UCLA Basketball: The Biggest NBA Success Stories in Bruins History
If you were ever asked, out of the blue, to re-edit a great director’s movie from the full original footage, you might feel the dread responsibility of being called to trim down something sublime that you hadn't helped to grow. There is no reason I can think of that that hypothetical situation would ever drop onto a private citizen trying to enjoy his coffee and eggs, but I believe that is what "hypothetical" means in the original Latin: dumb scenario.
It didn’t feel quite like that—but it felt something like that—when the editor sent an article pitch asking for the “biggest” NBA success stories in the history of UCLA basketball. If it wasn’t the first thought, it was the second: How many apologies will the article have to include to be considered legitimate from a standpoint of consideration. Because there are a lot of former Bruins who played a long time in the NBA to consider.
In the end, the list was capped at 10—that round number with the mystical property of satisfying everyone and no one simultaneously—giving it a right-proper balance. For the 10 included, far in excess of 20 did not make the cut—a cold reality few or any of the players likely encountered while they were playing.
But it was difficult. Only North Carolina—Chapel Hill—has produced more NBA players (81) than UCLA (80). With three more first-round picks for the Bruins coming this year (Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams and Zach LaVine) and an unknown number out of North Carolina, the lead likely could change hands. But the Tar Heels lead UCLA in another professional category, and that is championships won by their former athletes. Again it is close, with UNC marking 29 and the Bruins three lengths back at 26.
This evaluation would not meet scientific rigor. Some of the names were so obvious they made the list without a second thought. Others got in through regular channels: significant contributions to championship teams, superb statistics over a respectable number of seasons, election to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, potential future election to the HOF, numbers that could be considered HOF worthy and lastly, playing jerseys retired by former teams.
Before getting to the article, it is the time to say it comes with apologies to a few former Bruins. From the old days: Lucius Allen, Walt Hazzard, Henry Bibby, Mark Eaton, Swen Nater, Kiki Vandeweghe, Don MacLean, Pooh Richardson and Jack Haley. From more recent vintages, many of them still with their opportunity ahead of them to make the list: Tracy Murray, Jeloni McCoy, Ryan Hollins, Arron Afflalo, Darren Collison, Trevor Ariza, Matt Barnes, Earl Watson, Jrue Holiday, Jordan Farmar, Dan Gadzuric, Jason Kapono and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.
Now, it is time to inspect the 10.
10. Kevin Love
Kevin Love has competed six seasons in the NBA and taking for granted his health, he probably has another 10 campaigns in front of him.
Love, who is closer to 6’8’’ than the listed 6’10’’, has trimmed down his body to a lean 240 pounds, but he never will be an electrifying athlete. Despite that, his native understanding and intelligence for physical leverage, his soft hands and avidity for improving all of the details of a basketball player's tool kit, have made him one of the most promising young stars in professional basketball.
In one season at UCLA, Love was Pac-10 Player of the Year and a consensus All-American. He was the burly, blunt end of a Bruins team that won both regular-season and conference-tournament championships on their way to a third consecutive Final Four.
Love was taken fifth overall in the 2008 NBA draft, one spot behind his UCLA teammate, Russell Westbrook. In every season since his rookie year, Love has averaged a double-double in points and rebounds. In 2011, he broke the giant Moses Malone’s 37-year-old record for consecutive double-doubles when he hit 52 in a row March 10 against the Indiana Pacers.
In his trophy case are two international gold medals collected with the national team, the most elite roster in United State’s basketball. The first came from the FIBA World Championships in 2010 and the second from the London Summer Olympic games in 2012.
Every sign suggests Love has that insatiability that singles out the truly great. At this pace, if his luck with teammates and circumstances is good, Love will play a crucial role on at least one NBA championship team and someday find his name carved into a plaque in Mr. Naismith’s Hall of Fame.
9. Russell Westbrook
Lean, long-limbed and powerful like a champion boxer. Ultra-quick and difficult to obstruct like a slot receiver in tight spaces—but fast like a sprinter rim-to-rim. That, and the nearly violent launching quality when he leaves the floor to attack the rim have made Russell Westbrook one of the young alpha backcourt players in the NBA.
Westbrook, 25 years old, has paired with MVP and league scoring champion Kevin Durant, also 25, to make Oklahoma City a year-to-year contender for the NBA championship.
Westbrook was selected fourth in the 2008 NBA draft, one spot ahead of teammate Kevin Love, after his sophomore season at UCLA.
Westbrook had been an insuperable force on the last two of UCLA’s three Final Four teams from 2006-2008. He propelled the Bruins to regular-season conference championships with vicious attacks on the enemy like these slams against rivals Cal-Berkeley and Oregon. He kept it up in the NCAA tournament with frontal assaults like this on Indiana when he was a freshman.
