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High-Flying Bruin Crew Revels in Its Historic Past

August 23, 1998|J.A. ADANDE

Toward the end of a long movie, "The Right Stuff," the Mercury astronauts are being honored at a huge party in Houston.

Amid all of the noise and the hoopla, the astronauts look around and one by one make eye contact with each other. Some nod, some just stare back. They share a bond and they're well aware of it. They all have the right stuff.

That same understanding hangs in the air while a group of men gathers in the den of Bob Webb's home in the Valley. The men dole out the same amount of ribbing that any other old teammates do. They update one another on the passages of life, wives, kids and careers the way any other college buddies do.

But beneath it all is a silent realization that what they had was something special, something rare and something that probably won't be experienced again.

They were members of the UCLA basketball teams of the early '70s, the tail end of the John Wooden dynasty. They were a part of, as guard Greg Lee puts it, "some historic stuff."

Pictures from their playing days are taped up around the room. So is Coach Wooden's Pyramid of Success.

These guys won championships in 1972 and 1973, capping Wooden's run of seven straight titles. They won 88 consecutive games. In the 1971-72 season the Bruins beat their opponents by an average of 30.3 points.

Those feats were even more impressive if you believe all the accusations flying around the room: namely, that no one ever passed the ball to anyone.

They say Jamaal Wilkes always shot. Wilkes, sitting quietly by the wall, doesn't put up much of a protest.

Someone points to a picture of Bill Walton. In the photo, Walton is in the post, his hand up, asking for the ball. All he ever did was ask for the ball, Larry Farmer says.

Walton, spread out on the couch, says that was because the guards never gave it to him.

Later, Lee gets on Walton for never passing. Walton counters he had more career assists than Lee, who played point guard. Walton grabs a UCLA media guide, finds the right page and is proved right: His 316 assists have him in the top 10. Lee had only 85. (Lee says that's because Walton got to play more minutes.)

Lee likes to point out that he actually had a better shooting percentage than Walton the night Walton made 21 of 22 shots in the 1973 championship game against Memphis State. Lee was one for one.

Lee stands in the middle of the living room, shooting imaginary jump shots and wondering what it would have been like to have the three-point line in their playing days. Wilkes would have boosted his point total even higher, everyone concurs. They might not be at their playing weights, but no one's physique has completely disappeared. They tease Walton about his famous red hair, which he never has managed to control completely.

"At least he still has hair," says Vince Carson, who shaved his off in a preemptive strike against male-pattern baldness.

Farmer's hairline is making a slow retreat as well.

These things happen when you're drawing closer to 50, when your college days are almost a quarter of a century behind you.

They take a count around the room, who's been married, who's been married twice. They ask how the kids are doing, some of whom are already in college.

They're all in the working world now. Some, such as Walton and Wilkes, managed to extend their playing days longer than others, but nobody shoots hoops for a living anymore.

Plenty coach it, however. Farmer, who took over the treasured coaching reins at UCLA for three years in the early '80s, is about to start at Loyola of Chicago. Webb coaches at Montclair Prep in Van Nuys. Lee coaches at a San Diego high school.

Some are television executives and directors. Some are consultants. Some arrived in Mercedes, some in Toyotas. They still have one thing in common: They're teammates.

They used to get together for Wooden's birthday, or at Walton's house one time down in San Diego. Webb wanted to round them up again, watch the chemistry in action again.

"Our group, I would say, if you poll UCLA players, there's no other team that gets together as much as us," Webb says. "We really had fun with each other."

It was a good turnout. Jon Chapman and Andre McCarter, who played on Wooden's last championship team in 1975, showed up.

They still speak with reverence about Wooden.

"You had all these huge egos, all these All-Americans, and Coach Wooden was able to mold them into a cohesive unit," Lee says, "A consistent, fundamental brand of basketball."

You won't see anything like it again, Andy Hill is telling Wilkes in the corner, because the talent is too spread out. And the top players don't stick around for four years anymore.

Life at UCLA isn't the same, either.

"It was an unbelievably great time to be a young person in college in L.A.," Wilkes says. "The city was safe. You could go anywhere, day or night, and feel safe."

For a moment Wilkes sounds as if he could be any student from that era, reminiscing about his college days. Just for a moment, though. The other students didn't run the table on the NCAA.

None of the players says, "We were the best." They don't have to. They know.

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