Dwight Clay was closing in on his 21st birthday as the basketball left the fingertips of his right hand on that Saturday afternoon 45 years ago, his indelible jump shot launched from deep in the right corner at what Notre Dame now calls the Purcell Pavilion.
“The Iceman,” though, had been born only 12 months earlier.
The legend began in January 1973 when Clay, appearing in just the ninth game of his college career, nailed a jump shot with 2 seconds left to end Marquette’s 81-game homecourt winning streak. That victory over the nation’s No. 4 team helped to turn the struggling Irish into a burgeoning basketball power. Clay’s reputation as a clutch shooter was burnished with a key basket in a victory over Pitt that season, and again with a buzzer-beater against Ohio State to force overtime in the opening victory of 1973-74.
They started calling him the Iceman after the Marquette game. They still do. Because when Notre Dame battled UCLA as the Bruins sought to extend an NCAA-record 88-game winning streak, and when the Fighting Irish recovered from an 11-point deficit inside the final 4 minutes to trail by a single point, and when star Irish guard Gary Brokaw controlled the ball at the foul line and noticed UCLA’s Tommy Curtis cheating too far toward the lane playing helpside defense, and when he saw Clay waving his arms as if he were doing jumping jacks on the right sideline, Brokaw knew what was up.
The Iceman is open.
“Of course! Any basketball aficionado calls me that,” Clay delightedly told Sporting News. “Anybody who knows the history of Notre Dame and UCLA calls me that.
“When I look at the video, on the 19th of every year, I look at the shot and it was in front of the UCLA bench. There was such a back-and-forth with Tommy Curtis, the trash-talking going on, I see myself walking past their bench and saying to myself, ‘Take that.’“
That shot delivered the winning points in Notre Dame’s 71-70 upset of the No. 1 Bruins, who had won seven consecutive NCAA championships under coach John Wooden and every game for three solid years dating back to Jan. 23, 1971. Ironically enough, that was when UCLA allowed All-American guard Austin Carr to score 46 points in an 89-82 loss to the Irish.
Clay’s shot wasn’t a buzzer-beater like Christian Laettner’s or Tyus Edney’s or Kris Jenkins’. It wasn’t even in the NCAA Tournament. And yet it remains, as the 45th anniversary of Notre Dame’s victory to break the UCLA winning streak arrives on Saturday, one of the most impactful plays the game has seen. The Irish victory changed the course of college basketball history and accelerated the growth of a sport that would become one of America’s most popular.
Clay — working in his hometown of Pittsburgh as an investigator in the casino industry regulation industry — still carries in his briefcase a copy of the video of the game’s final 6 minutes, given to him and the other Irish players when they held a reunion to mark the 25th anniversary of that victory.
“I’m famous for that shot, but I had had a hell of a career. Everybody just knows me for that shot,” Clay told SN. “I led the team in assists all three years, I made several clutch basketball shots in my career at Notre Dame.
“I always say it’s my 15 minutes of fame that have lasted over 40 years now.”
There were about 3½ minutes remaining when Curtis — left in the clear when freshman Bill Paterno returned to guard his own man too quickly following a screen by the Bruins — hit a lightly challenged 12-foot jump shot from the right corner to extend UCLA’s lead to 70-59.
Gifted freshman Adrian Dantley inbounded to Clay, who advanced the ball over the midcourt and called timeout at the direction of third-year Irish coach Digger Phelps.
Fresh from an astonishing 26-3 season at Fordham that included an upset victory over the Irish, Phelps had taken over the Notre Dame program in 1971, after Carr completed his stellar career and his supporting cast of Collis Jones, Sid Catlett and Jack Meehan finished, as well.
Center John Shumate, expected to star for the Irish in his sophomore season, missed Phelps’ entire first season with an illness. The 1971-72 team finished 6-20. The second year was better. The Irish recovered from an 0-6 start by beating Kansas and DePaul and then grabbing that Marquette win. They eventually reached the final of the NIT and lost an overtime classic to Virginia Tech.
