On first sight, John Wooden hated the Wooden Trophy. It would be given to college basketball's outstanding player. At its base stood statuettes of five men shooting, passing and playing defense. These little hunks of metal disturbed Wooden, then in the second year of retirement but light years from the day he would accept sin carrying his name. Those tiny statues were graven images of evil.
"They were out of balance." Wooden said, and he pointed out the shooting figure was tilted forward, as if leaning into a gale. "His head should be in line with his feet, not in front of that line," the master said. And the passer was a bundle of nerves. "Two tight in the arms. Loose, you have to be loose to play basketball." The defender held his arms only waist high. "He couldn't stop me," said Wooden, then 68.
So Wooden sent the trophy back and told the sculptor to try again.
Much of a the charm of college basketball comes from its unpredictability. Unlike football where the same war powers hold sway year after year, basketball seems truly reborn each new season - with one exception: UCLA, with Wooden coaching, was the benchmark against which all pretenders were judged. Wooden quit in 1975, having won another national championship, the 10th in his last 12 seasons.
Now, without Wooden to keep everybody's head over his feet, UCLA has come back to the crowd, and next month's NCAA Tournament will again be the best sports show in the country. While UCLA is still a fine team that might win it all, it will never be - no one will be - the match of those Wooden teams that loose and with arms up, won 291 games in those 10 championship years while losing only eight. And that is nice, for now anyone can win.
At the moment, only four of the top 10-rated teams have lost but twice. One has lost five times, another six. The five-times loser. Notre Dame, two days ago beat Marquette, then ranked No. 1. When Kentucky was No. 1, it lost to a mediocre team that played a dull overtime period with five second-stringers. Who will be the national champion this time? Throw 15 names into a sneaker and pick one.
"Whoever is playing at a peak will win it," said Joe Hall, the Kentucky coach.
That wasn't always so. With Kareem Abdul Jabbar and with Bill Walton on the court, UCLA won national championships playing beneath its ability. Last season, though, Marquette won the NCAA after losing seven regular-season games. And this season's champion obviously will be a team already shown to be mortal.
Hall thinks he knows why.
"The freshman rule," he said, "has dispersed the talent around the country."
Just before the 1974-75 season, the NCAA changed its eligibility rules to allow freshmen to play at the varsity level. As it happens, that was UCLA's last championship season. Hall, for one, sees a connection.
"Now it is difficult to stokpile talent the way UCLA did." he said. "High school seniors want to go to a school and wait a year or two to play.
"Look at Swen Nater," he said, naming a professional canter who was second-string his full career at UCLA. "When you've got a Swen Nater on the bench and he's a first-round pick in the pros, you've got something the rest of us don't have."
Until the freshman rule was created, Hall said, the Bruins "got almost any kid they wanted. They went to New York for Kareem. They got Lucius Allen from Kansas City, Henry Bibby from North Carolina, Andre McCarter from Philadelphia, Richard Washington from Oregan. Walton was from there, but that talk about them recruiting mostly from Southern California is baloney. They went througout the U.S. and just said, "We want you.' They didn't have to recruit."
So, perhaps, the natural impatience of a freshman has worked to end UCLA's dominance. The graduations of Abdul Jabbar and Walton may have something to do with it, too, and Wooden's retirement may be the single key element, for the master won national championships before Abdul-Jabbar and after Walton.
In any case, it seems certain that the freshman rule has guaranteed the unpredictability of college basketball. Unlike football, where it takes battalions of players to change the balance of power, basketball teams may swing from mediocrity to greatness on the the addition of one or two shooters fresh from the senior prom.
Without freshman Mike O'Koren, who will be all-America next season. North Carolina would not have made it to the national championship game last year. Without freshmen Earvin Johnson, Michigan State would yet be an also-ran instead of this season's likely Big Ten champion. Eugene Banks at Duke, Jeff Lamp at Virginia, Darnell Valentine at Kansas - all freshmen, all vital.
One man makes a difference in basketball. That's why, in the last 10 years, 25 different schools have made it to the Final Four of the Big Ten football conference has sent Ohio State and Michigan - no one else - to the Rose Bowl. Seven schools have won Big Ten basketball championships in that time.