|Tommy Burleson with a baseline hook shot over Bill Walton at jam-packed St. Louis Arena. (Ed Caram photo)|
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© Tim Peeler, 2021
Perhaps the most important—and widely anticipated—contest in the history of NC State athletics was a made-for-television men’s basketball game between the Wolfpack and seven-time defending NCAA champion UCLA, played in St. Louis on Dec. 15, 1973.
As those two schools, which share little common athletics history, prepare to play in Tuesday night’s Holiday Bowl in San Diego, here’s how two undefeated teams from the 1972-73 season drew up the most watched and eagerly awaited college basketball game in a decade, thanks to a handshake and contract drawn up in tiny Buies Creek, North Carolina.
Back then, the infinitesimal town in Harnett County was the home of coach Fred McCall’s Campbell (College) Basketball School, which not only drew thousands of young players from all over the country but also some of the most talented counselors and top coaching minds in business.
Norm Sloan, Jim Valvano and Kay Yow were among NC State’s contributions to the camp, spending their time teaching fundamentals in one of the many un-air-conditioned small college or high school gyms from Buies Creek to Lillington and all the backroad schools in between.
Bob Cousy, Dolph Schayes and Bill Sharman were among the first NBA players who came to lead camp. Michael Jordan, James Worthy and Ralph Sampson were among the big-name recruits who attended through the years, where discomfort took a backseat to superb instruction, all for a camper fee of $25 for the week (though prices did balloon by $4.50 after 15 summers).
Beginning in 1967, in the summer after he won the first of seven consecutive NCAA championships, “The Wizard of Westwood” was the most popular speaker and instructor during the week-long camp, shutting down the “Meatballs”-like atmosphere with his first spoken sentence.
First conducted in 1956, the Campbell school is purportedly the nation’s first residential basketball school for high school players. The following year, NC State coach Everett Case opened a similar residential camp at Raleigh’s Dorton Arena, modeled after the old high school coaches’ clinic he ran with Clifford Wells in Indiana. He, too, drew some of the most famous coaches, counselors and players in the country.
Conditions weren’t great. Carter Gym, which opened the same year as McCall’s first basketball school, held less than 1,000 spectators, every one of which was needed for the wildly popular nighttime games between college players who served as camp counselors. (Only once did they let a high school camper join in—and none of them could stop 15-year-old Pete Maravich.)
The court was four feet short of regulation, which made Pistol Pete’s full-court passes and half-court shots only slightly less impressive.
Agreeing to Play
In the summer of 1973, the Campbell school was reaching the height of its popularity. Wooden, fresh off an 30-0 record and another national title, had not only agreed to be a counselor again, but he also allowed the small Baptist-affiliated school to confer upon him an honorary doctorate of humanities, something the celebrated college player and coach had declined many times through the years.
Wooden loved the quiet little town in the Sandhills. He said many times that he planned to move to Keith Hills Golf Club when he retired from coaching basketball. He would have done so, too, had his wife Nell not gotten ill and required the advanced health care she needed in Los Angeles instead of Buies Creek.
One thing he hadn’t really counted on was that the biggest challenge to his on-going college basketball dynasty would be just 40 miles up the road in Raleigh, where head coach Norman Sloan, who, like Wooden, was an Indiana basketball evangelist who was spreading the college game to the masses. Sloan, however, did it with homegrown talent in the form of center Tommy Burleson and forward David Thompson, with a little Indiana flair thrown in from Monte Towe and Tim Stoddard. The Wolfpack was 27-0 in 1972-73, but barred from playing in the NCAA Championship event because of minor violations in the recruitment of Thompson.
For years, Wooden owned national recruiting, famously landing Lew Alcindor from New York by beating out Wake Forest coach Horace “Bones” McKinney for his talents. To win his seventh title and ninth in 10 seasons, Wooden relied on the “Walton Gang,” led by center Bill Walton and forward Jamaal (nee Keith) Wilkes.
They finished the season with a 30-0 record, beating in the semifinals and in the finals at St. Louis Arena to remain on the top of college basketball’s heap.
It was just another reason college basketball fans felt cheated in the era when freshmen couldn’t play, dunks were not allowed and only one team per conference could participate in the NCAA tournament.
The game between the Wolfpack and Bruins was agreed to by the coaches and fully arranged by two of the most powerful men in basketball: NC State athletics director Willis Casey and UCLA athletics director J.D. Morgan, both of whom served on the NCAA Competition Committee.
