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SPORTS EXTRA / NCAA TOURNAMENT | SOUND AND VISION

Now Its A Zoo

The NCAA Tournament Has Turned Into an Event of Super Bowl Proportions Since the Last Time It Was Held in San Diego

March 15, 2001|MIKE PENNER

Basketball and the city of San Diego have always had a transitory relationship, not unlike 767 jet liners and O'Hare Airport. Every so often, the sport comes to town, has a cup of coffee, gets up and heads for another boarding gate.

The NBA's Rockets had a stopover before winging to Houston. The Clippers booked a connection through San Diego on the way from Buffalo to Los Angeles. The ABA's Conquistadors got stuck on the Tarmac, trashed the plane and finally had their flight permanently canceled.

The NCAA tournament also landed in San Diego, in 1975, and promptly took off, destined for altitudes previously unimagined.

Twenty-six years later, with the NCAA returning to the city for sub-regional games today and Saturday, the tournament is barely recognizable since its last visit.

Before March 1975, the NCAA tournament was but a mid-major attraction on the American sporting landscape. Baseball was in a boom period, captivating fans with Hank Aaron's chase of Babe Ruth's home run record and the Oakland Athletics' brawling, divided-we-stand approach to winning World Series. Post-merger and pre-parity, the NFL was more popular than it had ever been, the Super Bowl just settling in as a national holiday. College football was still the bastion of Bear Bryant and Woody Hayes, Archie Griffin around left end for 30 yards and a cloud of dust.

The situation was more pronounced in and around Los Angeles. The Garvey-Cey-Lopes-Russell Dodgers had just won the pennant in 1974. Chuck Knox's Rams were in a run of seven consecutive seasons atop the NFC West. In 1972, the Lakers finally broke through for their first NBA championship and USC won the national football title. These were the days of Merlin Olsen and Jack Reynolds, Gail Goodrich and Happy Hairston, Anthony Davis and John McKay.

The NCAA basketball tournament?

"Back then, they used to call it the UCLA Open," says Curt Gowdy, who broadcast the 1975 Final Four for NBC in San Diego, back when the final two rounds of the tournament were officially known as the "NCAA semifinals" and "Championship Final" and final four was still lower-case sportswriters' shorthand for UCLA and three other schools there to fill out the bracket.

The NCAA did not officially co-opt the term "final four" for a couple more years, first capitalizing the words in its Official Collegiate Basketball Guide in 1978. Until then, no special treatment was warranted because, through 1975, there was nothing special about the Bruins reaching the NCAA semifinals--also known around Westwood as "our next-to-last game of the regular season."

In a 12-year stretch from 1964 to 1975, UCLA reached the NCAA semifinals 11 times, going 10-1 in those games, and 10-0 in the championship final. The Bruins' lone semifinal defeat--in 1974, in double overtime, against North Carolina State--was written off as a "real accident," according to Gowdy.

"They should have beaten North Carolina State," Gowdy says. "They had them beaten--a seven-point lead in the second overtime, and frittered it away."

NBC held the TV rights to the semifinals and finals, but telecasts of earlier rounds were syndicated to local affiliates--tape-delayed in the Los Angeles area. Local viewers interested in following the Bruins during the earlier rounds needed either massive doses of caffeine or serious late-night stamina, having to wait until 11 p.m. for opening tipoff.

Dick Enberg, who broadcast the Bruins' early-round games for TVS before joining NBC later in 1975, remembers that team gatherings to watch the late-night tape-delayed games became a UCLA tradition during the late '60s and early '70s.

"Bill Walton has told me that the players would go after a game to the locker room and arrange wherever they would go to eat and be together around 11 to watch the game," Enberg says. "They'd have a pool to see how many times I'd say, 'Oh my!'

"If it was an eight 'Oh my!' game, that was a great game."

*

In 1975, the Bruins were back in the semifinals, in San Diego, and locally, the mood was typically blase. On the day of the semifinals, The Times ran only a two-column advance story on the front page of the sports section. No photo, no banner headline, just another day of the Bruins punching the clock at the office.

Except the previous evening, an interesting little news story had developed:

John Wooden was planning to announce his retirement as UCLA coach at the end of the tournament.

The Times ran the story on Page 2 of its sports section--four short paragraphs--citing a "prominent UCLA alumnus" as an unidentified source and concluding with a soft-shoed nondenial from Wooden, who said: "I don't want to lie. I would announce it to my players first. . . . It's been a troubled time. It's not really what I want. If I did it, it would be for the best."

By the time UCLA dispatched Louisville, in overtime, in the semifinals, the word was out: Wooden, the Bruins' legendary coach, would step aside after the final against Kentucky, win or lose.

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