Arizona Basketball

Remembering when late Bill Walton played at McKale Center in 1974 NCAA tournament

Los Angeles Times clipping from March 15, 1974, after UCLA’s triple-overtime win over Dayton in an NCAA Western Regional semifinal game at McKale Center.

The date was March 14, 1974, a little more than 50 years ago, when UCLA coach John Wooden and the “Walton Gang” stepped on the McKale Center court for the first time.

Bill Walton, a three-time All-American and college basketball player of the year with the Bruins, and the chief accomplice of the Walton Gang — Keith Wilkes — brought to McKale Center their “award-winning basketball show,” as Arizona Daily Star sports editor Chuck Kramer called it in a column.

At stake at the NCAA Western Regional for UCLA was a chance to move on to the Final Four and try to continue its seven-year NCAA title streak.

“When Walton is at his best, he’s an inspiration to all of our players,” Wooden was quoted as saying by Tucson Citizen reporter Jack Rickard entering UCLA’s game with Dayton in the Western Regional semifinal round.

Walton was at his best against the Flyers in the most epic game in McKale Center history aside from Arizona’s games there.

McKale opened only 11 months before the Walton Gang came to town.

The arena was constructed just in time for Walton to grace it.

Walton played the full 55 minutes of UCLA’s 111-100 triple-overtime victory over Dayton in front of 13,658 fans at McKale Center.

“This may seem strange but I felt all along that we were going to win, even when it was the darkest,” Wooden was quoted by Rickard as saying.

That’s what happened when Wooden looked at the court and saw the “Big Red Head” and his towering presence at 6-foot-11 and 210 pounds.

We all shared in that feeling Wooden had about Walton’s presence later.

He gave the Bruins life back then.

He enriched our lives with his effervescence when he became a broadcaster.

His son Luke became an Arizona great who went on to play and coach in the NBA.

“Thank you for your life,” Walton would often say about those he respected during his broadcasts, including Arizona legends such as Lute Olson, Fred Snowden, Bob Elliott, Al Fleming, Sean Elliott and Steve Kerr … the list of his favorite Wildcats goes further than that.

Walton passed away Monday at age 71 from cancer.

Our sorrow is mixed with smiles about Walton’s antics (like biting into a cupcake with a birthday candle lit) and his trademark sayings of “Conference of Champions” and “this is not a truck-stop league” about the Pac-12.

We can look back on the days of March 14-16 of 1974, when Wooden and the Walton Gang came to town, as a momentous occasion. We think of that moment in time like Walton being awestruck at a Grateful Dead concert.

Arizona Daily Star clipping from March 15, 1974, after UCLA’s triple-overtime win over Dayton in the NCAA Western Regional semifinals at McKale Center.

In the day between UCLA’s game with Dayton and the regional final with San Francisco, Walton reportedly spent six hours in his hotel room working on a term paper.

The Bruins were near the second-quarter break and they were preparing for final exams when they came to Tucson. A UCLA professor accompanied the team to Tucson to administer final exams for two of the players.

Walton was not quoted about his academic work or his performance at McKale Center by reporters because he kept to himself mostly because of a studdering problem. His silence after games back then was the complete opposite of the type of person he became later in his life.

Walton missed a 25-foot shot at the second-overtime buzzer against Dayton, but he scored five points in the third overtime period when UCLA outscored the Flyers 13-2.

The Bruins survived the scare of Dayton leading 80-77 in the last minute of regulation.

“I know there’s a tendency to downgrade our play after a game like this,” Wooden told the Los Angeles Times. “But I really feel that’s wrong. I say give credit to Dayton. I congratulate them. They refused to roll over despite being down 17 points in the first half.”

Dayton’s Mike Sylvester had 36 points on 12-of-21 shooting from the field and 12 of 13 from the free-throw line. He also had 13 rebounds. He scored 16 of Dayton’s 20 points in the three overtime periods. His teammate Donald Smith contributed 26 points.

Walton’s production, David Meyers’ 28 points and 14 rebounds, and the Bruins’ reserves adding 30 points proved to be too much for the Flyers. Wilkes had 14 points and seven rebounds before fouling out.

UCLA’s regional final matchup with San Francisco on March 16, 1974, was anticlimatic, with the Bruins dominating in an 83-60 win over the Dons.

San Francisco coach Bob Gaillard utilized a zone defense to minimize Walton, placing a player in front of Walton and one behind him at all times with a guard sagging into the lane to make it a triple-team situation often. Walton was limited to 17 points and nine rebounds.

“If we were going to get beat,” Gaillard said, “I wanted it to be by someone other than Bill Walton.”

Wilkes was that “someone,” scoring 27 points with eight rebounds.

Walton reportedly did not like how Gaillard tried to slow the pace, the kind of play he later criticized as a broadcaster. He frowned upon constant timeouts and a methodical style.

UCLA went on to lose in overtime to North Carolina State in the Final Four a week later at Greensboro, N.C. The loss snapped the Bruins’ 38-game NCAA tournament winning streak and run of seven straight titles.

A few months later, Walton was the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft by the Portland Trailblazers.

Three years into his pro career, the “Big Red Head” led Portland to the NBA Finals championship over Dr. J and the Philadelphia 76ers and was voted the Most Valuable Player.

McKale Center will forever be known as the last arena Bill Walton won a meaningful game with Wooden and UCLA with the victory over San Francisco.

The Bruins won the third-place game of the NCAA tournament over Kansas after losing to N.C. State. Walton had six points in only 20 minutes in that inconsequential game.

That weekend of March 14-16, 1974, in Tucson was a blessing.

That was a precursor to all the good times Walton had at McKale Center broadcasting games and watching his son Luke play.

He played in historic Pauley Pavilion but McKale Center was like home to him.

Walton commented on McKale in 2021 while narrating an Arizona video titled The Desert Noise:

“Colors emerge from the sonic waves — red and blue, bathing, enveloping everything, engulfing McKale, pushing, urging and driving the chosen few to unimaginable levels of success and accomplishment.”

Bill Walton helped create those sonic waves a half-century ago, less than a year after the arena opened its doors.

Thank you for your life, Bill Walton.

FOLLOW @JAVIERJMORALES ON TWITTER! publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports,, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon. He became an educator in 2016 and is presently a special education teacher at Sunnyside High School in the Sunnyside Unified School District.

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