In six seasons, Westbrook was named to the All-Rookie team, made three All-Star teams and been named three times to All-NBA Second Team. A volcanic riser with a competitive temper to match it, Westbrook has averaged 20 points, seven assists and 1.6 steals per game in his first six years.
Like Love, Westbrook has been an important player on the most elite basketball roster in the world, winning two gold medals in international competition with the U.S. National Team in 2010 and 2012.
Westbrook is an undeniable ace in a tight cadre of young guns in the NBA today.
8. Baron Davis
The French have a term for this that would fit well, but there won't be any French in an article like this.
Baron Davis had that certain something—the indefinable but definite star quality—that made him one of last decade's transcendent talents in American basketball.
Davis got to UCLA as a high school Parade All-American, McDonald’s All-American and Gatorade National Player of the Year. A scintillating open-floor point guard with a panther’s springs made him a spectacular site indeed. His super-confident handle, wide-angle court vision and a dueler’s swagger elevated him to a superstar attraction.
In two years at UCLA, Davis was named first team All-Pac-10 and an AP All-American. It is unlikely any point guard or player that naturally exciting will take the floor again as a true freshman. If you thought Derek Rose set the gold standard for first year college players, remind yourself why you're wrong with Davis's Westwood sizzle reel.
Davis was selected third overall in the 1999 NBA draft and spent 13 seasons in the NBA. A two time All-Star, two time league steals champion and 2004 NBA Skills Champion at All-Star Weekend, Davis imprinted indelible memories on the basketball-loving minds of millions.
While Davis has not played in the NBA since 2012, he has not officially retired either. Several serious injuries—one a torn ACL at UCLA that took him less than a year to recover from—and finally a completely shredded knee in 2012, effectively sent him out to pasture.
But his star had burned brightly. As it stands, Davis averaged 16 points, seven assists, four rebounds and 1.8 steals per game for his career.
While his statistics are solid, they get nowhere near the site—the fluid sound and fury—of Davis on a basketball floor surrounded, but rarely contained, by some of the best athletes on earth.
7. Sidney Wicks
Sidney Wicks was a strange case.
He has been infamous—through the stories of others and his own admission—since his three-year career (1969-1971) at UCLA for steadily chirping at and challenging John Wooden during practices. The temerity and hard-headedness of that approach is on a par with an infantryman telling Caesar the better way back into Rome was obvious.
Wicks said Wooden knew he was the best player on the team. Wooden said that until Wicks learned basketball was a team game he would be left on the bench behind the players he was so certain he had outclassed.
Wicks learned the game, according to Wooden, and became the best power forward in college basketball. Wicks played on three consecutive NCAA championship teams and was a consensus All-American his final two seasons.
Wicks was a powerful athlete and could run the floor. In the half court, he could step back and shoot, and beneath the basket he was a very agile, leaping bull with down-soft hands around the cylinder. He was more than anyone in the college game could check on their own.
In the 1970 Final Four, Wicks—at 6’8’’—shut down Jacksonville’s 7’2’’ Artis Gilmore after he began guarding him with UCLA trailing by nine points in the championship game. The Bruins won by 11. Wicks was named Final Four Most Outstanding Player. He won also the 1970 Helms Co-Player of the Year award and in 1971 was the Sporting News National Player of the Year.
Wicks went second overall to the Portland Trail Blazers in the 1972 NBA draft. He would have gone first, but Rip City’s management paid Cleveland $250,000 to take Austin Carr first so Portland could select Wicks. He won Rookie of the Year after averaging 24.5 points and 11.5 rebounds and made the All-Star team his first season.
But as it was mentioned prior to this, Wicks was a strange case.
At that time, Stu Inman directed player personnel for Portland. A sports psychologist told the Trailblazers that Wicks had deficiencies in his mental approach to sports that would make him a detriment to any team he played on:
When you talk about Sidney Wicks, it’s hard for me. I would have drawn the conclusion he would have had a much better career.
Bruce [Ogilvie] was unbelievably honest about the frailties in Sidney’s athletic personality. The more Bruce talked, the more the owners slumped in their chairs. Sidney didn’t fall down in just one or two categories, but four or five, which really raised the red flag. Had we known, we probably would not have taken him.
David Halberstam had another anecdote about Wicks in his book, The Breaks of the Game.
There had been ugly scenes between Wicks and his first two coaches, Roland Todd and Jack McLoskey. With McLoskey, Wicks apparently called him out in front of the club.
“I’ve checked you out,” said Wicks, according to Halberstam. “And you’re nothing but a loser. You’ve been a loser everywhere you’ve coached and I’ve been a winner everywhere I’ve played.”
McLoskey said Wicks belonged on the all-dogs team.
