In wake of “Bear” Bryant’s death, Bama hoops toppled the No. 1 Bruins
The news reached Wimp Sanderson as his basketball team practiced on January 26, 1983.
In the midst of preparing to play No. 1-ranked UCLA in Pauley Pavillion in two days, word came that larger-than-life Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant had died. And for Sanderson and his players, just as for thousands of other Alabama faithful that day, time stood still.
Surely it couldn’t be true. Surely legends like Bryant didn’t die. Surely they just walk off into a beautiful sunset to wait for us on the other side. But it was true. Bryant was gone. Suddenly Tuscaloosa, the state of Alabama and the entire football world was in deep mourning.
Sanderson gathered his players together to break the news. Then his thoughts turned to more practical matters. Would the Crimson Tide still travel to Los Angeles for its matchup with one of college basketball’s most storied programs? Sanderson didn’t know for sure, and he had to find out.
“I wasn’t sure exactly what we needed to do with a national game against the No. 1 team in the country coming up,” Sanderson said. “I got in touch with Paul (Bryant) Jr., and he said, ‘Papa would have wanted you to play.’”
So off to Los Angeles they went. And play they did, toppling the mighty Bruins 70-67 in one of the milestone games in Crimson Tide basketball history. It was the kind of thrilling victory over a tough opponent that certainly would have made Bryant smile.
There was little indication this Sanderson team would shock the basketball world. After opening the season 8-0 and climbing as high as No. 5 in the Associated Press Top 20 poll, the Tide had hit the skids and lost six of its next eight. That included a heartbreaker at home on Monday, January 24, when Carlos Clark hit a jumper from the deep left corner with 5 seconds left in a 64-63 Ole Miss win in what was then known as Memorial Coliseum.
But the Tide had shown promise. Exactly a month earlier to the day of the UCLA game, on December 28, 1982, the Tide had met Southern Cal in the first game of the Winston Tire Care Classic in Los Angeles. With hotshot sophomore point guard Ennis Whatley, who went in averaging only 9 points per game, pouring in 20 and forward Cliff Windham pulling down eight rebounds, Alabama won the game 74-61 and the right to face the Patrick Ewing-led Georgetown Hoyas.
On December 29, 1982, the same night Bryant brought down the curtain on his incredible career with a 21-15 win over Illinois in a freezing Liberty Bowl, Ewing and the Hoyas certainly never expected the train that ran them over in a 94-73 Tide victory. Led by 6-foot-8 forward Terry Williams, who didn’t score a point in the USC game, Bama jumped out to an early 16-4 lead early, and the closest Georgetown would come after that was nine.
Legendary Hoyas coach John Thompson was not on the sideline that night as he had been called away just before the tournament started by news of his mother’s passing. But to their credit, the Hoyas did not use that as an excuse for the Bama beating. Instead, they praised Williams, who had a career-high 28 on 14 of 15 from the field.
“All you have to do is look at the stat sheet and see why we lost,” Hoya assistant Craig Esherick said. “Terry Williams and his 14-for-15 shooting killed us.”
Maybe it was his team’s familiarity with Los Angeles and the carryover from its previous success there in the recent past, but Sanderson’s players didn’t seem ruffled by the surroundings or the prospect of playing UCLA in the halls of Wooden.
“We got to the game, and they parked the bus in the wrong spot, so we’re walking around outside looking,” Sanderson said. “According to a couple of my players, a lot of the (UCLA) students were yakking at us and saying, ‘y’all ain’t here to beat nobody.’ I guess they found out they were wrong.”
In the ramp-up to tipoff several things happened. First, Sanderson suspended Williams for the game. Newspaper accounts quoted the coach as saying Williams was being disciplined for “something that occurred just before we got ready to go,” but Sanderson doesn’t recall what the offense was now. Whatever the transgression, Williams was compelled to watch in uniform from the Bama bench.
Second, that Friday morning, Sanderson and the team watched national news reports of Bryant’s funeral and the subsequent four-mile long procession as it weaved its way through Tuscaloosa streets to Interstate 59 and the 60-mile final journey north to Bryant’s resting place in Birmingham’s Elmwood Cemetery.
“It was a sad experience, and it was hard,” Sanderson said. “It was something unexpected, and I didn’t have any idea what was going to happen.”
Finally, with Williams sidelined, Sanderson put 6-11 center Mark Farmer from Arab, Alabama, into the starting lineup—the same Mark Farmer who scored 67 points and recorded 84 personal fouls in 75 career games at the Capstone.
“Mark Farmer never started,” Sanderson said. “I think about it now, and I can hardly believe I took Mark Farmer out there and started him against UCLA. A funny thing about it, though, was I told him that he ought to be excited because both TV sets in Arab would be on. We got a good laugh out of that.”
For the record, Farmer played 21 minutes, missed two shots, grabbed one rebound and had four fouls. Still, Sanderson lauded him for his defensive play in the post against UCLA 7-footer Stuart Gray, and he got his picture on the front of The Tuscaloosa News sports section taking a hook shot in the game.
