Reflections on Pauley Pavilion's History

Sept. 27, 2012

By Larry Stewart

During my nearly 40 years as a sportswriter at two Los Angeles newspapers - the old Herald Examiner for close to nine years, the Los Angeles Times for 30-plus - I was inside Pauley Pavilion countless times. Sometimes I was on assignment, but often I was there as a fan.

As we approach its reopening following a $136-million face lift, I've been asked to write a 10-part series for this website on the world-famous arena, focusing on big events that took place there and some of the people who brought it such prominence.

The first time I was at Pauley Pavilion was on Nov. 29, 1970. I was there to cover Bill Walton's first game as a collegian for the Herald. Back then, freshmen played on a separate team before moving up to the varsity, provided they were good enough.

My story that appeared the next day began: "The lean, awkward-looking redhead trotted onto the court at Pauley Pavilion. Most of the 8,312 in attendance were getting their first look at Bill Walton.

"Here was the 6-10 1/2 young man out of San Diego's Helix High that had caused more stir than any other UCLA recruit since Lew Alcindor."

On Nov. 27, 1965, in the first game ever played at Pauley, Alcindor scored 51 points to lead the UCLA freshmen to a stunning 75-60 victory over the varsity, the two-time defending national champions and the preseason No. 1 team in the nation. That game drew a capacity crowd of 12,829.

Before Pauley Pavilion was constructed, the Bruins played most of their games in the 2,400-seat men's gym, currently known as the Student Activities Center, but back then commonly referred to as the B.O. Barn. The small, smelly building was doomed once the Los Angeles City Fire Marshall declared it unsafe for a crowd greater than 1,300. The Bruins also played at the Pan Pacific Auditorium, the Sports Arena and other venues around Los Angeles.

In 1964, UCLA began its unprecedented streak of 10 national championships in 12 seasons, and it became apparent that a new, state-of-the-art arena was needed on campus.

H.R. Haldeman, who later became White House chief of staff during the Nixon years, headed a campaign that raised $1 million of the $5 million needed to build the new arena.

Edwin W. Pauley, a University of California regent from 1940-72 who had made a fortune running oil companies, matched the $1 million Haldeman had raised for the construction of the new arena.

The building was dedicated to Pauley at the June 1965 commencement ceremony by UCLA Chancellor Franklin D. Murphy. Pauley died in 1981 at the age of 82.

When Pauley Pavilion opened on the night of Alcindor's memorable freshman debut, it had 10,337 permanent theater-style seats, plus retractable bleachers for an additional 2,482 spectators.

Portable bleachers placed alongside the retractable bleachers were later used for big games. The single-game attendance record of 13,478 was set Feb. 23, 1997 for a UCLA-Duke game.

Early on, the press had the best seats in the house, sitting in the first eight rows in the center of the south side. That's where I was sitting for Walton's debut in 1970.

More from my story, which I found in an old scrapbook: "Most of the eyes were on him as he went through his routine warm-up drills, and then came the opening tip. Walton easily out-jumped Sidney Wicks twice, first knocking the ball out of bounds and then tipping it to a teammate.

"The remainder of the Bill Walton Debut wasn't as good, however. He played only nine minutes and 36 seconds, scoring two points, grabbing five rebounds and blocking three shots in the varsity's 93-59 victory yesterday over the frosh."

Gary Cunningham, the frosh coach, explained after the game that Walton had a bad case of stomach flu. So there was no inkling then just how good he would be during his three seasons on the varsity.

I got to witness his magic up-close, either in the old press area or right behind it, and years later got to know Bill after he began working in sports broadcasting, a beat I covered for nearly 35 years at both the Herald and the Times.

UCLA basketball was never my beat. However, I did cover games from time to time on a fill-in basis, but mostly I attended games as a spectator, even though I am not an alumnus of UCLA. Fresno State was my school.

I can still recall the goose bumps and tingling sensation I felt every time I walked into Pauley Pavilion - the UCLA band playing and the crowd rumbling in anticipation of the opening tipoff.

My wife and I moved to an apartment on Zelzah Avenue in Encino shortly after we were married in 1972. I learned years later, during my first of several visits to John Wooden's condo, that he had been a neighbor. I drove past his condo every day without realizing it.

During that first visit to his condo, I kiddingly told the Coach, "Gee, had I known you lived here, we could have carpooled to the games."

His response: "We could have, but you would have had to leave when I did, which was very early."

I enjoyed the perfection of UCLA basketball - the 88-game win streak during the Walton era, the 10 championships in 12 years, and even the later years when championships were sparse. Our younger daughter, Jill Stewart Sanford, is a 2000 graduate of UCLA.

After my initial introduction to Pauley Pavilion in 1970, I never stopped attending events there. Now I can't wait to start attending events in the new Pauley Pavilion.

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