- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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On Jan. 21, 2004, Notre Dame celebrated the 30th anniversary of its 1974 upset against UCLA with a halftime celebration. I know because I was there. Or was I?
Here’s the story I remember: My high school friend John, a Notre Dame freshman, had extra tickets for that game versus Kentucky, so my roommate Jason and I made the trek to South Bend, Ind., to watch the Irish take on Gerald Fitch, Chuck Hayes and Kelenna Azubuike. I distinctly remember the halftime celebration, the dimming of the lights, the rapture in the audience as the final two minutes of that fabled upset played on the Joyce Center scoreboard, the thunderous applause for the players arranged side by side at midcourt. And I swear that a Wildcats fan near us made fun of all the hubbub -- something about the Irish getting more mileage out of one game than any program before or since. I remember laughing.
Here’s the problem: John doesn’t. Remember, that is. The best he could do to verify, he said in an email, was “50-50.” And Jason? Jason wasn’t even on the trip. That was a different trip, he explained. Facebook was no help either; I didn’t create my profile until the fall of 2004. This game I’m so sure I attended was one of the last moments of my life that wasn’t recorded for posterity on the Internet. But I remember it! It happened! Right?
That was just 10 years ago, three full decades after the legend of the Digger Phelps-engineered upset of No. 1 UCLA was born. Imagine what tricks memory can pull in 40 years, what details can be lost in translation, how much harder it gets with each passing annum to identify with the way things once were.
And yet “Notre Dame 71, UCLA 70” has stood firm against the sands of time. It is crystallized in the sport’s collective memory, and not just because one team scored 12 unanswered points in the final two minutes or because the Irish had eerily bookended the 88-game winning streak that preceded it. Notre Dame 71, UCLA 70 will live forever precisely because it, more than any other game, connects us to an era in college basketball so utterly alien from our own.
No fact demonstrates this better than one that is often lost in casual remembrances: Notre Dame was ranked No. 2 in the country. In the matter of a decade, the thought of a No. 2-ranked team beating No. 1 on its home floor would sound like nothing more than an exciting, high-quality game of hoops, a sportwide shift that more or less exists intact to this day. In 1974, against John Wooden’s UCLA, it was something like history.
Such was UCLA’s dominance. Between 1964 and 1975, the Bruins won 10 national championships. They won seven straight from 1967 to 1973; no other college coach in history has more than four. UCLA won 38 straight NCAA tournament games in that span, and Wooden posted four 30-0 seasons. Today, Bob Knight’s undefeated 1975-76 Indiana team is still the last to finish without a loss.
These facts are well-known and oft-repeated, but they never lose their power. And the 1974 Bruins were the most powerful of them all. From Jan. 23, 1971, when ND’s Austin Carr scored 46 points in an 89-81 win, until almost three years later to the day, UCLA won 88 straight college basketball contests. The Bruins' average margin was 23.5 points. Bill Walton, the indomitable force as those teams’ literal and figurative center, had not lost a game since his prep career at Helix High in San Diego. “By various accounts,” The New York Times recalled in 2010, “his personal winning streak had reached 139 or 143 games, the victories rolling up like miles on an odometer.” Wooden, with the help of local businessman and devoted booster "Papa" Sam Gilbert, concentrated more talent in Westwood than any program before or since. When Wooden combined that talent with the freedom and trust of his philosophy, an aura of enlightened invincibility was born.
Such was that aura that Notre Dame -- again, the No. 2 team in the country, playing on its own floor -- required intense psychological motivation to believe it could down the Bruins trailing by nine points with less than three minutes left. Before the game, Phelps forced his self-conscious kids to rehearse cutting down the nets. The final timeout speech Phelps delivered to his charges -- which the documentary “88 and 1” will detail Sunday night on ESPN2 -- practically force-fed the Irish’s belief.
Phelps also had two unlikely advantages.
Walton arrived in South Bend, Ind., injured. Twelve days earlier, the center broke two bones in his back when, as he later told the San Diego Union-Tribune, he was undercut on a rebound. He played brilliantly against Notre Dame, making 12 of his first 13 shots while wearing a restrictive back brace. But the film betrays Walton’s pain. When Irish center John Shumate stole UCLA’s high inbounds pass -- just seconds after scoring on Walton in the post -- Walton winced at the jump, hesitating for a brief second, glancing at the ground, while Shumate cut the lead to seven.
The other advantage? Wooden’s philosophy was so celebrated that it was already widely available in book form, where Phelps read that Wooden typically refused to call timeouts late in games. The serene Bruins legend preferred to let his players self-actualize their way through hiccups. He was adamant in his philosophy that coaching was for practice, that if players weren’t prepared for anything by game time, he had failed. So when Phelps’ team suddenly pressed and the turnovers piled up, UCLA never took a timeout to adjust. A miraculous 12-point comeback ensued.
To this day, UCLA players dispute that version of the facts. They insist that they, not their coach, lost the game. (Guard Pete Trgovich told the Times in 2010 that “Anybody who knows basketball can’t put [Phelps and Wooden] in the same breath. It had nothing to do with Coach’s decision not to call a timeout.”) Forty years later, there is still bad blood, still some jockeying for control of the narrative, still some attempt to write the history of one of the most incredible upsets in college basketball history.
Still, 40 years later, the result itself remains unchanged, fully formed, an artifact of a bygone era. It is no longer possible for one program to be so dominant that a loss to No. 2 at home would immediately go down in history.
But it was possible then, and it is that context that makes Notre Dame 71, UCLA 70 so special. It is a basketball memory too strong to fade.