A CBS national television audience and a Pauley Pavilion crowd of 12,574 watched and listened as UCLA football coach Terry Donahue lifted a prayer on behalf of Bryant and his family. Then they saw the Tide, led by Whatley, fellow sophomore Bobby Lee Hurt and heralded freshman Buck Johnson, jump to a 6-0 early lead that would increase to as much as 16 points.
Sanderson recalled one sequence that stands out in his mind to this day.
“We had one great play where Whatley came down court with the ball, and Bobby Lee was running down the lane behind him,” Sanderson said. “Ennis flipped it back over his shoulder, and Bobby Lee caught it and dunked it. It was really pretty.”
Bama stretched it out to 35-25 at the half then had to hold on as UCLA stormed back with 42 second-half points. The Bruins tied the game at 67 with 35 seconds to play and might have avoided the upset if senior guard Rod Foster hadn’t zoned out in the last few precious seconds.
THE FINAL SEQUENCE
As Bama brought the ball upcourt with the game tied, Foster looked at the scoreboard and his eye and his mind told him the score was 68-67 Bama. So Foster intentionally fouled Davis, who calmly went to the line and sank two free throws for a 69-67 lead. The Tide added one more point, and the outcome was stapled shut.
“I thought we were behind one point,” Foster said in The Tuscaloosa News. “It was a mental mistake on my part.”
Despite seeing his team fall from its No. 1 spot, drop to 14-2 on the year and lose for the first time at home all season, UCLA coach Larry Farmer supported Foster, who averaged 14 ppg for him that year.
“At times we all get ourselves worked up to the point that we want something to happen,” Farmer said in The Tuscaloosa News. “I told (Foster) after the game that we did not lose because of that play.”
Hurt led the way with 23 points and 9 rebounds, Whatley had 20 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists and Johnson had 15 points and 4 rebounds. Davis finished with 8 points, sub Eric Richardson added 4, and that was all Bama’s scoring on the night.
Kenny Fields led four-double digit scorers for UCLA with 17 points and added 7 rebounds. Ralph Jackson had 14, Darren Daye 13 and Foster 10.
Afterwards, there was excitement at having knocked off No. 1, but the locker-room celebration wasn’t raucous. There was no talk of having won one for Coach Bryant, either. There was mostly an air that they had done the job they came to do. The postgame reaction was a reflection of the entire ballgame, Sanderson said.
“Our kids kept their composure,” Sanderson said. “They were pretty calm and collected. They were not awed for sure.”
Sanderson is often asked who is the best player or which is the best team he ever coached or what is the best win he ever had, and the UCLA victory is among those people question him about. But he is quick to say he doesn’t deal in those kind of bests. Yet there are aspects of this one he admits will always resonate with him.
The first is the Williams suspension.
“Looking back on it, there were probably better things I could have done, but I was hard-headed and was going to make my point,” Sanderson said with a laugh. “That wasn’t really easy to do. At the time I thought it took some real backbone to suspend him for the UCLA game, but it was probably just stupid of me.”
Another thing that comes to Sanderson’s mind are the black ribbons sewn on the crimson-and-white jerseys in Bryant’s memory that night. Then there’s the recollection of the last conversation he ever had with the gravel-voiced Bryant.
On Sunday, January 23, 1983, Sanderson was in his Memorial Coliseum office watching film and preparing his gameplans for Ole Miss the next night and UCLA later in the week when he went for a drink of water. The now-retired Bryant saw him and, somewhat out of character, headed into Sanderson’s office and sat down on the couch. Sanderson pulled up a chair in front of him, and the third-year basketball coach and the legend had a little chat.
“I don’t know if he just needed somebody to talk to that day or what,” Sanderson said. “He talked about ‘Snake’ Stabler and how he didn’t think he handled him quite right. He talked about a lateral play Georgia pulled on them years ago. I guess I told him we were getting ready for Ole Miss and UCLA.
“I can’t remember what else we talked about. A lot of nothings I guess, but I wish I could have saved what he said because naturally it was the last time I saw him.”
As Sanderson watched the tired but ever-proud Bryant leave his office, turn right out some double glass doors, and leave Memorial Coliseum for what may have been the last time, he thought back to 1980 when he was named to succeed long-time Bama coach C.M. Newton. For some reason Bryant, who also served as athletics director, was out of town and couldn’t be at the introductory press conference, so Sanderson wanted to thank him as quickly as he could for being chosen. After Bryant returned, Sanderson walked down the hall, knocked on the door, and “Bear” opened it, reading glasses halfway down his nose and yellow legal pad in hand as always.
“I said, ‘Coach, I just want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to be the basketball coach,’” Sanderson said. “He said something to the effect that ‘I didn’t have a lot to do with it, but I could have damn sure stopped it.’”
Sanderson responded that he knew Bryant could have done that, and he was glad he didn’t.
Looking back, the coach known for wearing plaid would have cherished a chance to say “thanks” for that to the one in houndstooth just one more time. And he would have loved to have told him the UCLA game turned out just fine. H&A