Tommy Burleson knew what was coming whenever he crossed paths with Bill Walton in the NBA or later when their careers were over and both attended NBA Retired Players Association meetings.
Walton could never really come to grips with UCLA’s loss to N.C. State in the national semifinals of the 1974 NCAA tournament in Greensboro.
N.C. State’s 80-77 win in double overtime ended UCLA’s seven-year title streak.
“He’s still complaining about it,” Burleson joked recently.
In three years at UCLA, Walton won 86 out of 90 games and two national titles. He had a game-high 29 points and 18 rebounds for the Bruins against the Wolfpack.
That UCLA actually led by 11 points in the second half and 74-67 with 3:23 left in the second overtime made it more difficult for Walton to handle the defeat.
In 2003, Walton wrote the foreword to Thompson’s biography, “Skywalker.” Walton made his lingering feelings about the NCAA loss clear with his first sentence: “How do you write a foreword for a book about someone who ruined your life?”
Walton went on and called the date, March 23, 1974, “one of the bleakest days in the history of Western Civilization.”
It was not the first loss for the Bruins that season. After a 13-0 start, including a relatively easy 84-66 win over N.C. State on Dec. 15 in St. Louis, the Bruins dropped an historic 71-70 decision at Notre Dame on Jan. 19.
That loss ended UCLA’s 88-game winning streak. The streak was shorter but the stakes were bigger when the Wolfpack and Bruins met for a second time in March. The loss to N.C. State in Greensboro ended coach John Wooden’s 38-game winning streak in the NCAA tournament.
“I have relived that fateful spring day in Greensboro, North Carolina for the last 29 years, turning it all over time and time again, trying to figure out how things could possibly go so wrong,” Walton wrote in Thompson’s biography.
Walton has had such a difficult time getting over the loss to N.C. State because UCLA led 57-46 in the second half and then 74-67 with 3:23 left in the second overtime.
That means, without a shot clock or a 3-point line, the Wolfpack was able to erase a seven-point deficit with the title on the line in the second overtime.
UCLA helped, with some uncharacteristic turnovers, but Thompson also made the plays when it counted most.
Up 75-74 in the second OT, UCLA forward Dave Meyers grabbed a rebound of a missed shot by N.C. State guard Monte Towe. Meyers was fouled and sent to the free-throw line.
As a team, the Bruins had made 11 of their first 12 free throws, but Meyers missed the front end of one-and-one. Thompson, who was outside of Walton, jumped and grabbed the rebound just out of the reach of the UCLA center.
On N.C. State’s next possession, Thompson banked in a 10-foot jump shot from just left of the lane to give the Wolfpack a 76-75 lead.
Greg Lee tried to put UCLA back up but his long jumper from the left elbow missed. Thompson drew a foul from Keith Wilkes on the rebound and went down and made both free throws with 34 seconds left to put the game away for the Wolfpack.
Walton’s respect for Thompson is how he ended up writing about someone who “ruined his life.” Walton wrote that Thompson was the “single greatest college player whom I ever played against.”
“I have said many times that I wish I could have that one week to live over — that week leading up to and including March 23, 1974,” Walton wrote.
“In retrospect today, as much as I would like to have it to do over, I am no longer convinced that it would have made any difference. David Thompson was that good.”
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