50 years ago, the earth shook in Oregon

  The days of Bill Walton’s Conference of Champions are winding down, and it’s impossible not to feel some melancholy over that.

  Especially this week. Thursday marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most convulsive 24-hour periods in the basketball history of the Pac-12, and yes, in the sport itself.

  “UCLA’s Lost Weekend,” is what Sports Illustrated called it, a happening so stark and unexpected that the magazine was left to scramble to reassign the news to its cover.

  Today, it wouldn’t be so shocking if Connecticut or Purdue or Houston lost two games on one weekend – surprising, yes, but not outlandish. But college basketball was different back in 1974. UCLA had won every national title since 1967, and there wasn’t a lot of reason to think it wouldn’t repeat in ’74.

  The Bruins hadn’t lost back-to-back games in eight seasons. In the previous 127 Associated Press polls, UCLA had been ranked No. 1 in 110. From the time Lew Alcindor was varsity-eligible in 1966-1967 until that fateful weekend in Oregon, the Bruins had gone 223-6. And then in the span of 21 hours, lost a third as many games as they’d dropped in more than seven years.

 True, three weeks prior to their trip to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, they had seen their colossal 88-game winning streak snapped at Notre Dame, but they carried a 50-game Pac-8 win string north. That’s three and a half years’ worth.

  This was a time of quick-turnaround scheduling in the Pac-8, so a Friday-night game would be followed by one on Saturday night. Or in this case, a Saturday-afternoon televised game.

  I chronicled the landmark weekend on its 30th anniversary in a retrospective story in 2004 in the Seattle Times (linked below), and also in my book “Mad Hoops” on the chaotic era of Oregon’s so-called Kamikaze Kids.

  It won’t be surprising that, 30 years after, Walton wasn’t at a loss for words. “When the infidels from the frontier stole our posterity and our place in history,” he told me grandiloquently in 2004 in summarizing the weekend.

  It was a sizzling time to follow hoops in Oregon. Both football teams were awful, and it was common, about three games into September, for people to ask rhetorically – and only half-joking – “When’s basketball season start?’

  The programs went about it much differently. Oregon State and its future Hall of Fame coach, Ralph Miller, played a full-court game, running and pressing, while Miller preached that nothing in basketball had changed since the 1930s.

  At Oregon, Dick Harter implemented a grinding, physical, hit-the-floor style that became controversial up and down the coast. The Ducks were derided, even hated, in every opposing gym.

  But Oregon was the story in the state. It grated mightily on people around Oregon State and its fans, how the Ducks and Harter’s antics seemed to steal the headlines, even as the Beavers were accomplishing as much or more.

  At any rate, the Bruins came north, having just beaten the state-of-Oregon teams the previous weekend at Pauley Pavilion. Uncharacteristically, UCLA made 21 turnovers to OSU’s eight, Walton was held relatively in check by the Beavers’ center, Doug Oxsen, and guard George Tucker hit four free throws in the final minute to assure a 61-57 OSU victory.

  The Beavers flourished by beating John Wooden’s vaunted 2-2-1 full-court zone press downcourt and feeding forward Paul Miller, who downed eight of 10 medium-range jumpers for 16 points. Miller had grown up in San Luis Obispo, Calif., watching the Bruins on KTLA in Los Angeles.

  There wouldn’t be a lot of time for the Bruins to despair. They would be tipping it off at 3 p.m. the next day in Eugene against the Ducks.

  And the script would be familiar. A 6-8 center, Gerald Willett, was the outlet man against the press as Oregon hurried the ball up. Mostly, he got it to 6-8 sharpshooter Bruce Coldren, who, much as Paul Miller had in Corvallis the previous night, kept gunning in jumpers – 12 of 14 for 24 points. Coldren’s career was otherwise unremarkable, and he told me for Mad Hoops, “With all the hard work I put in, I think the Lord looked down on me and said, ‘OK, you’re not missing any shots today.’ “

  Oregon won, 56-51, and the scoreboard above fabled old McArthur Court, built in 1927,  bounced on its chains.

  About that sensitivity among Oregon State fans for the Ducks stealing their thunder: After Friday night, they had surely one-upped the Ducks in a major way. Now they had something Oregon didn’t. Certainly that was the feeling of two Oregon State wrestlers Oxsen told me about for Mad Hoops, guys who settled into their house Saturday afternoon to watch what would certainly be UCLA’s rebound beatdown of Oregon.

  For them, the game turned ugly, as did they.

  “They had guns,” Oxsen said. “They shot their TV.”

  The double defeat sent Sports Illustrated into a whirlwind at its New York offices. I never learned what was planned to be the cover story that week, but suddenly, this had to be it. The Ducks dined at Eugene Country Club after that conquest of UCLA, and Coldren found himself on the phone with Curry Kirkpatrick, SI’s lead college hoops writer.

  The magazine chased down Eugene resident Kenny Moore, who was one of SI’s most gifted writers, and he penned a story not focused on UCLA’s sudden mortality, but on Oregon’s rise under Harter. Oregon State, which had ended the 50-game league winning streak, earned about three paragraphs at the end of the piece. So: more raw feelings from the Beavers.

  It turned out that Willett, not Coldren, was the cover boy, pictured as he pulled down a rebound. “It shocked the living crud out of me,” Willett told me, adding that he’ll occasionally get a copy in the mail to be autographed.

  It was a weekend that seemed to suggest a dynasty fraying. UCLA lost in the national semifinals that year to North Carolina State, breaking that seven-year title hold. The Bruins would piece together one more title run in 1975, but Wooden announced his retirement on the weekend of that climactic championship, and the Bruins would never be the same.

  And what of the principals of that weekend? Walton, of course, had a decorated – if injury-plagued – pro career, and today delights (or bedevils) TV viewers with his analysis.

  Oxsen went to work for the Oregon State Foundation. Paul Miller, likewise, stayed in Corvallis and worked in insurance.

  Coldren became a teacher in the small town of Lowell near Eugene, just a baseball pass from the Dexter Lake Club, made popular in the movie Animal House. He died in 2021 of a pulmonary embolism.

  Willett, a property manager in Eugene, experienced health problems related to having been electrocuted as he fixed a dishwasher.

  The heartbeat of those Oregon teams, Ronnie Lee, was the 10th pick in the 1976 NBA draft, to Phoenix, and spent several years in the NBA before a long career playing and coaching in Sweden. He moved back to Eugene in 2017.

  Today, Oregon plays in soulless Matthew Knight Arena. Oregon State has had sparse success since Ralph Miller retired in 1989. And UCLA is on its 11th coach, Mick Cronin, since Wooden departed.

  You wonder if more than a handful of folks in the Willamette Valley recognize what took place 50 years ago. To the others, we can only say: You wouldn’t have believed it.