He had built this remarkable pyramid of success, and now John Wooden was coaching the UCLA Bruins for the last time.
Only Kentucky was standing between Wooden and his 10th national championship in 12 years. This was 1975, the year after high-flying David Thompson and North Carolina State had ended UCLA’s string of seven consecutive NCAA titles in the semifinals by upsetting Bill Walton and the vaunted Walton Gang.
Kentucky was waiting two days after an exhausted Wooden had informed his stunned players in the locker room following an emotional overtime win over Louisville in the national semifinals that he would be retiring.
“I’m bowing out,” Wooden said in the vast quiet. “I don’t want to. I have to.”
Right then and there Andre McCarter knew he and his teammates had to send John Wooden out a winner.
“I just blurted out after all the emotions of the moment, because this came from left field, we had no idea. And I said, ‘We’re gonna win this game against Kentucky no matter what,’ ” McCarter told The Post.
McCarter was a 6-foot-3 two-time high school All-American, a product of the Sonny Hill League and the Charles Baker League during the golden basketball age in Philadelphia. McCarter, a walking triple-double, was a student/disciple of former 76ers guard Archie Clark and ball-handling whiz Bobby Lewis, and an Oscar Robertson fan.
“I lived four blocks from Earl Monroe, he used to come over to play in a schoolyard called Landreth; an elementary school, which was packed with everybody from Wilt Chamberlain to Guy Rodgers to Al Attles on Saturdays and Sundays,” McCarter said.
Wooden sent assistant Denny Crum to McCarter’s home and Overbrook High School to recruit him. Overbrook had produced Chamberlain and guard Walt Hazzard, who had led Wooden to his first national championship in 1964.
“I came to UCLA because of Lew Alcindor [Kareem Abdul-Jabbar],” McCarter said. “As a kid coming up, then watching him at UCLA, made me aware of UCLA.”
A tennis player who also went to UCLA by the name of Arthur Ashe visited Overbrook to fill McCarter in on UCLA’s social environment and the area. “He was very instrumental in painting a picture,” McCarter said.
The NCAA Tournament expanded from 25 to 32 in 1975, and so the Bruins, No. 1 seed in the West, had to defeat Michigan first, then Montana, then Arizona State. And then came the knockdown, drag-out battle against Louisville.
“Louisville was kinda like playing ourselves,” McCarter said, “because Denny Crum was now the coach at Louisville.”
This wasn’t one of those UCLA teams that inspired fear. Maybe some aura and mystique, but no fear, no Alcindor, no Walton. Wooden depended on six men — McCarter, Richard Washington, Marques Johnson, Dave Meyers, Pete Trgovich and Ralph Drollinger. It didn’t mean they didn’t wear a bull’s-eye on their chests.
“When you come to UCLA, you’re already used to that,” McCarter said. “When I came to UCLA, they had won seven national championships and five in a row. For coach John Wooden to pick me to come means they wanted to continue on doing that, No. 1 in the nation. Then once I got there, I was part of the Walton Gang. The pressure of being No. 1, that was like eating breakfast. That was a part of life. But I think we were more doubted — once Bill and Jamaal [Wilkes] and that team graduated, we were more doubted.”
But McCarter and the rest of the Bruins never doubted they would send out their beloved coach the right way.
“This is John Wooden!” McCarter said. “You’re sitting here with the greatest coach ever. And he’s telling you that this is his final game on Saturday.”
UCLA had the advantage of playing the championship game at the San Diego Sports Arena. But Joe B. Hall’s Wildcats were big and tough and had an unconscious senior sharpshooter named Kevin Grevey, who dropped 34 points in the title game.
“I was right there on him, hand in his face, and he still was hitting a few of those shots,” McCarter said.
And it didn’t matter.
Some time ago, McCarter’s wife watched the game on television.
“She says, ‘Man, Andre, you act like you didn’t care nothing about what Kentucky was doing,’ ” McCarter said. “ ‘For a while they were kicking your butt, and they were throwing everything they had at you guys, but you just seemed like you just … just kept on going, your face never changed.’ ”
McCarter played every minute of the last three games and dished out a championship-game record 14 assists. Washington (28 points, 12 rebounds) and Meyers (24 points, 11 rebounds) Marques Johnson and the 7-foot-3 Drollinger also stepped up big for the Bruins. It took a team effort.
“It was like, ‘I don’t care what they do, they’re not winning this game,’ ” McCarter said. “I guess it spread to my teammates and they came up with great performances too.”
The final was UCLA 92, Kentucky 85.
The date was March 31 — 45 years ago Tuesday.
John Wooden’s last game.
“You could see the relief on his face,” McCarter said, “and at the same time, obviously happiness.”
McCarter grabbed Wooden and said, “Coach, you have a nice life.”
McCarter, 66, never forgot his coach, never forgot that Wooden hated being labeled “The Wizard of Westwood.” McCarter lived five minutes from Wooden’s Encino, Calif., home and the two would spend hours at a time talking basketball and life.
“The way he taught the game and the way he went about doing his business made him special,” McCarter said.
McCarter spearheaded a campaign of former players from as far back as the 1940s to write letters to the president to get Wooden the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Wooden wrote the forward for McCarter’s upcoming book “Anatomy of a Champion,” a 25-year project interrupted by COVID-19, that will include more than 600 captioned photographs.
“An honest man, a faithful man, a man of his word,” McCarter said of Wooden.
McCarter, who played for the Kansas City Kings (1976-78) and Washington Bullets (1980-81), began building his own pyramid of success when he invented The Touch Glove, patented in 1999, for players of all ages and skill. Former NBA great Jason Kidd has vouched for it.
“It forces them to use their fingertips to become better dribblers, shooters. It’s gonna take the game to the next level,” McCarter said.
He is eternally grateful that he played for the coach who took UCLA to the next level.
“It’s one of the greatest things ever that can happen to a person,” McCarter said. “The best that ever did it. It doesn’t get too much better than that.”