When Notre Dame added Dantley, one of the nation’s top recruits, to such accomplished players as Brokaw, Clay and 6-7 forward Gary Novak, a lot seemed possible in Year 3. Those dreams were realized immediately when the Irish defeated Ohio State, Indiana and Kentucky in an 8-0 start, which led the Irish to the No. 2 ranking in the national polls. And it all was about to crumble with UCLA holding an 11-point lead with 3:22 on the clock.
“I looked at each guy in their face — and I used a few French words, if you know what I mean — and said, ‘If you don’t believe we’re going to win this game, get in the locker room, take a shower, I don’t need you out here,’” Phelps told Sporting News. “I did that to every one of the five guys on the bench. Just to get their attention, get them focused.
“They just went out with the intensity and the will-how to make it happen.”
The TVS network was conceived in 1960 by broadcasting executive Eddie Einhorn, after he’d built up his business by syndicating radio rights to the NCAA Tournament. That was his first intersection with the game, but he would become one of the most important figures in the sport’s transition from regional attraction to national obsession.
In 1968, Einhorn helped to arrange the Game of the Century between UCLA, featuring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and the Houston Cougars, featuring Elvin Hayes. A court was placed at the center of the Astrodome and the game drew a capacity crowd and large television audience across the TVS syndicated network. The popularity of that game led to NBC agreeing in 1969 to pay $500,000 for rights to the NCAA championship game.
Phelps insists Notre Dame’s upset of UCLA was even more important to college basketball.
“That game, for me, did more for college basketball than any game,” Phelps told SN. “And don’t take anything away from the UCLA-Houston game and all that. This game to me had more drama than any other game as you look at that time and that moment for college basketball. This was the moment.
“I think that UCLA game was the first time the nation saw people storming the court, and that’s obviously carried over for some 45 years. When a team beats somebody that has three losses, they still storm the court.
TVS syndication of college basketball grew in the years after the Houston-UCLA game, but its broadcasts of Notre Dame games were the jewel. While such college superstars as Pete Maravich and Calvin Murphy were mostly legend to sports fans across the U.S., Carr was regularly on television in the early ’70s making buckets for the Irish.
There wasn’t a whole lot more to see on TV for those whose interest in the sport was growing toward obsession. The opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament was often televised, but some of the big midweek Sweet 16 games were hard to find. The three national networks had scripted programming to air, and there was no ESPN or Fox Sports 1.
By 1975, the NCAA Tournament expanded to allow more than one team per conference to enter, and by 1977 NBC was airing more than 23 hours’ worth of tournament programming. The 1974 NCAA Championship game between N.C. State and Marquette drew a Monday night audience of more than 13 million.
And yes, it was N.C. State rather than UCLA in that title game. The Notre Dame loss, in a sense, hastened the end of the UCLA dynasty, and it can be argued that aided the sport’s growth, as well.
Having won every championship from 1967 through 1973 — by an average margin of 14 points, only the two of those by less than a double-digit margin — the Bruins began blowing leads almost habitually as the 1973-74 season progressed. They fell at Oregon and Oregon State during one weekend Pac-8 Conference road series, and later to the All-American David Thompson and the Wolfpack in a double-overtime game at the Final Four. The Bruins led by 14 points with 4 minutes remaining in regulation, and by 7 points with 90 seconds left in the second overtime. Bill Walton and his teammates had won two championships and never lost a game during his first two seasons, but he would not match Jabbar’s three in a row.
“I look back at my college career as one of frustration, disappointment and ultimate embarrassment,” Walton said in the HBO documentary, “The UCLA Dynasty,” released in 2007. “For us to give four games away out of our last 10, which is totally unacceptable … and I will never be able to erase the stigma and the stain from my soul about what could have been. It could have been perfect.”
Notre Dame assured it was not.
After he arrived to become the Irish coach and got the program through a quick rebuild, Phelps worked with Einhorn to arrange a national schedule of games featuring the Irish against some of the biggest names in the sport. Given its stature, UCLA was a must. And playing Notre Dame in a home-and-home that would be televised back East was helpful to the Bruins, who originally built their dynasty on the talents of such college basketball titans as Walt Hazzard from Philadelphia and Abdul-Jabbar from New York. On the 1974 team, Curtis was from Tampa and Andre McCarter was from Philly.
