by Alex Langer
There’s a perpetual question in American fandom of amateur sports versus professional sports. It is perhaps an open question as to when the NFL overtook college football in popularity (if it has at all), but the question of when the NBA overtook college basketball is less ambiguous. The final game of the NBA Finals regularly beats the NCAA National Championship now. Although the Final Four beats the NBA Finals, this seems to have more to do with the difference between the two in the lengths of their respective postseasons. The single elimination style of March Madness lends itself to higher viewers. It is clear that the NBA dominates the discussion over NCAA Basketball now. When did this happen, and why?
College basketball was king throughout the 1960s. The traditional powers had more cachet than the upstart NBA, to say nothing of the ABA. The NBA until the late 1970s was an afterthought on the sporting map, far from the king that it is now. We can see the change throughout the 1970s by looking at Sports Illustrated covers throughout the decade. From 1970 to 1973, college basketball beat the NBA, with eleven covers to the NBA’s seven. Most of those covered Lew Alcindor’s time in Milwaukee and Bill Russell’s Celtics teams. From 1973-1975 the NBA nearly equaled NCAA covers, with four to the NCAA’s five. And after 1975 the transfer was completed. The NBA had twenty-six covers between 1975 and 1980, compared to NCAA basketball’s nineteen. All this despite the fact that Bob Knight’s Indiana was rounding into form, and the NBA was financially broken.
Why and how did this happen? I have a few ideas. Before the mid-seventies, the SI covers were full of the exploits of UCLA and coach John Wooden. Each time college basketball made the cover, it was with Lew Alcindor or Bill Walton leading the charge. John Wooden’s UCLA teams were some of the greatest squads, with some of the greatest players in college basketball history. Meanwhile, Bill Russell’s Celtics dominated the NBA. While both sports had clear dynasties, Alcindor’s dominance (to the point of NCAA rule changes outlawing the dunk) and Bill Walton’s impeccable passing must have made for better viewing. UCLA’s history, and the American appreciation of amateur sports, which continues to this day, despite all the evidence that amateurism is a scam, surely contributed to this dominance.
From 1971 until 1974, UCLA won a record 88 consecutive games, anchored by Bill Walton. Even though much of the media attention was on the feud between the NBA and the upstart American Basketball Association, the public cared more about Walton and UCLA. Sports Illustrated covers were entranced with the continued streak, especially as it hit the seventies. “During their long and continuous occupation at the top,” SI wrote, “the Bruins had survived fashion trends and hairstyles, rockabilly records and devalued dollars, presidents and Hula Hoops. They had outlasted New Frontiers, Great Societies, lunar forays, and Frank Sinatra. In the end, UCLA had even outlasted war.” UCLA’s consistency marked it in the American mind in a time of uncertainty and crisis. Their dominance was so assured that the public cared more about the people on the team than the streak. They cared about who the UCLA players were.
When the streak finally ended, and UCLA lost to Notre Dame on January 19, 1974, the magazine had covered the team six times that season. It was the end of an era of dominance for UCLA. Though SI and the public didn’t know it, the end of the streak presaged the end of college basketball’s dominance. Without the power of UCLA, the NBA eventually eclipsed NCAA basketball in the American zeitgeist.
Next Week: How did the NBA come to dominate?
 Curry Kirkpatrick, “Who Are These Guys?” Sports Illustrated, February 5, 1973.