They said Pauley Pavilion wasn't Pauley Pavilion any more. It's a ghost town. "Don't go there," they warned. "It's depressing. Remember it like it was."
You all know what Pauley Pavilion was like. The crowd there was like hardly any other in the field of sports. Contemptuous, derisive, abusive, they considered basketball their private fiefdom. Insulting. Impatient. Intolerant of mistakes. Smug in the knowledge it was the citadel of all basketball.
If you didn't play there, it didn't count. Insufferable in victory. Incredulous in defeat. Mocking of opposition. A Yankee Stadium crowd used to be this way. A Roman Colosseum one, too. Twelve thousand Caligulas. That was a Pauley Pavilion crowd.
They came to watch a slaughter, not a game. If the other guys got a basket, they were insulted. They wanted the head of the enemy on a platter. They usually got it.
They had the best coach and the greatest players in the business. John Wooden with his rolled-up program looking as if he had just stepped out of the pages of the Acts of the Apostles, burying his opposition with a saintly expression, the prim, proper look of a judge padlocking a gambling den.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, when he was still Lew Alcindor, Bill Walton, Sidney Wicks, Willie Naulls, Curtis Rowe, Mike Warren, Gail Goodrich, Walt Hazzard, the guys who rolled through the picks and high posts there were the best who ever picked up a basketball.
And the Bruin fans! The implacables of our civilization. They weren't fans, they were predators. Let the Bruins lose a game, a championship and they howled for a scalp. They knouted coaches out of town like Cossacks riding down peasants.
Gene Bartow went 28-3 and 24-5 and he left town in such a hurry he didn't stop till he got clear to Alabama without his banjo on his knee. Gary Cunningham fled north, but any direction would have done. Larry Brown and Larry Farmer fled without a forwarding address. Brown even put them in the Final Four. It wasn't enough.
Pauley Pavilion wanted unsuccessful coaches--and that was anything sub-Wooden--to get the chair. No appeal.
You could tell how the Bruins were doing by the letters-to-the-editor in the Saturday paper. They were indefatigable letter-writers. Let the Bruins lose a couple of games, and the mail would have to be handled with fire tongs. The writing all but frothed at the mouth.
Nothing less than an annual national championship would do. It was expected. It was their birthright. No excuses accepted. You won--or went.
All this, they assured me, went by the boards. Pauley no longer cared. A Pauley crowd--what there is of it--now just sits there as if it is watching pictures at an exhibition. There have been conference-game crowds as low as 5,000 this season.
The scalpers, who once loved Pauley second only to a Super Bowl, now switch their affinity to Las Vegas. It used to be, if Pauley had an empty seat, someone died, or got stuck in traffic.
So, I went to see the last-days-of-Pauley Saturday. I wanted to see it before it became an artifact. It was an 11 a.m. game, and the opposition was Arizona.
Now, you remember Arizona from the old days. That was Pauley's type of game. A chance for the home five to give a clinic, an afternoon of dunks, layups, behind-the-back trickery. Fun for the whole family. Humiliation for the hicks.
Remember, the Bruins once won 98 straight games at Pauley. It wasn't an arena, it was a gas chamber.
But these aren't the teams of Wilkes, Wicks, Walton, Wooden. This is a team that's now lost six games in Pauley this season.
And now look across the court. At the visiting coach. Look familiar? The other guys now have this godfatherly looking coach, this guy in suit and tie and American-Gothic face, work ethic stamped all over it, framed by a halo of cotton-white hair. This would be Robert Luther Olson, the latter day John Wooden. God loves him. And so does the alumni.
Just look at those players. Scrubbed, mannerly, hair neat, socks pulled up, they look as if they'd say "Sir" to the mailman. You might call the coach "Lute," but they won't. They'll do as they've been told, play as they've been taught.
So, the shoe was on the other foot. Pauley was past. Or so, they said.
First of all, the game was sold out. That right there was a little disquieting. That didn't look like runaway apathy.
Then, the visitors came on the court to a catcall of boos and abuse. Everything but rotten fruit. Pauley was never in finer voice. The home coach came in for some unfavorable attention. But, after all, Coach Hazzard has lost six games here this season. Of course, he's won 10. But that's beside the point to Pauley.
Then, the game starts--and Pauley is in full flower. When the Bruins score first, a leather lung voice comes out of the stands. "How does it feel to be losing?!" it screams at Arizona. When a referee misses a foul, the stands are irate. "Did you bet on the game or are you just stupid?!" Pauley wants to know.