Walt Hazzard brought life to basketball

Walt Hazzard, a star at Overbrook, UCLA, and in the NBA, and later a coach, died in Los Angeles at the age of 69 Friday.
Walt Hazzard, a star at Overbrook, UCLA, and in the NBA, and later a coach, died in Los Angeles at the age of 69 Friday. (Associated Press, file)
Posted: November 20, 2011

You swore he could make the basketball do everything but sit up and speak.

Walter Raphael Hazzard, on the loose and in an open court, was all silk and satin, a dribbling dervish who understood the angles and the precise geometry of the game, and had such a velvet touch he could snuff a candle with a no-look pass.

When he was 8, the Harlem Globetrotters came to Philadelphia and Walt Hazzard was a rapt witness. The ball became a part of him, almost as though surgically attached. He practiced every day, he said, imitating Marques Haynes, the Globies' sleight-of-hand magician.

Mr. Hazzard honed his skill on those legendary asphalt proving grounds, the playgrounds of Philadelphia, where "I got next" was where you earned your bones. Or got them broken.

"It was basketball's high society," he said once.

At Overbrook High School, Mr. Hazzard, playing the point, led his teams to a three-year record of 89-3. Even then he had an innate understanding of knowing who should get the ball, and where, and when. And he did it with ruffles and flourishes, fancy, flashy passing that the late Al McGuire used to call "French pastry."

After high school, Mr. Hazzard was lured cross-country, landing in California, where he would spend the rest of his life. He died Friday night in Los Angeles at the age of 69, from complications following heart surgery. His life was full and rich.

In California, he took his ribbons-and-bows game to UCLA and Pauley Pavilion and a coach named Wooden, a prim and proper man who believed you did one thing, and you did it until you could do it well, and then you moved on to the next thing . . . straight line, point A to point B.

And yet somehow, even though polar opposites, they got along. They made for an intriguing pairing: The Wizard of Westwood and the Prince of Pauley.

John Wooden once said, "I never had a better man on the fastbreak than Walter."

In 1964, Mr. Hazzard repaid that heady bouquet by serving as the catalyst of Wooden's first national championship team, the Bruins going 30-0 and beating Duke in the title game.

Mr. Hazzard was the cornerstone of the UCLA dynasty, the Bruins winning nine more championships, and Wooden often said that Lew Alcindor and the flood of talent that would follow was directly attributed to that initial Hazzard-led championship.

Wooden had told Mr. Hazzard he should pattern his game after Oscar Robertson, who once averaged a triple double during an NBA season. Wooden suggested Mr. Hazzard think passing first, shooting second.

"Your passing," said the Wizard, "will make you an all-American."

And so it did. Twice. In 1963 and 1964.

He was selected by the Lakers with their first pick in the 1964 NBA draft. He played 10 seasons in the pros with four teams in addition to Los Angeles: Atlanta, Buffalo, Golden State, and Seattle. He averaged 12.6 points per game, and, to put a smile on John Wooden's face, 4.9 assists.

The son of a preacher man (his father was a Methodist minister), Mr. Hazzard converted to Islam in 1971, changing his name to Mahdi Abdul-Rahman. But he had a change of heart and later reverted. He did so, he said, as a professional courtesy.

"Islam on resum├ęs seemed to bother some people," he said.

It seemed inevitable that a point guard would become a coach, and so he put in two years at Compton College and two more at Chapman College, and then made the long leap: UCLA.

He was the fifth coaching challenger to follow Wooden and that daunting legacy, but none could bring the Bruins a title. In his four years there Mr. Hazzard was 77-47.

"Coaching is a tough and nasty business," he said one time, "but I love it. Maybe I'm a little whacko, but I love it."

Hoop heads everywhere nod in understanding.

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