Gone Too Soon: Oklahoma State, UCLA Suffer Losses
It is a devastating blow to any university when a plane crash takes the lives of 10 people, including two of its basketball players and four employees of the institution. But when another plane crashes a decade later killing two more people in that university’s basketball programs, it is almost impossible to imagine the recurring grief and sorrow.
Such is the case at Oklahoma State University, which 10 days ago suffered the loss of its head women’s basketball coach, Kurt Budke, and his assistant coach, Miranda Serna. They were killed along with the pilot, Olin Branstetter, and his wife, Paula, when their single engine Piper went down near Perryville, Ark., about 45 miles west of Little Rock. They were on a recruiting trip.
This fatal accident on Nov. 17 came just 10 years and 10 months after two Oklahoma State basketball players and eight other people were killed when the twin engine plane they were on went down in a snowstorm in Colorado as they were returning to Stillwater, Okla., after a game against the University of Colorado in Boulder. The players were Nate Fleming, a freshman, and Dan Lawson, a junior.
Then, the day after this most recent Oklahoma State accident, all of the nation’s basketball people suffered another great loss, when Walt Hazzard, one of two UCLA All-American guards on coach John Wooden’s first national championship team in 1964, died at the relatively young age of 69. The 6-foot-2 Hazzard, who went on to play for five teams during a 10-year NBA career, coached his alma mater, 1984-1988.
Hazzard, who was born in Wilmington, Del., and grew up in nearby Philadelphia, remained in the employ of UCLA but suffered a serious stroke in 1996 at age 54. He underwent heart surgery and was not in the best of health for quite some years. He died, Friday, Nov. 18, at UCLA Medical Center.
The terrible loss of the Oklahoma State coaches followed by the not unexpected but too-young death of a basketball hero-player is a big blow to all of those who love this American game. One cannot help but feel great sympathy for Oklahoma State University people who have suffered greatly because of these two fatal accidents.
The 50-year-old Budke was just starting his seventh season at the helm of the Oklahoma State women’s basketball team. When he arrived in Stillwater, the women’s team was a doormat in the Big 12 Conference. Budke’s teams amassed a record of 112-83 and made it to the NCAA championship tournament three of the last five seasons.
Serna was only 36 years old and had been with Budke at Oklahoma State for seven years. She was the team’s recruiting coordinator. Serna was destined to become a head basketball coach somewhere within a few years, according to most people who know women’s college basketball.
Olin Branstetter, the pilot, was 82 years old and a former Oklahoma state senator.
In addition to taking the lives of the two men basketball players in January 2001, that initial air crash killed a radio sportscaster, a television and radio engineer, an Oklahoma State sports information department employee, the director of basketball operations, an athletic trainer and a student assistant coach plus the pilot and co-pilot.
The plane that crashed was one of three planes used by the Oklahoma State basketball entourage going to that game in Boulder. As a result, the university wanted a better check on private and charter planes used to transport students, including athletes, plus university personnel. Now the university is investigating to see if its policies were followed in the case of the crash 10 days ago that is said to have taken place in clear weather.
My best association with Oklahoma State basketball goes back years before either of these tragedies took place — to the days of Hank Iba, the Cowboys’ famed coach whom I knew well and respected highly. He was also quite a lovable character. My heart goes out to Oklahoma State.
I also feel for UCLA’s loss and Walt Hazzard’s family. I knew this little wizard of the dribble, who led that midget-like Bruins to the first of Wooden’s 10 national championships in a 12-year period. It is for that big victory over Duke in the 1964 NCAA title game that Hazzard is best remembered. He was voted the tournament’s MVP.
Following the undefeated 1963-64 UCLA season (30-0), Hazzard went on to be a gold medal Olympian in the summer of 1964 as he played for the United States basketball team that won the gold at the XVIII Olympic Games in Tokyo.
I covered each of Wooden’s 10 championships, and each was quite an accomplishment of players playing well and Wooden coaching well. But that first one at Kansas City was unique, because that was when David beat Goliath before David became Goliath.
Hazzard, a senior on the 1964 UCLA championship team, described himself as the “play maker and offensive quarterback” of the team. It was a 2-2-1 pressing zone defense Wooden employed with quickness and ball handling as the tools that made it work against much bigger teams. After coming from behind during the last seven minutes to beat Kansas State, 90-84, in the semifinals, the undefeated little Bruins took on the much taller Duke team in the title game and beat the Blue Devils, 98-83.
Hazzard and Gail Goodrich, who made up one of the best pair of guards on any team in college basketball history, did a job on Duke, which had a couple of 6-10 starters, Bill Buckley and Hack Tison, plus one of the nation’s best players, the 6-4 Jeff Mullins. UCLA did not have a player over 6 feet, 6 inches tall.
Hazzard was the point man who handled the ball, stole and passed it so well. Goodrich was the scorer from the back court who had 27 points against Duke while Kenny Washington, a 6-3 sixth man for UCLA, had 26.
But Hazzard was the director general of this first championship for the Wizard of Westwood, John Wooden. UCLA won again in 1965 when Goodrich was the MVP but Hazzard was playing for the Los Angeles Lakers of the NBA.
After those first two UCLA championships, came the era of UCLA being Goliath as Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul Jabbar) at 7 feet 2 inches, followed by Steve Patterson at 6 feet 10 inches and then Bill Walton at 6 feet 11 inches led Wooden’s UCLA Bruins to seven of the team’s next eight NCAA championships.
Looking back on Hazzard’s accomplishments, John Wooden claimed that he would not have been able to recruit Lew Alcindor from New York City’s Power Memorial High School in 1966 if it had not been for Walt Hazzard going to UCLA from Philadelphia’s Overbrook High. It was not easy, according to Wooden, to recruit an eastern player to go all the way out to Los Angeles in those days. And because of Alcindor, Wooden was able to recruit Patterson, Walton and numerous other players who became all-Americans on those NCAA title teams.
UCLA will miss Walt Hazzard very much just as Oklahoma State will miss two wonderful, young and talented coaches who did not need to die on the job.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His email is email@example.com.
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