The history of basketball in Arizona generally revolves around Lute Olson and Jerry Colangelo, a pair of Naismith Hall of Fame inductees from the University of Arizona and the NBA Phoenix Suns.
But long before the NBA came to the Valley and Olson coached the Wildcats to a national championship in 1997, the late Ned Wulk was creating competitive excellence at Arizona State.
Wulk coached Arizona State from 1957 through 1982, and gave the program its tradition He is still considered the best coach in the program’s history with a 405-273 record. Wulk had 16 winning records in his 25 years. He coached the Sun Devils to nine NCAA appearances, including three Elite Eights in 1961, 1963 and 1975, dominating the Border Conference and the WAC before ASU finally joined the Pac-10 and had a 39-15 record against instate rival Arizona. His 1963 team with All America forward “Jumping” Joe Caldwell, won a school record 26 games and routed UCLA, 93-79, in the second round of the tournament at Provo, a year before the mighty Bruins won back to back national championships in 1964-65 to begin a dynasty.
Along with ASU coached Badly Castillo (track and field) Frank Kush (football) and Bobby Winkles (baseball), Wulk helped build one of the most success college athletics programs in the country when college sports was operating under the radar in the West, other than USC football and UCLA basketball in Los Angeles.
Wulk was offered two NBA jobs and another at Wisconsin during this time at ASU, but he never thought about leaving after the school opened the University Athletic Center in 1974, now known as Wells Fargo Arena. Wulk passed away in 2003 at the age of 83, but his legacy lives on
While Wulk’s 1963 Sun Devils were was arguably his best team, his most talented team was the 1980-81 Sun Devils– finished 24-4 and was ranked third in the AP poll behind Pac-10 champion Oregon State and DePaul. All five of its starters– center Alton Lister 15.4 points), forwards Johnny Nash (8.4 points), ad Sam Williams (13.2 points) and guards Lafayette Lever (11.6 points) and Byron Scott (16.6 points)– was drafted by the NBA as was backup forward Paul Williams.
Lever, Scott and Lister were all first round picks.
Wulk, like so many other coaches in a suddenly wide open Pac-10, took advantage of the ever changing coaching carousel at UCLA in the post-John Wooden era to successfully recruit the L.A. market for prep stars like Scott from Inglewood and Sam Williams from Westchester.
Here’s a quick look at the key players:
— Fat Lever (1978-82)
Arizona State has never won the Pac-10 Championship and the school has finished second only twice, –1980-1981 and 1981-1982. Lever was the starting point guard on those teams. His value as a point guard and floor leader transcended his ability to fill a stat sheet. In those two seasons Arizona State went a combined 31-5 in Pac-10 play. Lever led Arizona State in assists and steals in three consecutive seasons from 1980 through 1982. He was the first Sun Devil to ever be named to the All-Pac-10 team twice. He was the first player ever at Arizona State to be named to an AP All-American team (second-team). Lever went on to be drafted eleventh overall by Portland in the 1982 NBA draft and had a successful pro career spanned twelve seasons and three teams.
— Bryon Scott (1979-83)
Scott was a combo-guard and a prolific scorer. He is fifth all-time on the career scoring list as a Sun Devil despite only playing three seasons. He was a starter on Arizona State’s two best teams (at least record-wise; 1979-80, 1980-81) in its history as a member of the Pac-10 and its first Pac-10 Freshman of the Year, in 1979-80., averaging 13.6 and 16.6 points in consecutive seasons. In 1982-83 following the departure of Lever he averaged 21.6 points and set the Sun Devil record for field goals made in a season with 283. Following that season he was named to the Associated Press second-team All-American squad and was selected with the fourth overall pick in the NBA draft by the Los Angeles Lakers – the second highest pick ever for a Sun Devil behind Caldwell, who was chosen second overall by Detroit in 1964. Scott, who won three NBA championships with the Lakers, is now the head coach of his former team.
— Alton Lister (1978-1981)
Lister was an intimidating player in the paint and ranks fourth all-time at ASU in career steals and fifth in career blocks. He was an All-Pac-10 and Honorable Mention Associated Press All-American selection in 1981. Lister is one of only three players to play at the University during its 25 years in the Pac-10 conference and be named to the Arizona State Hall of Fame. He achieved that honor in 2000. The others are Scott (1998) and Lever (1998). After three years, he declared for 1981 NBA draft and was selected late in the first-round by the Milwaukee Bucks. Lister went on to have one of the longest professional careers of any Sun Devil, playing for the bulk of two decades in the NBA on the Bucks, Seattle Supersonics, Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics.
— Johnny Nash (1978-81)
There is no telling how good the 6-5 Nash might have been if he had stayed healthy. After settting several freshman records that still remain, he suffered a devastating fracture of both bones in his lower leg during an exhibition game against the Cuban national team prior to his sophomore season in 1979. He came back to resume his career and played on ASU’s 1980-81 team and was selected in the fifth round by the Chicago Bulls.
— Sam Williams (1978-81)
Williams was a starter on both of the second place Pac-10 teams made the All Conference team in 1981 after being named honorable mention the previous season. He, had a field goal percentage of 55.5 percent and combined with Kurt Nimphius and Lister, who played together in 1980, were arguably the best ASU front court ever. Williams was fifth in career blocked shots. He was selected in the second round of the 1982 draft by the Golden State Warriors and also played for the Philadelphia 76ers in an NBA career that lasted from 1981-85.
— Paul Williams. Key reserve, future star forward.(1980-83)
Williams’ was a key reserve in the early days of Lever/Lister and later, upon Lister’s departure, he became a star in his own right. As a junior, in 1981-1982 he led the team to a best-ever 16-2 finish in the Pac-10 with a scoring averaged of 17.0 points per game. As a senior in 1983, he averaged 19.7 points, and made the All-Conference team. The Sporting News. Williams held the single-game scoring record at Arizona State with a 45-point outburst against USC, setting a school record for field goals (20) and field goal attempts (31). He also was the Devils’ leading rebounder both as a junior and a senior. He was selected in the second round of the draft by the Phoenix Suns and played in the NBA until 1986.
The 1981 Sun Devils defeated three Top 10 teams, outlasting UCLA in classic triple overtime at home and then blitzing previously unbeaten Pac-10 champion Oregon State, 87-67, in the final game of the regular season at Corvallis. Scott scored 25 points and made 11 of 14 field goals. Sam Williams added 19 and Lever had 14 for the Sun Devils , who shot 17 for 22 (77.3) in the first half and 64 percent for the game.
Ironically, Arizona State’s 1981 season ended prematurely. The Sun Devils were a 2 seed in the Midwest Region, but were upset by Kansas, 88-71, in a second round game where Tony Guy scored 25 points. Wulk’s career ended prematurely. Despite winning 495 games in at Xavier and Arizona State, he never got a chance to win 500. After a 13-14 record to end the 1982 season, Wulk sensed a lack of support in the school administration. With Wulk just five victories shy of 500, ASU announced it was promoting him from head basketball coach to an adviser for athletic facilities.
Wulk declined and was let go. He stayed on campus, teaching in the physical education department before retiring altogether. Arizona State has never been the same, going through six coaches, making the NCAA tournament five times since Wulk’s departure and suffering through the tarnish of a devastating point shaving scandal in the mid-1990s.
Wulk’s legacy is still an important part of this program. Arizona State celebrated his 31 year coaching career by naming the court at Wells Fargo Arena after him in 1998.