SEATTLE — One hand, 12 hearts. The hand belonged to UCLA point guard Tyus Edney, it was swollen at the wrist, sore and bandaged and useless. He dribbled lefty during warm-ups, declined to slap palms with his teammates during introductions, tried to milk every spare second, waiting for some miracle heal. It never arrived. Game time did. He couldn’t dribble. He couldn’t shoot. He tried to go right and had the ball knocked away. He tried to penetrate and lost control. Less than three minutes into the biggest game of his life, the senior went to the bench, pulled on his warm-ups, dropped his head, and prayed.
Which is where the hearts come in. They belong to the other guys in the blue and gold uniforms, the UCLA Bruins, who wear the college basketball crown this morning because they played the way you dream a team will play, moment by moment, hero by hero, losing their general but never their focus. They outmuscled defending national champion Arkansas, outquicked its fastest guys, and, using only six players, outlasted Arkansas’ famous rotation, until, in the final seconds, Ed O’Bannon was slamming and Toby Bailey was jumping and they were safe, they had done it. The buzzer sounded and the entire team leapt into a victory pile, then fell into an impromptu prayer session, which ended with a simple word:
One hand, 12 hearts.
“It was such a bad feeling, sitting on the bench,” admitted Edney, the spiritual and play-making leader of this team, after the Bruins won the title, 89-78. “But I have confidence in my teammates. When I saw them playing as hard as they were, I knew they wouldn’t have a problem.”
It was like the Force in the movie “Star Wars” — Edney’s will and drive, which had led the Bruins to this title game, seemed to drip from his pores into the bodies of his teammates. The result was a highlight reel that can run any night with the 10 other championships this school has won.
Here was O’Bannon, the senior, on a mission, grabbing every rebound within a yard of his bony arms and high-rising his way to 30 points, none more impressive than a put-back basket in which he fought off the wrestler-like grip of 280-pound Dwight Stewart and muscled the ball back in, getting fouled in the process.
Here was behemoth center George Zidek, whose feet barely leave the ground, clamping down on the supposedly unstoppable Corliss Williamson, holding him to just three baskets all night. “I made up my mind,” said Zidek. “He was going to have to shoot every shot over me.”
At 7 feet, that’s pretty tough.
Here was a freshman, the son of a parole officer, Toby Bailey — real name John Garfield Bailey — who played like a fellow named Jordan. As in Michael. Bailey was simply out of his mind, turning in a goose-bump night, 26 points, nine rebounds, and the most chilling moments. At times, he simply rose above the entire Arkansas team for put-backs, often grabbing his own rebounds and rolling them through the hoop. On one definitive play, he took a whip-fast steal from O’Bannon and reverse jammed, setting the Kingdome on fire.
“Weren’t you intimidated a little, being a freshmen?” he was asked.
“No, this was my kind of game,” he said. “Besides, after my first few baskets, (the Arkansas players) started saying stuff like I was lucky, I was just a freshman.”
That’ll teach ’em.
This was Bailey, and Zidek, and Charles O’Bannon — Ed’s younger brother
— and Cameron Dollar and freshman J.R. Henderson. That was the whole rotation, all night. Six guys. It was like something out of “Hoosiers.”
Yep. And when the crown was theirs, they stood together, scissors in hand, ready to cut down the nets. And even then, in their minds, there was only one star.
“HEY, YO, EVERYBODY!” screamed Ed O’Bannon into the microphone when he was announced as the Final Four’s most outstanding player. “I WANT YOU TO KNOW SOMETHING. THERE’S ONLY ONE MVP AND HE’S RIGHT HERE. TYUS EDNEY!”
He raised his teammate’s injured paw. The crowd exploded.
One hand, 12 hearts.
Dollar was good as gold
What a great story for this storied school, which hadn’t won a championship since 1975, when John Wooden said farewell. Wooden, now 85, won 10 championships in 12 years. He was here Monday night, in the stands, but he left before the final buzzer, not wanting to steal any glory.
His ghost left with him.
No more does Jim Harrick have to suffer the hauntings of a team that doesn’t exist. Life hasn’t always been fair to Harrick in LA, where they can’t seem to forget the Wizard of Westwood days. But Monday, in the Emerald City, a new wizard was born.
“This is the pinnacle moment, the peak of my career,” said Harrick, who finally erases early exits last year to Tulsa and the year before to Michigan with Monday’s title. “Sometimes when something goes wrong — like Tyus’ injury — these nights work in your favor. I would give emotion and divine intervention a lot of credit, but I would give our players even more credit.”
None more than the sophomore who took Edney’s place, backup guard Cameron Dollar. More reliable than the currency which bears his name, Dollar played as if he’d been expecting this night forever. Dollar is an intellectual kid, who attended three high schools and said, earlier in the tournament, “My role on this team is to make sure Ed and George Zidek get into the highest tax bracket possible.”
On Monday, his job was to take over for the most important player on the team. Here’s how he did: six points, eight assists, three rebounds, four steals, and only three turnovers in 36 minutes.
Not bad for a backup, huh?
“I was speechless,” said Harrick. “The way he led our team, and ran it in the last five minutes. He knew exactly what I wanted. He said to me, ‘Don’t worry, Ed will get the ball every time.’ And his defense. . . . I’m speechless.”
How often can a kid do that to a coach? Arkansas lucky to get this far
A word here about the losing team, Arkansas. You can hardly blame it for succumbing to this kind of karma. It was almost too good a script to ruin. Still, critics will wonder why Nolan Richardson didn’t go earlier to his big gun, Williamson, who finished 3-for-16 — most of those shots came late in the game — and went one stretch for more than 24 minutes without scoring a hoop.
“We didn’t shoot well, and they did a great job on Corliss,” Richardson said. “Give them credit. They just played lights out.”
And Arkansas made too many mistakes. The Razorbacks turned the ball over 18 times and were pitifully outrebounded, 50-31. Considering they had the bigger bodies, and a lot more of them, there’s not much excusing this.
But you have to give the Razorbacks their due for even getting here. They survived games they should have lost in the first round against Texas Southern, in the second round against Syracuse, and in the third round against Memphis. The team will come apart now, with six seniors leaving — including Corey Beck, Dwight Stewart and Clint McDaniel — along with Williamson, Big Nasty, who will probably jump to the NBA.
“I’m proud of our kids,” Richardson said. “All the pressure they’ve been under — I told them just being here was an accomplishment.”
And that’s true. Arkansas got over its hump last year. UCLA does it now. It was a wonderful story, a night for the books, watching Bailey lift his game, and Ed O’Bannon soar toward his destiny, and Dollar step into that star-is-born role, and finally, seeing Wooden leave, quietly, gently, taking his legend with him to make room for another.
You don’t get this stuff every night — or even every year. Monday was great theater, and proof that college basketball is still one place you can mix desire and dreams and overcome even the worst news, and the toughest injuries.
“UCLA! UCLA!” the fans chanted, as the team finally left the floor, led by its shortest player, who gingerly raised his bandaged wrist and waved at history.
One hand, 12 hearts, one championship.
Hell of a story, really.