no place to go and nothing to do, though Novak, a pre-med student, has brought a textbook to study. Brokaw goes to visit his mother and father at a nearby Holiday Inn. The New Brunswick, N.J. police captain and his wife made the trip as guests of friends back home. "That was really nice," says Brokaw. "I hope it was worth the effort."
SATURDAY, JAN. 26
From the beginning it seems that time, place and circumstance are allied to mock the Notre Dame team. Many of the players, unaccustomed to the time change, awaken two hours early. During a midday shooting practice at Pauley Pavilion it is concluded that round arenas, like their own, are better. The visitors' dressing room is too small, too crowded. The bench area is too far removed from center court. Clay is coming down with a cold.
The Pavilion, where UCLA has lost only twice in 8½ years, is all but empty—and yet conspiracy already is in the air. Outside, a few hundred students, many of whom have been there since UCLA beat Santa Clara 96-54 the night before, are waiting to assure themselves of good seats when the doors open. As the players climb into cabs to return to the Century Plaza, one of the squatters yells out, "Tonight you'll meet your fate."
The players say little as they sit in Phelps' suite watching the second half of last Saturday's game. The coach emphasizes the need for better rebounding. At the pregame meal the team seems uncomfortable in the carpeted and chandeliered elegance of the Regents' Board Room. Novak interrupts the nervous quiet: "C'mon, somebody say something to loosen us up." Nobody does.
On this day nobody can. It is more than the UCLA team; it is the whole panoply of championship banners and pompon girls and John Wooden pyramids of success. In the dressing room before the game there is none of the previous Saturday's easy confidence. "You're better than they are," Phelps pleads. 'It's like a neighborhood team going crosstown to play another. Just be ready for what is going to happen when you go out there."
What they hear when they go out there is the ultimate psych, the UCLA cheering section humming the Notre Dame fight song. And they see a banner that reads, "The Lord Giveth but the Bruins Taketh Away."
Swinging around on his deadly hook, Walton loops an easy one over the grounded Shumate.
On the way to their day of conquest, Shumate practiced taking down the victors' net and Phelps shouted exhortations. But in Los Angeles the handwriting was on a sign. After a week on Cloud 9, Notre Dame had lost its magic.