Thirty-three years later, Capitol chaplain Ralph Drollinger is in the news again. His recent comments that other Christians in the Capitol aren’t real Christians like him and are therefore disapproved by Jesus are the source of his 2008 headlines.
But UCLA basketball fans from the 1970s remember him for a much earlier ongoing controversy and one final spectacular shining moment of redemption. In those days it was Drollinger who was getting disapproved of, but for his basketball playing, not his religion.
The 7-foot Drollinger began the 1974–’75 season as the Bruins’ center, and to say the least, he was not a fan favorite. In the prior decade, UCLA’s centers had included Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton, arguably the two greatest in college basketball history. Drollinger’s play was far below their class, and Bruin fans let him know it, relentlessly. He was cruelly jeered on the court, and calls for his benching by fans and media grew ever louder.
As the season progressed, his minutes dwindled, and soon legendary coach John Wooden was using a centerless lineup rather than play Drollinger, opting instead for forwards Marques Johnson, Richard Washington and Dave Meyers, and guards Andre McCarter and Pete Trgovich.
Those five engineered a series of tight victories in the 1975 NCAA tournament, including a thrilling, freakish win over Louisville in the semifinal, when a 100-percent free-throw shooter failed to convert for Louisville in the closing seconds of double overtime, allowing Washington to swish a long turnaround jumper at the buzzer for a one-point win.
By the time UCLA faced Kentucky for the championship on March 31, 1975, Drollinger was almost forgotten. But Wooden, in the final game of his remarkable career, pulled Drollinger off the bench for substantial minutes — in fact, he was the only UCLA substitution of the game.
Drollinger responded with a display of toughness, athleticism and touch he had never shown before, scoring 10 points and snaring an amazing 13 rebounds in only 16 minutes. His contributions were indispensable. Throughout the game UCLA would open leads and then Kentucky would rally, but each time Drollinger would grab a key rebound or sink a clutch shot to rebuff the drive. The win capped an amazing run of 10 championships in 12 years, and the Bruins clearly could not have done it without Ralph Drollinger.
“Jesus, where the hell has he been all this time?” a 20-year-old UCLA junior, whose attitude about religion would obviously not win Drollinger’s blessing, asked his buddies.
Who’d have thought that a third of a century later we’d be reading about him again.