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Bill Walton, Memphis State and the legacy of the 1973 NCAA title game

UCLA’s Bill Walton goes up for a shot against Indiana in the 1973 NCAA tournament semifinals. Two nights later, Walton scored a championship game record 44 points in a win over Memphis State. (Associated Press)
12 min

Fifty years ago this week, Bill Walton had one of the greatest performances in men’s college basketball history. The UCLA center scored a championship game record 44 points on 21-for-22 shooting at St. Louis Arena to lift the Bruins to their 75th consecutive win and seventh straight NCAA tournament title.

Walton’s near perfect night ended an inspiring run by Memphis State, which was making its first appearance in the title game under third-year coach Gene Bartow. Memphis politicians praised Bartow’s team as a unifying force in their divided city, where racial tensions had remained high since the sanitation workers’ strike and Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968.

As the college basketball season comes to a close this weekend at the Final Four in Houston, where Walton will provide pregame, halftime and postgame analysis for Westwood One radio, the 1973 final still resonates for what happened on and off the court. Walton’s scoring mark has yet to be eclipsed, and the Tigers’ legacy as a vehicle for change is still celebrated — and debated — a half-century later.

A flea-market Final Four is plenty of fun if you have the right spirit

In 1971-72, Memphis State finished with its most wins (21) and highest ranking in the final Associated Press poll (13th) since 1957. The team was led by juniors Larry Finch and Ronnie Robinson, who starred at Memphis’s Melrose High before signing with the Tigers, which was an unpopular decision among some of their fellow Black Memphians. Memphis State didn’t integrate until 1959, and the Tigers’ men’s basketball team didn’t include a Black player until 1965. The success of the program with Finch and Robinson leading the way helped bring the city together.

“This team has unified this city like it’s never been unified before,” Memphis Mayor Wyeth Chandler, who was White, told the Commercial Appeal after the Tigers lost in the first round of the 1972 NIT. “Black and White, rich and poor, old and young are all caught up in their success. Memphis is a better city now thanks to the Memphis State basketball team, a team which will be remembered for a long time.”

The 1972-73 team that lost to Walton’s Bruins will probably be remembered even longer. Expectations were high entering the season after Bartow signed three junior college all-Americans, including 6-foot-9 forward Larry Kenon, to fill out his experienced roster. In Memphis State’s preseason media guide, sports information director Bill Grogan issued a bold prediction — in lyrical form — that the Tigers would end UCLA’s stretch of dominance under legendary coach John Wooden in the NCAA tournament.

“Meet me in St. Louis, Wooden, beat your Bruins there,” Grogan wrote, in a twist on the classic song written for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and later popularized by Judy Garland. “Meet me in St. Louis, Wooden, Memphis State’ll be there.”

Grogan’s ditty seemed more foolish than prophetic at first after Memphis State opened the season with losses to LSU, Marquette and Texas. The Tigers rebounded to finish 17-5 and earn an automatic bid to the 25-team NCAA tournament as champions of the Missouri Valley Conference.

Memphis State defeated South Carolina and Kansas State to win the Midwest Region and advance to the national semifinals, in which it would face Providence. UCLA, which steamrolled its way through a second consecutive undefeated regular season, would meet upstart Indiana, led by second-year coach Bob Knight, in the other semifinal in St. Louis.

‘We didn’t know much about anybody’

Making its first appearance in the national semifinals, which weren’t branded as the Final Four until 1978, Providence, coached by Dave Gavitt and led by guard Ernie DiGregorio, seemed to look past Memphis State. The Friars were undefeated since a 101-77 loss to UCLA on Jan. 20 at Pauley Pavilion, and players talked openly about a potential rematch with the Bruins in the championship game.

That showdown might have happened if Providence forward Marvin Barnes hadn’t injured his knee with his team leading Memphis State 24-16 in the first half. A hobbled Barnes returned late in the second half, but he couldn’t rescue the Friars from a 98-85 defeat. Kenon finished with 28 points and 22 rebounds to lead the Tigers, while Robinson added 24 points and 16 rebounds.

UCLA clinched its spot in the championship game — the first to be played on a Monday night — with a 70-59 win over Indiana. After watching the Hoosiers cut a 20-point lead to two with less than six minutes to play, Wooden told reporters his team “lost poise for the first time this year.” Walton had 14 points and 17 rebounds, and UCLA overcame Indiana star Steve Downing’s game-high 26 points.

The 1973 NCAA tournament was the culmination of an eventful year for Walton, who was arrested for protesting the Vietnam War on campus two months after capping the Bruins’ undefeated 1971-72 season with 24 points and 20 rebounds in the championship game. In February, Sports Illustrated’s Curry Kirkpatrick wrote a profile of the Bruins in which Walton was quoted as saying “a person past 35 should not be permitted to be President” and, “If a Black man gunned me down I’d figure it was all right because of what Whites had done to Blacks.”

Feinstein: The NCAA wouldn’t pull its Final Fours from Texas, so I’m staying home

Walton was well read, but he knew next to nothing about Memphis State’s team, including its reputation as a healing force back home. The extent of UCLA’s familiarity with the Tigers was watching the final minutes of their win over Providence from the tunnel leading to the court.

“In four years with Coach Wooden, he mentioned the other team twice, and we lost both of those games,” Walton, now an eccentric color commentator, said in a phone interview. “We didn’t know much about anybody, but I had great respect for Memphis.”

The Bruins’ practices under Wooden were often more competitive than their games. On the day before the championship, Wooden surprised his players by ending practice with a dunking drill.

