Memory Lane

Pistons assistant Bibby beams on return visit to UCLA

Greg Monroe
The Pistons played the Kings at home Friday night.
Rocky Widner (NBAE/Getty)
LOS ANGELES – There was a bounce in the Pistons’ collective step Saturday as they walked across UCLA’s campus to get to the student gym where they would hold practice, the morning after their rousing win at Sacramento snapped a four-game losing streak, but nobody was lighter on his feet than Henry Bibby.

As a three-time national champion for John Wooden’s dynasty of the early ’70s, UCLA will always hold a special place in the heart of an 18-year-old kid from rural North Carolina who went to the other side of the country on a leap of faith and never imagined the impact it would have on the rest of his life.

“I didn’t have any idea what I was doing when I made the decision,” Bibby said, standing on the court not far from where Wooden’s old slate blackboard is encased in glass. “My family didn’t have any idea what I was doing and I don’t know how we came to this conclusion. But there is a God, I guess, and it put me on the right track to where I am today. I would never have gotten there without coming out here to UCLA.”

Bibby couldn’t play on the UCLA varsity as a freshman, by NCAA mandate, but he got to practice against a Bruins senior class headlined by Lew Alcindor – before he’d changed his name to the more familiar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – and two pretty fair guards, Lucius Allen and Mike Warren.

“I couldn’t beat those guys out, anyway,” Bibby smiled. As a sophomore, he played a key role on a team led by All-American forwards Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe – Wicks would be the No. 2 pick in the 1971 draft, Rowe drafted No. 11 overall by the Pistons – and as a senior Bibby was the steady hand on a team that would go 30-0 and be led by a dynamic sophomore class that featured Bill Walton and Keith (Jamaal) Wilkes.

“It’s just incredible to be a part of such a dynasty,” he said. “Not too many people get the opportunity to win three national championships and be coached by one of the greatest to ever coach.

“I get chills talking about him now. I get chills when I walk through Pauley Pavilion, when I came here, when I walked through the center where all the memories are. I walked on campus a little bit and looked around. Forty-some years ago, I was here as a young kid, now knowing anything and not knowing where my life would go. But I look back and say, thank God I was in the hands of one of the greatest men to ever live in sports.”

Wooden, who won 10 national championships in a 12-year span and coached 28 seasons at UCLA before retiring suddenly in 1975, died in 2010 just four months short of his 100th birthday. Bibby spent time with him just days before his death and stayed close to Wooden, as did so many of his ex-players, throughout his life.

“All the guys stayed close,” Bibby said. “His doors were open to his players at any time. The guy never told me no, he didn’t have time for me. Never, not one time. It just was incredible. A guy of that magnitude, that much of a legend, an icon.

“I remember one time I was going to the University of Indiana to see Kelvin Sampson and you have to go by (Wooden’s hometown) Martinsville. I called him up to tell him and I was on the phone with Coach probably two or three hours. He was on the phone telling me where to go. I went to his house. I went to his high school and saw the big statue. I said, ‘Coach, that’s an ugly jacket you have on.’ He laughed and said, ‘Yeah, they gave that one to me to wear.’ He had an impact on so many lives.”

One of them stood on the court of the intramural center, not far where he spent one summer playing one on one every summer day with a young Lakers guard named Pat Riley, wearing Pistons gear and a gleam in his eye.