Sibling rivalries aren’t much fun when you’re the little brother.
My older brother considered me to be just as much a tackling dummy as a playmate. I would swear that Greg also sharpened his elbows before every game of one-on-one that we’d play on our back-yard basketball court.
Even ping-pong was a contact sport for us.
UCSB has gotten plenty of paddlings from its own big brother. For more than 50 years, the Gauchos were taken to the Westwood-shed by the UCLA basketball team, losing 18 consecutive times.
The late Wee Willie Wilton had been a Bruin football hero when he joined Santa Barbara’s coaching staff during the darkest days of the Great Depression. The Gauchos gave him the basketball team in 1937, along with an annual budget of $700. Money was so tight that he had to rely on some of his players to help drive them to the out-of-town games.
“Bill Russell, who played for me in 1939-40, still maintains that I let a couple of players make the team just because they had cars with good tires,” Wilton told me three decades ago.
But Wee Willie was still able to wheel the Gauchos to a CCAA title that year, as well as to the 1941 NAIA Final Four the following season. After a time out during the war years, he even convinced his alma mater to play them on Dec. 6, 1946. The Bruins won this first-ever meeting, 32-18, at UCLA’s on-campus gym.
When an obscure coach from Indiana took over as UCLA’s coach for the 1948-49 season, Wilton talked him into scheduling UCSB for his debut. John Wooden, his job none too secure, nearly regretted it: the underdog Gauchos came close to an upset before losing, 43-37.
“He was referred to as the unknown coach,” Wilton said. “Well, really, UCLA hadn’t been much shucks before Wooden’s entry.”
That six-point margin would be as close as UCSB would get for the next half-century. The Bruins beat Wilton four more times, with every game played at UCLA. He nevertheless became such close friends with Wooden that he kept a scrapbook of his accomplishments.
Wilton even talked the Wizard of Westwood into coming to Santa Barbara for several speaking engagements.
“I heard his last talk here and was just as impressed as the first time I heard him talk,” he told me during my 1987 interview. “People wouldn’t let him leave. What a memory. What a leader.”
But he could never convince Wooden to bring his team with him, at least when Wilton was still coaching.
“I wrote him a long letter and asked if he would be willing to come up and play in Santa Barbara,” he said. “I told him we would use his officials and it would be a money-maker for us.
“His answer was very abrupt: ‘We would like to have you at our gym.’ That was it. There was no second sentence. Of course, I never asked again.”
It took the Los Angeles Fire Marshal, in a round-about way, to get Wooden to finally come to UCSB. He ordered that the capacity of UCLA’s campus gym be reduced from 2,400 to 1,500 for safety reasons, and that made it too small for what was becoming a national power.
Pauley Pavilion didn’t open until 1965, reducing the Bruins to vagabonds during their first NCAA championship season of 1964. The Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena was available for only 13 of their home dates, so UCLA scheduled one game for the Long Beach Arena and two others for the Santa Monica Community College gym.
Needing games, Wooden finally agreed to come to UCSB’s Robertson Gym and play coach Art Gallon’s club on Jan. 31, 1964. The Gauchos had just upgraded to Division 1 and were playing their first season in the West Coast Athletic Conference.
My brother Greg was a ball boy for that team, rubbing his sharp elbows with a promising band of Gauchos that included All-WCAC guard Tommy Lee and a brawny center, John Conroy, who averaged a double-double.
I was 9 at the time, still believing in Santa Claus and a UC Santa Barbara team that would go 18-11 that season. Those were the days before Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton and the tallest Bruin stood only 6-foot-5. My dad, News-Press sports editor Phil Patton, could look them right in the eyes during their interviews.
UCSB’s four-game winning streak also gave me hope entering this showdown.
The Bruins’ zone press quickly turned it into a 107-76 beatdown.
UCSB returned the trip the next night, losing to the Bruins by nearly the same margin, 87-59, at Santa Monica CC.
That UCLA team, led by Walt Hazzard and Gail Goodrich, won all 30 of its games that year, beating Duke in the NCAA final for the first of Wooden’s 10 national championships.
My father predicted no miracles when UCSB visited Pauley Pavilion two years later. The 7-foot-2 Alcindor had helped the Bruins ruin Portland 122-57 the night before they entertained the Gauchos.
“Figuring out how to stop UCLA,” Dad wrote in his pregame article, “might be compared to trying to halt a herd of stampeding wild elephants.”
For validation, he asked the opinion of renowned basketball scout Bill Bertka, a Santa Barbara resident who would soon be joining the Los Angeles Lakers coaching staff:
“They are the finest-looking collegiate team I’ve ever seen,” Bertka said, “and they’re getting better all the time.”
UCSB actually took a quick 6-2 lead on Dick Kolberg’s basket, the first of his 20 points that night. The Bruins would score 99 more than that. The 119-75 defeat remains in the Gaucho record books for most points ever scored by an opponent.
But if all good things must come to an end, so must the bad.
Wooden, long retired from basketball coaching, returned to Santa Barbara one last time in 2002. It was three years after the death of his dear friend, Wee Willie, and it was to benefit the youth programs of the Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table.
It quickly turned into a mystical event in which Wooden quoted William Shakespeare as much as James Naismith and Adolph Rupp. He eventually offered this bit of advice:
“Make friendship a fine art,” Wooden said.
And so perhaps it was fitting that Wee Willie’s old school finally beat UCLA the following season. Casey Cook made two free throws and then a steal in the final 19 seconds as Bob Williams’ Gauchos beat the Bruins, 61-60, at Pauley Pavilion.
“To come to this place, with all the history that UCLA has,” Cook began, “ … It’s good for our program, and it’s a good stepping stone.”
But the Gauchos have stepped back into Pauley Pavilion twice since then, in 2013 and 2016, and lost both times.
They will return again today to help Mick Cronin usher in his UCLA coaching career, much as they did another Bruin mentor 71 years ago.
And perhaps the words of Wooden will echo in the rafters, quoting British poet Alexander Pope, and encouraging hope to spring eternal in those Gaucho breasts.
Mark Patton’s column appears on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org