50 Years Ago, Los Angeles Was College Basketball Paradise

Written By Darren Cooper on April 5, 2022
Fifty Years Ago, College Basketball Was Different

There were no West Coast or California teams in this year’s Final Four.

But, 50 years ago, Los Angeles and UCLA were the center of the college basketball universe. The 1972 Final Four was played at the L.A. Sports Arena for the first and last time.

Los Angeles hasn’t hosted the Final Four since.

In 1972, gas prices were 36 cents a gallon. UCLA was the dominant program, having won the title in 1971 under legendary coach John Wooden. At that time, the NCAA Tournament was a fledgling event that had 25 teams entered. They still played third-place games for the Regionals! There were first-round games played in Princeton, New Jersey, Ames, Iowa, and Provo, Utah.

One thing hasn’t changed in 50 years: Sports betting remains illegal in California. Multiple initiatives will be on the ballot this coming Election Day, though, which could change that.

Big Red and the UCLA Bruins

Bill Walton is known to this generation of basketball fans for his loquacious, stream-of-consciousness broadcasts on ESPN. Walton frequently speaks his mind and says just about anything on it.

But in 1972, he was the key figure on an undefeated UCLA Bruins team that was in the middle of their record-breaking 88game win streak.

The 1971-72 Bruins didn’t just beat teams, they embarrassed them, going 300 and often winning games by margins of over 30 points.

Walton was a different kind of center. With long arms and a deft shot, he could influence a game at both ends of the floor. He was the College Basketball Player of the Year that season, the first of two straight titles.

Big Red wasn’t alone, though. In addition to Walton, there was Henry Bibby, who spent nine years in the NBA, and JamaalSilkWilkes, who won four NBA titles.

Bruins forward Larry Farmer ended up coaching at UCLA and finished with a college career record of 89-1. Bruins guard Greg Lee played briefly in the NBA before becoming a pioneer and champion on the beach volleyball circuit. Even Swen Nater, Walton’s back-up, became the only person to lead both the ABA and NBA in rebounds.

Tournament storylines: Connections and controversies

In the early-70’s, the NCAA was hot on the heels of college basketball players and schools breaking rules. Sound familiar?

Before Florida State’s first-round game against Eastern Kentucky, the NCAA asked to meet with three Seminoles to investigate claims that they had signed with an agent. They said they hadn’t. The NCAA moved on.

Southwest Louisiana (now LouisianaLafayette) was the first team to ever make the tournament in their first year of eligibility. After the 1973 season, they got the death penalty thanks to a scandal involving grade-fixing and cash for players.

What everyone wanted to see was a game between Louisville and UCLA. The Cardinals were coached by Denny Crum, Wooden’s long-time assistant. Fans weren’t sure the two had parted on good terms.

They got that matchup in the Final Four, and Walton dominated. He scored 16 of his team’s first 20 points. Still, Louisville only trailed by eight at halftime. Incredibly, that was the closest halftime score for UCLA all season.

It didn’t last. The Bruins won going away, 96-77.

A final cutting down of the nets

Remember Florida State? The Seminoles were coached by Hugh Durham and were lucky just to get in the tournament, receiving an atlarge bid.

They were a Cinderella story, except that no one was really excited to see them. The Seminoles had been on NCAA probation the three years prior, and people believed Durham wasn’t exactly on the level.

The Seminoles had lost a game in Hawaii, 30-10. You heard that right: 3010. The officials declared the game a forfeit midway through, after Durham refused to leave the floor following a technical foul.

But the Seminoles were good. They had Ron King and Reggie Royals. They upset North Carolina in the Final Four 79-75, adding to the storyline (incredible as it sounds) that Tar Heels coach Dean Smith couldn’t win a big game. The Tar Heels have won six national titles to date.

Against UCLA, Florida State went right at the Bruins. They led 2114, the biggest lead any team had had on UCLA all year, but Tallahassee-born Bruins guard Tommy Curtis led a Bruins comeback.

Walton did his thing, and UCLA triumphed 81-76 in front of a crowd of 15,063. It was the Bruins’ 45th straight win. Wooden had said that after the game he was proud of his team’s composure.

The epitaph on 72

The Sports Arena was demolished in 2016. John Wooden died at age 99 in 2010, having inspired a legion of basketball players and coaches with his “Pyramid of Success.” He won 10 NCAA titles as a coach.

The closest of those 10 titlewinning games was in 1972 against Florida State.

Durham left Florida State after the 1977-78 season and went to the University of Georgia, where he took the Bulldogs to the Final Four in 1983. 1972 is the only time Florida State has ever reached the Final Four.

The NCAA has awarded the West Regional Semi-finals and Finals in 2024 to Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles.

Photo by Shutterstock.com
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Darren Cooper

Darren Cooper was born and raised in Southern Louisiana, just a short pirogue ride away from New Orleans. He started his journalism career at the New Orleans Times-Picayune and has been a writer and columnist in New Jersey since 1998. He's won 14 statewide press awards and earned his first Associated Press Sports Editors Top 10 award in 2022.

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