“Eddie used to send me notes from the truck to the bench,” Phelps told SN. “We’d be beating somebody by 15 or 16 points with 3 minutes, 4 minutes to go and he’d send a note that said, ‘Digger, get a technical.’ And I’d write back, ‘No.’ And he’d send back another note later in the game and say, ‘Digger, get a timeout.’ And he’d put dollar signs. And I’d jump right up and call timeout so they could run commercials.
“Based on this game and the exposure he got, he eventually sold TVS and got into TV wrestling, and then with that money he ends up buying the White Sox with Jerry Reinsdorf. So when they win the World Series back in ’05, he sends me a Christmas card with the World Series trophy on it, and him. I called him up and I said, ‘Hey, why aren’t I on the other side of that World Series trophy? Because without me and that UCLA game you don’t own the White Sox.’”
The scene during that timeout huddle is something the players who were inside have remembered for more than four decades.
“Sometimes he could be very sarcastic, and say, ‘Oh, sure, Novak, why don’t you just hang it up if you don’t want to play defense?” Gary Novak told SN. “It was just his way of kind of motivating players. He was honest about that. He said, ‘You’ve got to believe right now that we’re going to win this game. Just do what you do and play defense and we’re going to win.’ And we believed it. And it was just an incredible 3 minutes.”
Clay thought it even more important that Phelps sent quick guard Ray Martin into the game. Martin was a freshman that season, perhaps the seventh man in the Irish rotation, but he was quick and could handle and distribute the ball.
“When he came in, that kind of infused our press coverage,” Clay said. “We started putting the press on them and they couldn’t handle the press.
“As a basketball player, you always believe you could still win until the end of the game. We were ranked No. 2 at the time. We hadn’t played our best game throughout the whole contest. I knew we could play better. And that timeout kind of woke us up.”
The comeback began with Shumate accepting a feed on the left post from Brokaw, getting Walton to bite on a pump-fake and then flashing to the middle to score on a jump-hook before Walton could get back in the play. With ND set up in a full-court man press, Shumate then intercepted the inbound pass near the foul line and drove quickly for finger-roll and two points more.
“Wow! They’re back in the game,” said analyst Hot Rod Hundley on the TVS broadcast.
With no shot clock in the rules at the time, the Bruins began trying to kill time in their half-court offense. But they got sloppy with a pass, and Dantley jumped the route in front of intended target Jamaal Wilkes. The interception turned into a fastbreak layup that made it 70-65.
Notre Dame’s press became frantic then, all five defenders pushed up into the backcourt, and Wilkes threw the ball long toward the frontcourt, where Curtis had broken into the clear to receive it. But Curtis traveled as he caught the ball. He laid it in without hearing the whistle, and a Notre Dame cheerleader crossed the baseline to taunt Curtis and make him aware of the turnover.
With 2 minutes left, Brokaw made a quick move to the left baseline and nailed a jumper over Wilkes’ reach. It was a 3-point game.
Announcer Dick Enberg suggested the Bruins might try to stall away the final 100 seconds, but instead Dave Meyers drove toward a point-blank shot after the Irish unsuccessfully gambled for a steal. Meyers’ shot rolled off the rim and was rebounded by Shumate. Clearly feeling it, Brokaw again made a one-dribble move, this time from the left elbow to the foul line, and nailed a jumper over a flagging Wilkes. The score was 70-69.
With a minute left and 10 points trimmed off the Bruins’ lead, Wooden did not call time. He believed that to be a sign of weakness. Instead Curtis got the ball forward and down to Wilkes along the baseline, who made a quick spin move into his right shoulder against the smaller Martin, who was guarding him tightly and had no help behind him. Wilkes scored easily — but on the way he used his right arm to “chicken-wing” Martin and was called for an offensive foul.
That all led to Clay’s jumper, giving ND the lead with 22 seconds left.
