Memories Of Pauley, The Duke And ‘T’
It was one of those emotional sports weekends for me, beginning with that final game at the soon-to-be renovated Pauley Pavilion.
To have it end the way it did, to have John Wooden’s great grandson, Tyler Trapani, be there, under the basket, to grab a missed shot and put in the final two points in the old building was surreal.
It was clearly an unforgettable final moment in UCLA’s most stirring victory of the year over Arizona.
You know, the easy way to explain it is to call it an extraordinary coincidence. But I’m sorry, this time it seems like more than that. This time it seems like the man whose overwhelming success prompted the building of Pauley somehow managed to work his magic once again.
To quote the greatest coach who ever lived, “Goodness gracious sakes alive,” what a wonderful way to have it all play out.
As one of the few who was on hand from the very beginning in Westwood, allow me to run a few of my favorite Pauley Pavilion highlights out there:
— Lew Alcindor’s debut on opening night at Pauley, when he and the best UCLA freshman team ever destroyed the two-time defending National Champion varsity and, many think, basically ruined their season before it even started.
— Alcindor’s varsity debut, with the hype going basically through the Pauley roof. All Lew did was score 56 points, dunking and swirling and demonstrating he was the most mobile big man ever. Alcindor and the Bruins went 30-0 that year and 88-2 over the next three, making it five national titles in six years for Wooden.
— Wooden’s first loss at Pauley — he only went 149-2 in the place — was the infamous slowdown game, brilliantly devised by USC coach Bob Boyd. The Trojans’ Ernie Powell won it, 46-44, with a jump shot at the buzzer. Wooden criticized the slowdown tactics in the days and months after, but many years later, in an interview for the book I wrote about him, he admitted if he had been playing against a center as dominant as Alcindor, he probably would have done the same thing.
— The debut of The Walton Gang. Many thought the Bruins dynasty was over after Alcindor and then Sidney Wicks, Curtis Rowe and Co. left. But they hadn’t seen the gifted, young redhead from San Diego who played the game with more enthusiasm than any of them. No one fully believed Walton, Keith Wilkes, Greg Lee et. al were the real thing until highly-ranked Ohio State came to Pauley in early 1971. The Walton Gang blew them away, 79-53, and proceeded to go 30-0 and win yet another National Championship for Wooden.
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Pauley was the Taj Mahal of college basketball in its day. They can tear down part of it on the way to the $100 million facelift it badly needs after 46 years, but they can never erase those wonderful memories.
Especially after what might have been the best one of all. Wooden’s great grandson being there at the right spot, at the precise moment, to make that final shot.
It is always tough to lose one of your boyhood heroes, and one of mine died Sunday.
Duke Snider was the center fielder and best power hitter on my favorite team growing up, the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was Jackie Robinson who first attracted me to baseball and sports, with his spirit and his courage. But as Jackie’s skills began to fade, Duke became my guy.
“Mickey, Willie and The Duke,” is the way the great Terry Cashman song goes, and in New York at the time, they had Mantle, Mays and Snider, the holy trinity of center fielders. Willie and Mickey were more glamorous, but The Duke was right there with them. He could hit, field and throw, and he put up some huge numbers playing in Ebbets Field.
I was 3,000 miles away, following them in L.A., checking the box scores faithfully every day, then practically becoming delirious when a) the Dodgers finally won the World Series in 1955, and b) it was announced three years later that they were moving here.
Snider came with them, but he wasn’t the same player. And whatever was left of that marvelous power was sucked out of him by the absurd dimensions of the L.A. Coliseum, where it was about 450 feet to the right center field fence. Nobody hit more long outs in the first couple of seasons for the L.A. Dodgers than Snider.
Years later, one of my bigger thrills was getting the opportunity to interview Snider, by then a Hall of Famer, one-on-one at Dodger Stadium. I was happy to discover he was as warm and classy as he was talented back in his playing days.
Too bad he didn’t get a chance to perform in this era. The Duke would have been treated like a King.
The other sad note of the weekend for me was to learn of the death of Ted Tajima, my first journalism teacher at Alhambra High.
“T,” we called him, and he had this deep, baritone voice and a kind, patient demeanor. I remember telling him of my dream to become a sports writer some day, and he was always encouraging, always upbeat about it.
He laid the foundation for me, teaching me the principles, stressing accuracy and balance in your work and to make sure you present all sides of the story. He was also the first one to give me my own column. “Line Dives,” I called it. I know, it sounds hokey now, but believe me, it was something I cherished.
Tajima is one of the main reasons I was able to spend 42 years working at a job I loved. I will always be grateful.
He was a great teacher and an even greater man.
— STEVE BISHEFF