The UCLA Dynasty

by March 19, 2008

Most of you know him as jbn74sb, or “Bodie.” But the man’s real name is Jasen Nielsen, and thanks to a father who played for UCLA during the glory days, I could think of no better person to review a DVD I was recently sent from HBO Video titled The UCLA Dynasty. Add in the fact that the Tourney kicks off for real tomorrow and UCLA is many people’s choice (yours truly included) to be enjoying some new glory, and the timing seemed perfect to give UCLA some love (they already have Love) on the site. Jasen was game to contribute, continuing a tradition I’m quite proud of here at Slamonline, which is letting our readers help build the site. Enjoy his great first-person piece.—Ben Osborne

By Jasen Nielsen

Be quick, but don’t hurry.

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.

This is the stuff my young mind was inundated with growing up in the late 1970’s. At the time, my dad was coaching at Van Nuys High School, in the San Fernando Valley. During the summers, he would work as a counselor at John Wooden’s basketball camps at Cal Lutheran in Thousand Oaks, which was the same spot where the Dallas Cowboys had their training camp. Some of my first memories involve going to visit my dad at camp, and seeing the Cowboys in the lunch line, plates piled high with more food than Jones eats in a year. When I got old enough to play, my dad quit coaching high school to coach my teams. Unfortunately, despite the fact that I was a 6’1”, 160 pound 8th grade point guard, I never came close to reaching his 6’8” height, and my basketball “career” ended in high school. Apparently the Pyramids of Success that were posted all over my garage didn’t have any effect on my physical growth.

Backing up a bit, my dad played for Grant High School (Agent Zero’s alma mater) in the mid 1960’s. He was good enough to get a scholarship to UCLA, and was all set to be the first person in his family to graduate from college. However, his grades sucked, and spent 1966 at a local community college, moving on to UCLA for 1967-1969. As a result of all of the above, I grew up around the UCLA program, and still go to about four games a year. Recently, under Ben Howland, the program has really reached out to the alumni of the program, and I have had the fortune of going to a number of these events with my dad.

A couple of years ago, my dad mentioned that someone from HBO sports had called him, and asked him some questions about his time playing for Wooden at UCLA. He eventually went down to LA, and got interviewed on camera for about an hour or so. About a year later, he went down to the premier screening of the show that was ultimately produced as a result of his interview, and countless others like it. His take—incredible. When The UCLA Dynasty was broadcast on HBO, the general consensus from others who had seen it was the same.

Choosing to get The Wire and The Sopranos from “other sources”, I missed it, as did anyone else who doesn’t get HBO. Coinciding with what will likely be UCLA’s 3rd straight trip to the Final Four (so far without a ring – f-ck you Joakim Noah), HBO has released the DVD. Because of my connection with the program, Ben Osborne asked me to do a review of it. It also occurred to me that the SLAM crew might be attempting to curtail my ridiculous and offensive comments on the site by subjecting me to the same. Have at it.

Whether a fan of basketball or not, the DVD is great. HBO did a phenomenal job of placing UCLA’s dominance (10 of the 12 NCAA titles from 1964-1975) and image within the context of the turbulent times of the late 60’s-early 70’s. In fact, the DVD is as much about the social, political, and racial issues that were so volatile and prevalent during that time. Basketball is almost a peripheral topic of the DVD. To your average basketball fan, this might not be a good thing – I’m not sure the under 20 set would enjoy it much. On the other hand, whether fans of basketball or not, I would imagine the DVD would be interesting to anyone who lived through that period (such as Eboy), as well as fans of the game who are interested in socio-economic, political, and racial issues.

There are essentially two stars of the DVD: John Wooden and Bill Walton. As explained by the DVD, Wooden came out to Hollywood from the Midwest in 1948. He had played at Purdue, and there is some great footage of a young Wooden, buffed out with pale little guns. In fact, Wooden was the first person to be in the basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and as coach. In person, Wooden’s people skills are amazing. Somehow, the man is both gentle and intimidating—he is like a little human Yoda. One of the things that the DVD does well is blend together the interviews with players from different eras discussing his idiosyncrasies—such as his repeated use of the phrase “Goodness gracious sakes alive”. Chick Hearn, Vin Scully, Tommy Lasorda—LA has been blessed over the years with a number of iconic sports figures, and Wooden predates all of them. At age 97, and with his recent health problems, who knows how much longer he will be with us. The DVD ensures that Wooden and his legacy will be cherished for years to come.

Interspersed throughout the footage of the championship teams and players is a number of clips showing the Watts riots from the summer of 1966, Vietnam, Nixon, campus protests, etc. UCLA students who were not a part of the program, such as Ray Manzarek (keyboardist of The Doors—can you say “acid”?) are interviewed about not only the times, but also the UCLA program and it’s place in society at that time. These are some of the more interesting and compelling moments of the DVD, particularly the racial issues and problems confronted by Kareem, and the political and social issues confronted by Walton.

Interestingly, Kareem is not a huge part of the DVD. The tenor of the portion focusing on him, particularly the off-court stuff, is primarily sad. Quick side-story. I recently attended the 40th anniversary of the 1968 championship team. There was a private ceremony before the UCLA-Cal game on campus, and the members of the team brought some family and friends to share in the experience. And while it was tempered by the fact that Wooden was not there, the reunion was great—all of these guys are about 60 now, and they shared some amazing experiences in their early 20’s. It was great to sit back and watch as they received their 1968 championship rings, which for some reason they never received. Mike Warren (point guard, leader of the team, father of dude dating the goddess known as Jessica Alba) got up before the group, and called each person up to receive their rings. The one person not around for this—Kareem. Every single player on the team brought things for the other players to sign—pictures, programs, etc. Rather than realize this and show up, Kareem rolls up late as everyone is leaving to go the game, missing the opportunity to interact with his teammates, and sign things for them outside the presence of the masses. During the game, he surprisingly comes and sits with the rest of his team and their families, which is sitting along the sideline, directly next to the student section. Now, dude has been famous for a long time—at least 40 years. One would think he might be used to the attention, and come to accept it. Instead, as some students run up to take pictures with him and sign things, he and his publicist or manager or whatever she is rudely wave the people away. After half-time, during which the ‘68 team was honored at half-court, one of the players on the ‘68 team asked him to sign something, and Kareem tells him no.

ANYWAY, Walton is the real star of the DVD. Charismatic, engaging, and energetic, you can’t take your eyes off him. On the court, he was and is regarded by many to be the best college player of all time. The off the court footage of him is even better, as he is arrested at a peace rally and bailed out by Wooden. His personality is larger than life, and the image of Walton is presented in sharp contrast to that of Kareem. The Walton part of the DVD is by far my favorite, and might be pretty shocking to those who only know him from his broadcast work on ESPN. It’s unfortunate that injuries ruined what would have otherwise been a similarly legendary NBA career.

So, how is the DVD? The actual basketball footage is pretty grainy and outdated, and the shorts of course would make John Stockton proud. The DVD attempts to tackle a lot, and blends everything together remarkably well. All of the images from that era are seamlessly blended with the interviews of players and non-players, as well as the game and practice footage. HBO really did a great job editing the hours of tape they had for this thing, and managed to condense all of it into a hour long show that is entertaining, informative, and thought-provoking. Is it worth your $20? I’d say so.