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UCLA Basketball Reunion

by Tony Medley

About 10 years ago, former UCLA Assistant Coach Jerry Norman threw a party for all the players he recruited while he was John Wooden’s Assistant Coach. I was one of the two non-players invited (TV announcer Mike Walden was the other). It was a wonderful affair, a sit down dinner party in Jerry’s garden. A few years later, if not the next year, Jerry and his teammate, circa 1948-51 and best friend from high school, Eddie Sheldrake, put together a shindig for all former UCLA basketball players beginning with Wooden’s first year of 1948. That has continued periodically. Inspired by Jerry’s initial party, and then the second party that he and Eddie put together, alumni of the UCLA basketball program have a camaraderie and togetherness not seen in any other athletic program in the country. In fact, I doubt that any alumni program has what these people have.

This year the affair was put together once again by Jerry and Eddie. They were joined by Lynn Shackelford, a left-handed deadeye shooting forward on three consecutive NCAA championship teams, 66-69, Mike Warren, a guard on two of those teams, 66-68 and now an accomplished actor, and Keith Erickson, a forward on two NCAA championship teams, 63-65. This combining of eras is one thing that makes the UCLA basketball unique. Everyone who played UCLA basketball, at least under Wooden, is an equal. Occasionally I get invited to lunch at Philippe’s, a sandwich shop that has been in downtown L.A. for 100 years with a handful of players that range from Erickson’s era (Keith is usually there) back to the beginning of the Wooden era, put together, naturally, by Sheldrake and Norman.

Jerry invited me to this year’s affair, which was held at the ballroom of the Sheraton Gateway at LAX. During dinner, before the program began, a large screen showed beautiful photographs of past gatherings of the UCLA basketball family, all taken by Warren. Warren is as good a photographer as he was a player (and Wooden has said he was the best guard he ever coached).

Shackelford, who was the Lakers’ color commentator with Chick Hearn for many years, was the MC. Erickson, who preceded Shack as Hearn’s color man, helped him by interviewing Wooden and present coach Bob Howland. Shack and Keith epitomize the rest of the group in that they are articulate and funny. Shackelford noticed that Erickson came in late and was standing behind the buffet table. Lynn told Erickson that he should know a UCLA basketball player is never allowed to be late. Without a beat, Erickson shot back, “What do you mean, late? I’m first in the food line!”

This reunion, instead of focusing on the championship years, honored Wooden’s first three teams, 1948-51, which Norman and Sheldrake played on. In 1950, this team beat CCNY at Madison Square Garden in New York. That’s important because the 1950 CCNY team is the only team in history to win both the NCAA Tournament and the NIT Tournament.

One of the highlights of the program was Bob Pounds, a benchwarmer in those three years, who spoke about Wooden being a racial integrator. He said he was the only black player on the team. From Fresno, he mentioned that fact to Wooden, after his first practice. Wooden said he wasn’t the only one, that another player, named Gene, was also black. Bob looked the next day and while Gene was African American, he wasn’t black. Bob said, “I was still the only black player, not only on the team, but in the conference! I hated SC,” he said. “They called me terrible things. But we beat them 3 out of 4 my first year and all four times my second year, so who cared?” He recalled standing outside the gym that first day of practice not knowing anyone and reluctant to go in, when George Stanich came up to him. Stanich was not only an All-American basketball player; he was an Olympic Bronze Medal winner in the High Jump, and an all-around athlete. Without hesitating, Stanich put out his hand, introduced himself, and said to Bob, “Let’s go in and shoot around.” Bob says, “I went into the gym with him and we shot around. From that moment on, I was a member of the team and I felt no discomfort.”

He told of his wonder at the travel. He called his mother to tell her he was going to Iowa and New York and Kentucky and places he had only read about, never having been outside of California. “When we were in New York to play CCNY, (Brooklyn Dodger second baseman) Jackie Robinson (who had played football, basketball and baseball for UCLA in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s) came into our locker room and shook hands with everyone. Jackie Robinson!”

Pounds spoke for almost a half hour. It was clear that playing basketball for UCLA was the turning point of his life. But that’s not unusual. Just about everyone who speaks at these affairs attributes their experience as a UCLA basketball player as being a life-altering event.

Sheldrake followed, as Erickson presented him with a USC T-shirt with Eddie’s number, 75, which Sheldrake disdained. Then he gave him a plaque and read the inscription. Sheldrake then talked for another half hour. But he has such a Don Rickles-type personality that he had the audience in stitches, razzing first one player, then another.

