It has been more than 25 years since I played in a Final Four
game. But each March some primitive seasonal urge stirs in me, and
these games seem more like reliving a rite of passage than
watching an athletic event.
I'm not even sure we had ``the Final Four'' in 1969. In that era
Coach Wooden just called it the tournament. The NCAA was
predictably colorless about naming the event -- it was just ``the
regionals,'' ``the semis'' and ``the championship.'' ``March
Madness'' was only an embryonic idea in the mind of some p.r.
genius. The important things are curiously unchanged. The fans'
excitement in the arena is still electric. Dean Smith looks just
as calm and classy in defeat as he did then. The game itself has
changed only on the margins. It's the jargon and the media hype
that make it seem like a different event.
We didn't have ``looks,'' ``stops'' and ``touches'' in the dim
past of 1969. We did know about the more prosaic basics of
basketball, like ``open shots'' -- something to strive for or to
prevent. We were resolute about getting the ball to Lew Alcindor
often -- not to touch but to dominate. We didn't ``double down,''
even though double-teaming the post man (or triple- teaming
Alcindor) was commonplace.
The game itself has the same austere beauty and chaotic force.
Tyus Edney's feathery lob pass is as precise as Mike Warren's. The
cocky aggression of Corey Beck could be Herm Gilliam's. Pure
shooters in the zone inspire the same awe whether it's Scotty
Thurman and Randy Rutherford or Elvin Hayes and Rick Mount. The
scramble, panic, scoring runs and crushing fear of the press
haven't changed. Even the iconoclastic coaching philosophies of
John Wooden and Nolan Richardson -- ``We don't watch tape'' and
``You will play our game'' -- are virtually identical.
Of course, my passion for the game is now channeled in less
productive ways. I've devolved into a fan. As I charge the TV,
screaming at a video referee, my daughters look horrified. But
it's a voice from the past that causes my discomfort. It's Coach
Wooden's voice in my head, chirping away with that irritating,
schoolteacherish tone: ``Kenny Heitz, Kenny Heitz'' -- no one else
said my name so fast -- ``you get too excited and emotional during
games. Wastes energy, that's all it does.'' Guess I haven't
changed so much either.
But some things are different. Mostly it's the media attention. I
chuckle when I remember Frank Deford sitting next to me on a
sweaty bench, milking out postgame reflections, or Curry
Kirkpatrick sneaking three UCLA players off campus for a
``secret'' briefing for his SI story because Coach Wooden had
imposed a press blackout we didn't like. Now access is mandatory.
All the players sit neatly at conference tables, giving the same
stock statements to each reporter. Prepackaged access to every
sports cliche. Of course, it might have been nice to have a bald
maniac hyping us on TV every night, and what player wouldn't have
craved those extended SportsCenter highlights?
And then there are the legions of ``experts'' -- coaches who
couldn't coach, or those who just need a soft landing between shoe
contracts -- analyzing everything. Pressured by the demands of the
mandatory pregame TV graphics, they must distill everything into a
buzzword. My personal favorite this year was the ``long bench.''
Through 10 championships, while his teams pressed constantly, John
Wooden rarely played more than seven players. It was generally
thought that conditioning favored UCLA. Maybe no one knew we had a
Of course, those games occurred in the old days, before TV
timeouts every four minutes added 16 minutes -- the equivalent of
a second halftime -- to every game. To hear these ``experts''
discuss the fatigue factor, one would think they had never learned
that the better the conditioning, the quicker the recovery time.
These experts don't seem to know what John Wooden and Nolan
Richardson do. When Nolan says, ``We wear you down,'' he means
they exhaust the spirit, not the breath; they break confidence,
not physical stamina.
For all its hype, the Final Four weekend always delivers the
goods. When I watch Jim Harrick send Toby Bailey and the O'Bannons
to attack the press, when Cameron Dollar dives for every ball,
when a relentless Ed O'Bannon refuses to let his team stumble, I'm
in awe. For those moments I'm also 20 years old again, Kareem
(oops, Lew) is suspended in mid-hook shot, and I'm as proud as
ever to be a Bruin and a basketball fan.
COLOR PHOTO: RICH CLARKSON In '69 Alcindor, Steve Patterson and Heitz (right) celebrated their third title. [Lew Alcindor, Steve Patterson and Ken Heitz]