Wicks was an All-Star, four times. He still holds the Trail Blazer’s single-game rebounding record at 27. In his five years at Portland, Wicks averaged 22.3 points and 10.3 rebounds. Significantly, he was traded away the year before Portland won the 1977 championship with Bill Walton leading the team.
Wicks’ statistics declined every season he was in the NBA. After 11 years in league, he retired averaging 16.8 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game. He played one year in Italy before retiring for good.
Early on, it looked like he could have been one of the NBA's all-time greatest forwards, but he faded away. Wicks had his No. 35 jersey retired by UCLA and was elected to the College Basketball Hall of Fame.
6. Marques Johnson
Now, Marques Johnson is a sonorous, idiosyncratically articulate basketball analyst for Fox Sports Network. In the mid-1970s, he was John Wooden’s last All-American and star sophomore on the Wizard’s final national championship team.
In 1977, as a senior—two years after the coach retired—he won the inaugural John Wooden Award as the nation’s best college player and was a consensus All-American.
I don’t know if it’s because Johnson is a humble, convivial personality who doesn’t brag about his accomplishments, or because he played most of his career with the Milwaukee Bucks—but quietly, he had a superb career in professional basketball that few people seem to remember.
The third overall pick in the 1977 draft, Johnson was a five-time NBA All-Star—selected as both a guard and forward—who led Milwaukee to five consecutive divisional championships from 1980 through 1984. He was All-NBA first team in 1979 and twice All-NBA second team in 1980 and 1981. Over 11 seasons he averaged 20.1 points, seven rebounds and 3.6 assists per game.
Johnson also holds a place in the genetic coding of the game, considered the fountainhead of the hybrid point-forward position in American basketball. At 6’7’’ with a strong handle and range to fire from outside—in addition to his metier as a high-end operator in the mid-range and around the rim—Johnson was used by Don Nelson as an antidote to a rash of backcourt injuries to handle the basketball and initiate Milwaukee’s offense.
Johnson is one of the gold standard moulds of UCLA players in the Wooden era. Fully developed at both ends of the floor, Johnson could play multiple positions with superb aptitude. More than that, for all of his personal ability, he was an intensely competitive basketball player who cared most of all about triumphing in the team game. Johnson says to this day that what burns most is that he was not able to chase down a championship in professional basketball as he had in college.
5. Reggie Miller
Reggie Miller won the National Invitation Tournament at UCLA in 1985, before the three-point line came to college basketball.
In 1987, the year the three-point line arrived, Miller took the Bruins to a sweep of the conference regular season championship and the first ever Pac-10 conference tournament.
When he left school, Miller had twice been named all Pac-10 and was second all time in scoring behind only Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). He still holds school records for points scored in league play, scoring average and free throws.
Miller was the 11th pick in the first round of the 1987 NBA draft, selected by the Indiana Pacers. Over 18 seasons with the club, he became its all-time leading scorer and the NBA’s all-time leader in three-point field goals (a record eclipsed in 2013 by Ray Allen).
Miller was a five time All-Star and three times All-NBA third team. In 1994, Miller entered the elite 50-40-90 club—shooting better than 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent from three-point range and 90 percent at the free-throw line.
His shooting and swagger took Indiana to their first and only NBA Finals appearance in 2000, where they were beaten 4-2 by the Los Angeles Lakers. Miller won gold medals at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta and the 1994 FIBA World Championships.
Both UCLA and Indiana have retired Miller’s jersey.
4. Jamaal Wilkes
“Smooth as Silk” Wilkes is a good way to start imagining the way Jamaal Wilkes looked playing basketball.
A major contributor to UCLA’s 88-game winning streak, Wilkes won back-to-back NCAA championships in 1972 and 1973 while twice being named consensus All-American by the sporting press. He was the 11th overall pick in the 1974 NBA draft.
In addition to being named to the All-Rookie first team, Wilkes was 1974 Rookie of the Year.
He was NBA champion with Golden State in 1974—the franchise's first and only title—and three times more with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1980, 1982 and 1985.
In the 1980 championship-clinching game against the 76ers, Wilkes combined with Magic Johnson’s 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists to score 37 points and grab 10 rebounds of his own to power Los Angeles to the title.
Both the Lakers and UCLA have retired his No. 52 jersey.
A three-time NBA All-Star and two-time All-NBA second-team defense, Wilkes was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012. A two-time college and four-time NBA champion, Wilkes averaged 17.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game for his career.
3. Gail Goodrich
The name itself has a magical ring to it, but more than just a great name, it comes from what accomplishments lay behind Gail Goodrich, the substance of a career that is always floating somewhere in the consciousness of connoisseurs of American basketball.
The point guard and backcourt mate of Walt Hazzard on John Wooden’s first national championship team in 1964, the 6’1’’ left-handed guard known as "Stumpy" spearheaded UCLA’s 1-3-1 zone press. That first Wooden champion did not have a player taller than 6’5’’ and won because of the finely honed skills and disciplined choreography of its relentless attack.