Sheldrake reiterated what Norman has told me many times, that UCLA had the best basketball team in the country in 1950 and should have won the NCAA Title. Sheldrake said that Wooden never scouted another team and didn’t give reports on them. But before they played Bradley in the Final Eight, Wooden went down the Bradley starting lineup and praised Bradley so much that Sheldrake wondered why they were even taking the court. Led by Squeaky Gene Melchiorre, Bradley beat UCLA in the first round, mainly because the players had been intimidated by Wooden’s report, and went on to lose to CCNY by three points in the NCAA Finals. As far as I know, Wooden never commented on another team to his players again, until they played Houston in the 1968 NCAA semi-final (that time it worked as the #2-ranked Bruins, led by Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Mike Warren, and Lucius Allen, annihilated the Elvin Hayes-led #1 ranked Cougars 101-69).

After trouble with the microphone, Wooden was interviewed by Erickson. Like most of his players, Wooden exhibits a keen sense of humor. After listening to the long talks by Pounds and Ralph Joeckel (who made a ¾-court length shot to beat Washington in a playoff in 1950 at the buzzer) and the others, “I don’t know how well I taught them to play basketball, but I certainly taught them how to speak. I just didn’t teach them how to quit speaking.”

Wooden told about how he had his differences with his players but that they eventually all came around. He said, “Barry Porter complained that I never played him. I told him I didn’t play him because he couldn’t play and I didn’t like him.” Porter laughed uproariously. Porter later spoke as Sheldrake called upon all of those who played with him and spent their lives in education, and reported that he worked for awhile for Wooden’s brother, “and he liked me!”

Similarly, Erickson complained that he never got to shoot with players like Gail Goodrich as his teammates. Wooden responded, “Keith, you didn’t get to shoot because you couldn’t shoot.”

Keith asked him what his best team was. Wooden complained, “I’m 96 years old. The best team I coached is the only team I can remember, the last one.”

Current coach Howland also spoke. He said he feels that the warm feeling prevalent in the room is important to his players and his team. He mentioned how important the support of all the former players was to the team’s success last year, reaching the Final Four. He specifically said how important it was to the team to have so many former players, like Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Bill Walton, attend the Final Four in support of UCLA basketball.

He credited Walton with helping him recruit one of this year’s top high school players, saying that Walton called him and talked with him on the phone for more than a half hour. He said he wants his current players to appreciate the tradition of UCLA Basketball and to that end every year he is going to have a BBQ and invite all UCLA former players and managers so that they will mix with the present players. He said it is very important to him that the present players have knowledge of, and respect for, what came before them and what they represent when they play.

This is a remarkable group of men. Starting with their coach, Wooden, who is active, alert, and with a keen intellect at 96, there was a huge group from the early years, much more than would be expected given their ages and life expectancies, and all appear in excellent condition. Not only that, but many have lived lives of unusual accomplishment. Just to take a few specific examples, Sheldrake is the largest holder of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Polly’s Pies franchises in the country. Norman has been very successful in business and lives in a beautiful house high on a hill in Brentwood, one of Los Angeles’ best areas. Joeckel owns an engineering firm in Las Vegas.

Many devoted their lives to education. Stanich, who, with his trim body and crew cut, looks as if he could still compete in the high jump and on the basketball courts, was in education all his life. In fact, Norman told me that Stanich was responsible for Erickson attending UCLA. One day Stanich called Jerry, who was then coaching the UCLA Freshman team as well as being Wooden’s main recruiter, and recommended Keith. Jerry said, “We played his team, George, and I barely remember this guy in the game.” Stanich insisted that Erickson was special and that Jerry should go after him, so Jerry went to UCLA baseball coach Art Reichle and told Art about Keith, who also played baseball. Jerry suggested to Art, “Let’s split a scholarship. If he makes it in baseball, you will assume the scholarship. If he makes it in basketball, we’ll take it.” Reichle agreed, Erickson came to UCLA on the split scholarship and never played baseball.

Attached are some pictures of the event. There’s one of me and my girlfriend, Ann Peterson, and Jerry Norman, another of our table, left to right are Jim Nielson, who played on the 68-69 championship teams and, like so many of his colleagues, spent his life in education and is now Director of Secondary Education for the Las Virgenes Unified School District, Stan Troutman, who was UCLA’s official sports photographer for 50 years, Jim Collins, founder and Chairman of the Board of Collins, International, a NYSE corporation, and the largest individual donor to UCLA, his wife, Carol, and the backs of the heads of Jerry and Ann. Carol Collins’ sister-in-law, Luanne Leonard, is my oldest (er, longest) bridge partner. There’s one of the room at large (probably 500 people attended) with the big screen showing Mike Warren’s pictures, one of Lynn Shackelford at the podium, and two of me with Kenny Washington and Jerry.

August 5, 2006