Earlier in the year, Casey had successfully arranged the first nationally televised game since Houston beat UCLA in the Astrodome in 1968 when the Wolfpack traveled to Maryland on Super Bowl Sunday. The game was a smashing success and the national coming out party for Thompson, who tipped in a missed shot in the final seconds for a 72-70 win at Cole Field House.
They agreed to play the game in the middle of the country, at the same 19,200-seat St. Louis Arena where the 1973 semifinals and finals were played. (It wasn’t called the Final Four until 1978). ABC-TV agreed to televise it.
Sloan wanted to make his team internationally famous, too. The U.S. State Department, a little over a year after President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China, was looking for a college basketball team to tour Red China to play a series of exhibition games against top Chinese teams. Both the Bruins and the Wolfpack were among the teams invited to go. After UCLA declined, the Wolfpack accepted. The NCAA, however, refused to let Sloan and his team go because they were technically still on probation. The whole tour fell apart.
|Thompson at the World University Games.|
The young American team – which also featured Indiana’s Quinn Buckner and Providence’s Marvin Barnes – began with an 11-game exhibition tour in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria. In Moscow, Thompson was spectacular, leading the high-scoring, hard-running team to its first five wins by an average margin of victory of 81.2 points.
The team survived an on-court brawl with Cuba in its sixth game, then defeated Brazil and the U.S.S.R. to win the gold medal. By the end of the event, the Russian spectators were shouting Thompson’s name and giving him standing ovations every time he stepped on the floor, an amazing display of support during what was still a high point of the Cold War.
So it’s not an exaggeration to say that everyone in the world who cared about basketball wanted to know the outcome of the regular-season match-up between NC State and UCLA game.
Putting Their Streaks on the Line
UCLA entered the early-season game against the Wolfpack on a 78-game winning streak. State had won 29 in a row, the most by an ACC team since North Carolina’s undefeated national championship season in 1957.
The Bruins were ranked No. 1 in the nation, the Wolfpack No. 2. Some 40 million spectators were expected to watch the game, a half-decade before sports network ESPN began broadcasting as a cable television network.
The UCLA-NC State matchup was actually the second in a doubleheader, following a contest between St. Louis and Southern Illinois. Tickets for both games—$8 and $10 each—were only available by mail when they went on sale on July 1, and sold out within days.
The teams were not the same as they were the year before. NC State had to replace Joe Cafferky and Rick Holdt and UCLA had to replace Larry Hollyfield and Larry Farmer from their 1973 teams.
“It should be a tremendous game, but it should not be regarded as a settlement of last year’s issue,” Wooden said before the game. “We’ve both got fine teams back, but they are different teams. Last year is dead and gone.”
Sloan and his team were confident about their chances. Perhaps a little too confident, following a 32-point win over East Carolina and a 55-point win over Vermont, outcomes that made Sloan livid because he didn’t think his team played particularly well.
His mood changed as the trip to St. Louis approached.
“We are very relaxed right now,” Sloan said. “We had some problems playing our other games with this one ahead, but now everything is fine. It’s going to be an enjoyable experience for us. We’re not uptight about it; we realize the importance of it, but it can’t become too important. We’ve got too many other things in front of us.
“Win or lose this game, the thing that counts in our league is winning the title and the postseason tournament. I think it’s great that we’re playing. If you have two teams that can go for some freak reason through a season undefeated, they should get together and play.”
Sloan knew the game against the Bruins would be an understudy contest should his team win the ACC for the second year in a row and advance to the NCAA Tournament.
|UCLA's Bill Walton in the 1974 NCAA semifinal game. |
The game was billed as a contest between differing All-Americans: UCLA’s Walton, unquestionably the nation’s best big man, vs. NC State’s Thompson, whose remarkable skills were often compared to Oscar Robertson, Julius Erving and Elvin Hayes.
The answer would be found, Sloan said, elsewhere on the roster.
“I don’t think we will stop Bill Walton,” the coach offered. “But I also don’t think UCLA will stop David Thompson.”
Excitement was palpable from coast to coast as the game approached.
“I am glad we are getting an early shot at them,” Burleson said. “I think it helps to play the best and I play better against the strong teams. We’ll learn a lot from this one.”
Sloan had no problem telling anyone who would listen that this was NC State’s greatest team, because Thompson was healthy and more mature, Burleson was out to prove something and diminutive guard Monte Towe was ready to lead. Plus, the Wolfpack added two of the nation’s best junior college players, Mo Rivers and Phil Spence, to its lineup.
