Former Spur Nater relishes memories of UCLA

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Former Spur Nater relishes memories of UCLA

Postby rlee » Tue Mar 23, 2010 9:42 pm

Former Spurs center Nater relishes memories of UCLA dynasty

by David Flores /

Even after all these years, former Spurs center Swen Nater remembers the sum total of little things that made playing for legendary coach John Wooden at UCLA such a life-changing, exhilarating experience.
Renowned as a master teacher on and off the basketball court, Wooden was so meticulous in his preparation that he showed his players how to put on their socks and lace up their shoes before the team’s first practice each season.

“I think of Coach Wooden every morning when I put on my socks,” Nater said Monday night by phone from his home in Issaquah, Wash., which is about 20 miles east of Seattle.

Now 60, Nater recounted an anecdote that illustrates how Wooden never is far from his stream of consciousness.

“I play in a tennis league up here, and I was practicing the other day when I noticed that my T-shirt wasn’t tucked in,” Nater said. “I immediately tucked it in because I thought Coach Wooden might be watching.”

No detail was too small for Wooden, who led UCLA to a record 10 national championships in 12 seasons, including seven in a row from 1967-73, before he retired 35 years ago.

Every year around this time, I find myself marveling at the Bruins’ dynastic run from 1963-75, when such players as Gail Goodrich, Walt Hazzard, Lew Alcindor, Sidney Wicks, Curtis Rowe, Bill Walton, Keith Wilkes and Marques Johnson made UCLA almost invincible.

The Bruins were so dominant – they won 88 consecutive games between losses to Notre Dame on January 23, 1971 and Jan 19, 1974 – that the only suspense in the NCAA tournament during their reign was which team would finish second.

Wooden, 99, has slowed down considerably in recent years. But even if his former players don’t talk with him as often as they once did, he remains a bright light in their lives.

“In Coach Wooden,” Nater said, “we had the best teacher that we could ever have.”

Nater played two seasons for the Bruins after transferring from Cypress (Calif.) College, backing up Walton on the 1971-72 and 1972-73 teams that won national titles with identical 30-0 records.

“There has not been another center or post player as good as Bill Walton in all the years since then,” Nater said. “We used to say that Bill was playing chess while everybody was playing checkers. He was always five seconds ahead of the play mentally.

“He was also the quickest 6-11 guy to ever play the game. Take it from me. I practiced against him every day and it was hard to keep up with him. Bill loved to play the game of basketball."

Walton capped his junior season in 1973 with a game for the ages, hitting 21 of 22 field-goal attempts and finishing with 44 points in an 87-66 victory over Memphis State in the NCAA title game.

Nater was a senior on the 1972-73 team that also started guards Greg Lee and Larry Hollyfield and forwards Larry Farmer and Keith Wilkes.

“I don’t think there’s been a team since then that could have beaten us that season,” Nater said. “We were economical in what we did. It was all about precision. We read defenses and reacted quickly.

“We also played great defense with our full-court press, and people sometimes forget about Bill’s defense. He was great on that side of the floor, too.”

Nater, who works as a computer software buyer for Costco Wholesale Corp., still follows college and pro basketball closely. He has written books on Wooden and continues to work as an instructor at camps for post players, teaching the basics he learned from Wooden.

Nater said Wooden was clear on what his role would be at UCLA when he signed with the Bruins in 1970.

“I signed before Bill did,” said Nater, who was redshirted during the 1970-71 season. “But Coach Wooden said that Bill was going to sign with UCLA and that he was a very, very good center. Since all I played was center, he said I wasn’t going to play very much.

“But he told me that I would get good coaching and go against Bill every day in practice. I remember Coach Wooden saying, ‘I think you’ll have a good shot at going pro.’”

Walton and Nater were each 6-11, but Nater had more bulk. In the end, they made each other better players with their intense give-and-take in daily workouts.

Although he averaged only 4.9 points a game and never started at UCLA, Nater was picked by the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the 1973 NBA draft.

To this day, Nater remains the only collegiate player in NBA or ABA history to be drafted in the first round despite never starting a game at his four-year school.

Nater never suited up for the Bucks, but he went on to play with seven teams in 11 seasons, including the Spurs in 1973-74 and 1974-75, before retiring from the NBA in 1984. He played one more season in Italy, but retired for good in 1985.

Nater started his pro career with the Virginia Squires in 1973, but was obtained by the Spurs for cash and a draft pick that November.

Named ABA Rookie of the Year after averaging 14.5 points and 13.6 rebounds, Nater was even better the next season, when he had per-game norms of 15.1 points and 16.4 rebounds.

Nater was traded to the New York Nets in June 1975 for Larry Kenon and Mike Gale.

With the excitement of another NCAA tournament here again, it doesn’t take much to get Nater talking about UCLA’s glory days.

“We won with conditioning, skill and team spirit,” he said. “We also had a coach who was a master at preparation.”

And it all started with his players learning how to put on their sock
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