Commentary

UCLA players prepare for UConn's 89th

Seeing win streak topped seems harder now that coach John Wooden is gone, too

Updated: December 20, 2010, 7:25 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

For 36 years it has been theirs to have and hold on to.

Like a good scotch or marriage, deepening in meaning and richness as the years go by.

"The older I get the more special it becomes," said Jamaal Wilkes, who was a freshman when UCLA's 88-game winning streak began on Jan. 30, 1971, and a senior when it ended on Jan. 19, 1974.

[+] EnlargeBill Walton
UCLA/Collegiate Images/Getty ImagesBill Walton and the Bruins beat Maryland 65-64 at Pauley Pavilion on Dec. 1, 1973, one of the wins along the 88-game streak.

"When I think back on it, it was a heck of a whirlwind," Wilkes said. "It was a journey that I couldn't really appreciate then."

He does now, though.

Which is why his emotions are so mixed about the Connecticut women's basketball team's pursuit of UCLA's record.

The Huskies tied UCLA at 88 on Sunday with an 81-50 rout of No. 10 Ohio State. They can pass UCLA's streak on Tuesday against Florida State.

"I kind of hope they don't, for Coach Wooden's sake," Wilkes said.

It was an unprompted response to a question about UCLA's streak, not one comparing it to Connecticut's. Wilkes brought it up.

But if you were standing right in front of him, looking at his face and into his eyes, you'd say he seemed more sad than angry.

This has been a tough year for Wilkes and the men who played for John Wooden.

The legendary coach passed away in June, but Wilkes said he's still searching for closure.

"It didn't really hit me until his birthday," Wilkes said. "I was deluged with the media requests and all that [right after Wooden died] and I had to put up a good front, but on his birthday it really hit me that he's gone.

"I drove by the exit on the freeway [that would lead to Wooden's condo in Encino] this week, and I reminisced for a moment. But he was the kind of guy who wouldn't want a lot of people dwelling on it. He'd want you to go on with your life. But you can't do that, it's Coach Wooden."

Coach [John] Wooden never spoke about [the streak]. We were focused more on getting our team ready for the league, winning the league, then hopefully winning the tournament and the national championship. I don't think it was, in the whole scheme of things, a big deal to Coach at all.

-- Former UCLA player Gary Cunningham, who was an assistant coach under Wooden during the Bruins' 88-game winning streak

I'd caught up with Wilkes on Friday afternoon at a coaches clinic for Special Olympians put on by the Wooden Classic. He'd driven from his home in Los Angeles to Anaheim, because it felt like honoring the coach who'd meant so much to his life.

Bill Walton was scheduled to join him, but heavy rain and Southern California traffic turned 's commute from San Diego into a crawl and he couldn't make it.

Most celebrities of Walton's ilk would've turned around after an hour or so of bumper-to-bumper traffic, but Walton kept coming and calling into the staffers of the Wooden Classic until it was clear he'd never make it.

When he finally stopped and turned back for home, Walton asked one of the staffers to hand the phone to Wilkes so he could speak to his old friend and teammate.

"Bill really, really wanted to be here," Wilkes told the audience. "I can't tell you how badly he feels that he couldn't make it."

Everyone in the room understood and forgave him immediately. It was raining. He was driving from San Diego. In Los Angeles, dealing with bad traffic is a way of life. But there was obviously more to Walton's disappointment at missing the event.

"For me, coming down here was a start at closure to pay tribute to a man who meant so much to me personally, so much to UCLA and so much to many people around the world," Wilkes said. "We can never really pay tribute to him, but we can try."

Though it does not compare to the loss they all feel at Wooden's passing, saying goodbye to their streak just seems harder now that Wooden is gone.

"I don't know if I'll be watching the [Connecticut] game because of the emotions involved in it," said Marques Johnson, who was a freshman when the streak ended in 1974. "But on a certain level, if they do happen to win it and break the record or tie the record or whatever they end up doing, I have a lot of respect for the accomplishment. I'm really impressed with the job Coach Auriemma has done and how his players have responded to the challenges placed before them.

Jamaal Wilkes
Arnold Turner/WireImageJamaal Wilkes was a freshman when UCLA's 88-game winning streak began in 1971 and a senior when it ended in 1974.

"There are some differences, but the fact they've won as many games as they've won, to win 88 games in a row at any level is a remarkable achievement. To be able to fight off fatigue and general malaise and things that can happen to a basketball team, to be able to win night in and night out, that's a testament to just how good of a team they are and I'm happy for them."

While the former UCLA players' emotions are obviously mixed, there is one thing they all agree on.

Wooden wouldn't have minded at all.

"Coach Wooden never spoke about it," said Gary Cunningham, who played for Wooden from 1960 to 1962 and served as an assistant coach during the streak.

"We were focused more on getting our team ready for the league, winning the league, then hopefully winning the tournament and the national championship.

"I don't think it was, in the whole scheme of things, a big deal to Coach at all."

Like Wilkes and Johnson, Cunningham said he didn't realize the magnitude of what UCLA had accomplished with the streak until many years later.

"Later on, after I left UCLA and went on to do athletic director work, that's when I realized what a remarkable achievement it was," he said. "To win 88 games, some of them were close, to win national championships. That's remarkable. I think the same thing when I think about UConn. They've been tested and they've had some tough games, but they've come through it and it's a remarkable achievement.

"But while we were at UCLA, I'm not sure we were aware there was even a streak until we [broke USF's 60-game streak, the previous record] and the media started writing about it. Coach Wooden never spoke to the team about it.

"It was just, every game we played, we wanted to win," Cunningham said. "That's all we talked about. Once we started winning, other teams were intimidated by us. I heard many a coach say, 'Boy if we could just be within seven or eight points of UCLA at the end of the game, that'd be a victory.'

"There was a mystique about us and there was a belief, by our players, that if we took care of business we were going to win."

As the years have gone by, the streak has meant more to all of them. For some, it has become emotionally linked to Wooden, whom they are still saying goodbye to. In a way, UCLA's players now seem to feel a lot like they did on the night they finally lost to Notre Dame 36 years ago.

"There was [a relief] but there was also a sadness," Wilkes said. "A disappointment. There were so many emotions, it was hard to pinpoint just one emotion.

"As the streak wore on, it was like we were playing ourselves every night. After a while we thought we would never lose."

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.

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