“After the game, it was kind of funny, Shumate said, ‘There’s Clay, he’s about 0-for-13, and he wants the ball! He wants to shoot the last shot!’” Novak said. “He did not take a single shot the whole second half. That was his one and only shot that won the game. He was so cool and ready and confident he was going to hit that.”
Now down 71-70, Wooden signaled for a timeout.
The last 21 seconds were a festival of basketball madness. After picking up his dribble, Curtis tried passing to Walton on the left wing, but it was deflected and almost stolen by Shumate. As he saved the ball back inbounds, it was retrieved by Curtis and he tried a 20-foot jumper. That missed, but Brokaw fumbled the rebound out of bounds with 6 seconds left. UCLA would inbound from the right baseline.
“Bill Walton, they’d always throw a lob pass to him and he’d turn over his left shoulder and throw in a little hook shot, and he’d always make it,” Phelps said. “What was ironic about the last time they got the ball, he’s on the right side, so he’s got to turn over his right shoulder with the ball. Well, Shumate’s right there and sort of like semi-gets in his way, and he misses a shot. Pete Trgovich had a tip and missed, and I think Meyers had a tap and missed it, and then Shumate grabs the ball and throws it in the air and the game’s over.
“If the ball was on the other side, Walton would have had his left shoulder, shot the hook and made the thing.”
What happened next was planned. Well, not the part about the students and fans rushing onto the court and swarming the Irish players. The part about the players being lifted into the air to cut down the nets. Phelps actually had the Irish practice this in advance of the game. Imagine how that would be greeted now by the Twitter army, a coach expressing that degree of audacity.
In fact, try to imagine a team cutting down the nets to celebrate a regular-season victory — knowing that a week later they’d have to go play the same team again on the road.
“That was really ingenious, for Digger and the assistants to come up with something like that,” Novak said. “When it happened, it was bedlam, the students all coming out of the stands and rushing to the court and the players. It was just an incredible feeling to be able to have that accomplishment.
“I somehow got to the net to take the one net down, and Shumate was supposed to go to the other end of the court, but he just got overwhelmed and ran to the locker room. Dantley was the one I think that got hoisted up to take the other net. Shumate was just exhausted by the whole game and the emotion and everything. He played such an outstanding game against Walton.
“It was the best feeling I ever had in terms of a victory. We really celebrated heartily after that game.”
Notre Dame’s Adrian Dantley cutting down the net after the Irish’s 71-70 win over UCLA (Courtesy of Notre Dame Athletics).
Phelps knew this was a special occasion. He understood Wooden was an incredible coach, saying the 10 championships he won will never be matched. Which is why Phelps declares, “That was an impact game. But I always gave credit to the guys who made it happen.” So Novak said Digger gave the players one basic rule for the UCLA postgame:
Whatever you do, don’t get arrested.
That was one achievement they managed. The Irish lost the rematch at Pauley Pavilion exactly one week later, but it remained their only defeat until they visited Dayton in the final regular-season game at UD Arena. They got run off the court, losing by 15, their own 12-game winning streak shattered.
After an easy win against Austin Peay to open the NCAA Tournament, Notre Dame lost in the Sweet 16 to Michigan. Shumate scored 34 points, but the Irish allowed 36 to the Wolverines’ Campy Russell.
“I really think that Dayton game hurt us. It made us feel we weren’t invincible, that somebody else could beat us besides UCLA,” Novak said. “We were picked to go the Final Four, and actually we had beaten three out of the Final Four teams during the regular season. So that was sort of the opposite, dismay that we didn’t go on with probably the best team we’d had.”
If they’d gotten to Greensboro that year, however, perhaps the UCLA game would not remain as the singular legacy of the 1973-74 Irish. And maybe a game as monumental as this should stand alone.
That team has celebrated together in several reunions to commemorate the 71-70 victory over the Bruins. There will be none this year, but both Clay and Novak expressed hope that everyone will be around to attend one marking a half-century.
Clay will mark the day by watching his tape, and almost certainly by talking on the phone with some of his friends from the team.
“It gives me a sense of accomplishment,” Clay said. “It makes me feel like I did some good in the neighborhood.
“They can never take this off the scoreboard. They can never take it out of history.”