Goodrich returned for his senior season in 1965 and led UCLA to the first of its back-to-back championships. Goodrich scored 42 points in the 1965 national championship game, a title game record that stood until 1973 when UCLA center Bill Walton broke it by scoring 44. Goodrich left Westwood as the school’s all-time leading scorer and had his No. 25 jersey retired by the school.
But Goodrich was not just a college star. When he retired in 1979 after 14 seasons in the NBA, he was 11th all time in scoring and 10th in assists. To this day he is the third-highest scoring left-handed player in NBA history. His name is spangled all over the Los Angeles Lakers record book in points, assists, free throws and games played.
In the Lakers' record-breaking 1971-72 championship season, Goodrich was the starting point guard in all 82 games. For the season, he averaged 25.9 points, 4.5 assists and 3.6 rebounds. He scored 30 or more points in 28 games.
Those Lakers—with Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain—won a record 33 consecutive games and finished with the best record in NBA history at 69-13. That record would stand until 1996 when Michael Jordan’s Bulls finished 72-10. No one has beaten 33 in a row.
The Lakers crushed the New York Knicks 4-1 in the NBA Finals and Goodrich led all scorers, averaging 26 points per game. Goodrich would lead the Lakers in scoring five times during his career.
Goodrich's Lakers jersey now hangs high up in the rafters at Staples Center in a row with some of the game's brightest stars. He was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1996.
2. Bill Walton
One of the most eccentric and original superstars in American sports, Bill Walton always has been his own man. That he has been accepted—“as God made him”—as the saying goes, testifies to America’s love of a champion.
Walton still makes every short list for the greatest college basketball player of all time. While at UCLA his teams won two championships while running up a 60-win, zero-loss record. He was three times a consensus All-American and three times the national player of the year. In the 1974 title game, Walton scored 44 points on 21-of-22 shooting to go with 13 rebounds. It remains an unrivaled performance on the championship stage.
But Walton’s 1974 team lost in South Bend, Indiana, to Notre Dame, ending the Bruins' still-record 88 game winning streak. They would lose twice more in the regular season—in Eugene and Corvallis, Oregon—before falling in double-overtime to North Carolina State in the 1974 Final Four. That ended UCLA’s national championship streak at seven.
Walton, with his unique command over the language, has said the loss at Notre Dame will remain a “stain and a stigma on my soul that I’ll never be able to cleanse.”
Walton was an NBA star too, until his body began to break apart. The No. 1 pick in the 1974 NBA draft, he led Portland to its only NBA title in 1977. He was named NBA Finals MVP.
In 1978, he was named league MVP.
But then things began to fall apart and Walton spent more time rehabilitating his body than playing basketball—by a long shot. Walton missed nine full seasons and half of another in a 14-year NBA career.
After multiple foot surgeries to correct a congenital defect, back and ankle breakdowns and many years of agony later, Walton won a second title in 1986 with the Boston Celtics. He was named the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year.
Walton loved basketball and winning at basketball for its own sake. For him, it was not a means to an end—it was the end itself. He is the only player in NBA history to win an NBA Finals MVP, a regular-season MVP and the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award.
He is a member of both the college and professional basketball halls of fame.
1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Lew Alcindor)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar bestrides the American sporting scene like a colossus.
The NBA’s all-time leading scorer, he was a six-time league champion, six-time league MVP, two time finals MVP, 10-time All-NBA first team, five-time All-NBA second team, five-time All-NBA defensive first team, four-time block champion and 19 times an All-Star in 20 seasons.
In addition to those minor accolades, he is the league’s third best all time in both rebounds and blocked shots. Jabbar's teams made the playoffs 18 of his 20 seasons in the league and both his Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers jerseys were immortalized by the clubs. Abdul-Jabbar led Milwaukee to its only NBA championship in 1971. He helped the Lakers to five more.
Before the NBA, when he was known as Lew Alcindor, his high school teams won 71 consecutive games and a national championship. At UCLA, his teams won three consecutive NCAA titles while he was three times named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player and three times the national player of the year.
For a man who stood 7’2’’ with arms and legs as long as you would imagine them to be, he was a superbly durable athlete. The fewest games he ever played in an NBA season was 62. Five years he played in all 82 games. Six times, he played 80 or more, and in seven others he played more than 74 games.
A conscientious man and history major while at UCLA, Abdul-Jabbar now writes books and directs films. For basketball fans and historians, his documentary On the Shoulders of Giants about the early days of basketball and the racism that almost swallowed into obscurity one of the greatest teams of the early 20th century, is de rigueur.
Abdul-Jabbar is a member of both the college and professional basketball halls of fame.