UCLA, meanwhile, had played well in a difficult season-opening win over Maryland, a game that went down to the wire, 65-64. It arrived in St. Louis riding a 78-game winning streak, the longest in NCAA history.
“The thing I remember the most about that game is just the build-up for it,” said Towe when he was a Wolfpack assistant under Sidney Lowe. “It lasted the whole summer because both of us were undefeated and unable to play each other the season before.”
Failure to Take Advantage
It appeared early on that the game would live up to the hype.
Walton—“Big Red” to the nickname aficionados—was overly excited in his first career game against 7-foot-4 Burleson. The two had a balky existence going back to the 1972 Olympic Trials, when Walton refused to participate in tryouts, saying he was already proven to be the best big man in the country, while Burleson outplayed the rest of the competition to become the youngest player on the Olympic roster.
In the electric atmosphere, Walton picked up four fouls in the game’s first 10 minutes and was relegated to the bench for more than half of the opening period.
|UCLA's Ralph Drollinger guarded by Phil Spence.|
(Ed Caram photo.)
UCLA reserve center Ralph Drollinger came in for Walton and roughed up Burleson late in the first half.
“It happened right at the end of the first half,” Burleson said. “He hit me with a forearm shiver right in the nose and top of the mouth. I played the second half with a broken nose and two missing teeth.”
Even though Sloan and his team led 33-32 at the half, there was an overwhelming sense among the sold-out arena that the Wolfpack was barely hanging on, while the Bruins were cruising without their best player on the court. Wilkes was picking up the slack in scoring—he finished with a game-high 27 points—and keeping Thompson under wraps.
“I thought we were a little cautious at first,” Wooden said. “Later, however, I knew I could bring Walton back any time from the bench. They (State) knew it, and that’s something to think about.
“I told our players if we could stay close until mid-way through the second half without Bill, I thought we’d be all right.”
So, with 9:54 remaining in the game and his team leading 54-52, Wooden inserted Walton back in the game. State tied the score on its next possession, but Walton led the Bruins on 10-point and nine-point scoring runs sandwiched between a lone Wolfpack basket over the next three minutes.
The last 10 minutes of the game were hardly a contest and the Bruins won going away, 84-66, extending its winning streak to 79 games and retaining its claim as college basketball’s most dominant program.
In the end, the arranged game could have been a source of embarrassment for Sloan’s newcomers at the top of college basketball. It could have affected how the Wolfpack played its ACC season or how it performed in the NCAA Championships.
“When Walton got into foul trouble, we should have taken over the game,” Towe said. “Drollinger came in the game and did a number on us and Keith Wilkes did a great job on David.
“We just weren’t good enough to win that day. I think it helped us in the long run, because we knew if we played them again, we would be playing to win instead of looking at the name on the jersey.”
|NC State's David Thompson vowed he would never play so poorly again.|
(Ed Caram photo.)
“We really didn’t execute too well in the first game,” Thompson recalled. “That was the first time in a big game like that that we had been down and we didn’t handle it too well.”
The Bruins’ winning streak eventually ended at 88 (a record that still stands) when it lost at Notre Dame. Wooden and his team lost twice more before the NCAA Tournament. The Wolfpack, meanwhile, learned its lessons and kept getting stronger in a handful of tough games in the ACC season.
Nothing, of course, was tougher than defending its championship in the 1974 ACC Tournament, culminating with the 103-100 overtime victory against Maryland, still considered the greatest game in ACC history.
“I think by the time we played again in Greensboro, we were a more cohesive team,” Thompson said. “I knew I was never going to play that badly again. Usually in the big games, I played my best. We felt like they didn’t see the true NC State team. We wanted to redeem ourselves and we really wanted a chance to do that.”
Burleson, who was roughed up in the first game by Drollinger, believes the loss hurt the Bruins almost as much as it helped the Wolfpack.
“It allowed UCLA to be a little bit complacent in the second game,” Burleson said. “They just felt they were better than us. They probably were—in that game.”
The reason that the regular-season game was so important in the annals of Wolfpack history was that it took the high-flying Wolfpack down a notch and gave them motivation to set up a rematch. They got it in March, without having to travel outside its home state, winning the NCAA regional in Reynolds Coliseum and then taking a 90-minute bus ride to Greensboro.
There, in double-overtime, Thompson and Burleson ended the Bruins stronghold on college basketball in the semifinals, and Towe made sure the team did not suffer a letdown in the finals against Marquette.
Those wins might not have happened, however, were it not for the mid-December NC State-UCLA game, a contest of international acclaim drawn up in the sands of Buies Creek, North Carolina.