“He was adamantly opposed to us ever dunking because it was against the rules,” Walton said, “but the day in between the two games, he said, ‘Let’s see what you can do.’ ”

“We were tight, and I felt we had to loosen up a bit,” Wooden told reporters. “We wanted them to be relaxed for this one.”

‘I tried to be at my best when my best was needed’

Memphis State was a 15-point underdog against UCLA, but Bartow expressed confidence before the championship game.

“We believe we can be the one,” he told reporters. “We are telling our players that. I’ve read Coach Wooden’s books. I believe in his positive thinking approach.”

During a pregame interview with Memphis radio play-by-play man Jack Eaton, Bartow described his defensive game plan.

“We’re going to try to force Walton out a little farther and then give him the shot,” he said. “We feel that half of his game is passing off. We’d like to make a shooter out of him tonight.”

The strategy backfired. When the Tigers swarmed UCLA’s Greg Lee, the 6-foot-4 point guard calmly lobbed passes over the defense to Walton, again and again and again. Lee finished with a championship game record 14 assists. UCLA guard Larry Hollyfield added a career-high nine assists.

“To Gene Bartow’s credit, he was the first and only guy to realize that Greg Lee was the key to our team,” Walton said. “Our game was ball movement, fast break, full-court press. That’s what I loved to do. Greg got the ball to everybody perfectly.”

In front of a predominantly pro-Memphis State crowd of 19,031, Kenon’s hot shooting kept the Tigers close in the early going. UCLA threatened to pull away, but Memphis State clawed back after Walton headed to the bench after picking up his third foul in the first half. The game was tied at 39 at halftime.

The turning point came with 12:36 to play, when Memphis State’s Wes Westfall was called for a flagrant foul. Walton made two free throws for a 55-47 lead, and the Tigers never seriously threatened again in the Bruins’ 87-66 win.

With 2:51 remaining, Walton took a hard fall and injured his left ankle. He received the loudest ovation of the night as he limped off the floor with an assist from Finch, with whom he would develop a friendship over the years.

Walton, who turned his only miss into a putback basket, broke UCLA star Gail Goodrich’s record of 42 points set in the 1965 championship game. Walton added 13 rebounds and had four baskets disallowed for offensive goaltending.

“I think it is the only time this year he has really been ready to play,” the even-keeled Wooden said of his redheaded star after the win.

“I tried to be ready on a consistent basis,” said Walton, who has never watched a replay of the 1973 championship game but can still see it clearly in his mind “like it was yesterday” and who deflects most of the credit for his record-breaking performance to his teammates. “I tried to be at my best when my best was needed.”

Of Wooden, he added: “We tried our best to get him to acknowledge what we were doing, and the best we ever got was maybe a twinkle — but just in one eye — and maybe one side of his lip curled up a little bit. Those acknowledgments were fleeting because he was always about what was next.”

After the loss, Grogan, Memphis State’s publicity man, wrote a coda for his preseason ditty.

“We met you in St. Louis, Wooden, and you’re still No. 1. … We all know it’s true. We’re proud to be No. 2.”

50 years later

A crowd of about 5,000 people, including a group from Melrose High, gathered at Memphis’s Mid-South Coliseum to welcome the Tigers home from St. Louis.

“We felt the team’s heartbeat and pride all over the television tube,” Tennessee Gov. Winfield Dunn declared at the reception.

“What Kenon and his teammates have done this year for the image of Memphis State and the spirit of Memphis will have a lasting effect,” read an editorial in the Commercial Appeal, which ran alongside an editorial cartoon depicting a White boy and a Black boy sitting on a sidewalk and looking dejected in front of a sign reading “Larry We Love You!!!”

“A lot of people felt it was just a great thing for the city of Memphis,” Bartow, who died in 2012, told Memphis Magazine in 2003. “From the Black-White standpoint, a lot of people felt like it was a unifying [event].”

But that feeling is not universal, and that narrative is complicated. In the wake of the brutal police beating that led to the death of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, in Memphis in January, Aram Goudsouzian, a professor of history at the University of Memphis who has written extensively about the 1972-73 team, wrote a column for the Daily Memphian in which he suggested that “the myth of the Tigers also overshadowed the realities of race in Memphis.” Goudsouzian noted that Chandler, the mayor who crowed about the Tigers bringing Memphians together, also opposed a 1973 busing plan to end segregation in the city’s public schools.

“[A]s soon as the final horn would go off, all those people would walk out of the Mid-South Coliseum, everyone went their separate ways,” Verties Sails, who coached Finch and Robinson at Melrose High, told the Daily Memphian this month. “We still haven’t gotten together as a people. We cheer for the same team, but we still haven’t gotten together as people.”

In 2003, as part of Zack McMillin’s exhaustive series to mark the 30th anniversary of the Tigers’ run, the Commercial Appeal hosted a forum with community members to debate the lasting effects of the 1972-73 team.

“If the 1972-73 Memphis State basketball team did nothing else, it filled a universal need,” McMillin wrote. “To move forward, Memphians needed to begin talking to one another in a civil way. They needed something to help transport them past the pain and bitterness that followed the civil rights movement in general and, more specifically, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”

Walton wasn’t aware of the unifying narrative that followed Memphis State to St. Louis in 1973, but he’s a believer “in the power and the value of sports to do neat things for communities.”

“I’ve seen it happen when a great team comes along and exhibits the qualities and characteristics and attributes of what people are clamoring for,” he said. “I’ve seen what that can do for a city. One of the things it does is brings the participants together, which breaks down barriers. I’m for anything and everything that breaks down barriers.”