According to the NCAA records, UC Santa Cruz officially debuted a basketball team in 1981.
However, true to campus tradition, there was an underground, almost renegade history of UCSC basketball that precedes the official record.
Before UCSC joined the NCAA, there was a club basketball team organized on campus for nearly a decade.
When the campus was founded, outside athletic competition was not seen as necessary to the university's mission. Enter Rich Kitchens, a basketball fanatic student who played at El Cerrito High. He got to talking in the early 1970s with fellow hoops fan Dan Apple after some pickup games about how nice it would be to play other schools. Apple was a standout at San Jose's Leland High, where he was coached by future Santa Clara University head coach Dick Davey.
"Dan was a mover and shaker. He wanted to continue to play, and intramurals wasn't enough," Kitchens recalls.
Being different and going against the establishment was the norm at the young campus. However, that also meant intercollegiate athletics was frowned upon. "I loved this about UCSC, but, come on, there were a few of us who wanted to stretch ourselves in sports through the vehicle of basketball," said Kitchens, a Politics major in Merrill.
"A bunch of guys wanted to test themselves against more organized programs. In those days though, competition was a dirty word and organized competition was worse."
Standing up against the status quo was usually seen as a good thing, but caused some real consternation at that time from the administration when that "why not" attitude trickled down to those who wanted to play sports beyond intramural pickup games.
This is what Kitchens and Apple, the de-facto captain, had to deal with in starting the team and organizing the whole season.
"To call it 'organized' at all is kind of a mistake," recalled Kitchens with a chuckle. "Players came and went, almost never practiced, and played a scattered, inconsistent, ever-evolving schedule.
"We arranged everything –the games, officials, vans, ridepools and stuff. There was no bus service, and we really isolated up there. Dan, as club leader, devised the schedule. I ended up driving because I guess that's what a coach did. We traveled in a van that I checked out down near the entrance to UCSC, and somehow found all the local JCs, college JV teams that would play us. We played in the California Coast Conference-Monterey's Defense Language Institute, Naval Postgraduate School; Fort Ord; California Maritime Academy, Bethany Bible College, and I'm not sure who else. Fun trips figuring out how to get there. "
Kitchens as UCSC's Head Official, "kind of like an Asst. Intramural Director", he said, was working under Terry Warner who was in charge of intramurals. With some experience coaching rec leagues while in high school, Kitchens was tasked with being coach of the team.
"I was told we could only practice a maximum of 3 hours a week, play 2 games a week. I had very little experience in coaching, so I went to the library and checked out every book they had on coaching basketball. I particularly recall Frank McGuire's book on the 1-3-1 zone, which we implemented. I discovered a magazine for coaches called Scholastic Coach, which I devoured. In high school, our team had had some success with a half-court trap, which we also put into our scheme."
Kitchens, the same age or even younger than his team, had to earn their trust. "I was about 20 years old, coaching 'kids' some who were older than I was, so it was a delicate march in this anti-authoritarian environment, where every missive was (properly) questioned.
"It was a tricky dance as a coach those days. You were the authority figure nominally. In those days, anybody in authority could count on being questioned. So you had to know enough about what you were doing to explain it to people."
The team quickly bonded over their love of the game.
"We had a few good players, lots of adequate ones, and everyone seemed to get along. It was always these long-haired, unkempt, bearded players against straight-looking kids. It provided us with an 'Us-against-the-world' feeling, and we played very hard to dispel any negative reactions we would receive. We took pride in being different."
- Everyone considered themselves "banana slugs". Early on, everyone adopted that.
The best Kitchens can recall, the first game was a scrimmage at Cabrillo.
"We were getting our butts kicked a bit, so I said 'we're going to go to this zone' and boy their coach got upset," Kitchens laughed. "Their first game, they hadn't prepared for a zone yet."
There were the uniforms that were hand-me-downs from somewhere. Home games were at the East Fieldhouse, the only gym on campus. Crowds of 30 people sat on the mats around the gym that were usually used for Fencing or Yoga class. Apple's old coach Dick Davey,who had become an assistant at Cal, arranged a game against their JV in historic Harmon Gym, "a real thrill," Kitchens said.
There was a mid-January trip to southern California for the All-Cal tournament, the team's longest trip. Accommodations near Anaheim were provided courtesy of the parents of a player's girlfriend.
"It was an athletic festival held at a different UC campus every year where a bunch of sports were played by the best intramural teams from each campus," Kitchens explained. "This particular one was only basketball: varsities from UC Davis, UCSD, UCR, UCI, and us. Pretty big time for us.
"We played San Diego, a D-3 team, and the half-court trap worked well, befuddling them for a while. Their coach made a point to say how well-coached our team seemed to be. I don't know if he really meant it or not, but it meant a lot at the time. We got in foul trouble and we lost a close game (85-67). That knocked us out, but everyone felt pretty good."
The last game was February 23 against Stanford's JV at still-new Maples Pavilion.
"We played hard but lost. At least Maples Pavilion was a nice gym to play in," Kitchens said. "I will never forget the Stanford booster sitting near our bench, looking at the collection of hippies playing his well-groomed young men, saying loudly and derisively, 'Why the hell do we have to even play these jokers?'"
The final was 89-43, and the first season of basketball on the hill came to a close with a 16-7 record.
"When I think of Stanford, I cannot help but think of that old Stanford alum, or whatever he was, and the look of disgust on his face," said Kitchens. "I have hated Stanford ever since."
Kitchens stayed around to coach the club team for a few more years, save for the next year in '73-74 when he was tapped as the coach of the first women's club basketball team. After graduating UCSC, he embarked on a 38-year career as an educator and coach, finally retiring as principal of Piedmont High School in 2013. He now regularly writes legal articles from time to time after getting his JD.
Still when going down memory lane, Kitchens gets emotional when talking about his days coaching at UCSC.
"I recall being a bit saddened when I heard that UCSC went into the NCAA, playing Division III. There was that SF Chronicle story back then of the worst team in America, which didn't help. I think I had fantasies of coaching back at UCSC in a more competitive environment and culture. A little more practice time on the floor might have helped."
The start of basketball at UCSC wasn't easy, but it has grown and endured.