Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Age of the Bruins

I hear the word dynasty tossed around rather casually these days.

It seems to be applied to any team that might win a second straight championship in any sport. But two in a row simply doesn't mean that much to folks of my generation. That isn't what we think of when we think of the word dynasty.

When I was growing up, everyone knew the real definition of the word. It was visible whenever the UCLA basketball team took the court — especially in the early '70s.

In fact, in the early 1970s, the UCLA basketball team put together what is likely to be the longest Division I winning streak ever — 88 wins in a row from 1971 to 1974.

Forty years ago tonight, the Bruins were in pursuit of their second straight perfect season. Not just a national title. It had become routine for UCLA to win national titles. The Bruins weren't always undefeated, but they usually won the national championship.

Maybe that was what it took to light a fire under basketball players from whom championships were expected. A perfect record was on the line this time.

On this night in St. Louis in 1973, they were looking for their seventh consecutive national title. Think about that for a minute. Can you imagine any college program in any sport maintaining that kind of dominance for seven consecutive years?

It's really more remarkable than that. In 12 seasons — from 1963–1964 to 1974–1975 — coach John Wooden led UCLA to 10 national titles.

Now, I don't want to say anything that detracts in any way from what Wooden achieved.

But the truth is that Bill Walton was the real story of the Bruins' victory over Memphis State 40 years ago tonight. He scored 44 points, making 21 of 22 field goal attempts.

It was an amazing performance to watch. Walton was unstoppable, and so was UCLA. It was the era of the Bruins' dominance — long before Duke became a fixture in the Final Four. It was inconceivable in those days that UCLA would not win the national title.

And, in 1973, it was inconceivable that UCLA would lose — ever.

Of course, the Bruins did lose eventually — nothing lasts forever — but not on this night in 1973.

UCLA has enjoyed a few other championship seasons since the one 40 years ago, but it seems safe to say that this night in 1973 was the program's peak — not unlike when Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers dismantled John Elway and the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV.

There really were no more worlds to conquer.

Neither team will be commemorating the 40th anniversary of that game with a return trip to the championship. Both were invited to the tournament, but neither survived opening weekend. UCLA was humbled by Minnesota on Friday night, and Memphis (the State part was dropped many years ago) was eliminated by Michigan State on Saturday.

But even if one (or both) could have played in this year's final, it's hard to see how what happened on this night in 1973 could possibly be topped.

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