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#pounditSaturday, September 24, 2022

UCLA Basketball has become a disappointment on and off the court

These must be trying times for sports enthusiasts. As if the rising cost of peanuts wasn’t bad enough, there is plenty of talk about how coaches are offering bounties to free your team of its star players. And, here I thought, bounties went out with the covered wagons and Larry King. Apparently, Gregg Williams has a lot of questions to answer, outside of those pertaining to the presence of an extra “g” on the end of his name. Apparently, college sports is not much of a refuge these days either.

Just in case your local mailman has a penchant for pilfering your weekly issue of Sports Illustrated, UCLA’s basketball program was dealt another public relations blow this past week by the magazine, citing a number of anarchistic revelations so damning that a Caesar might cringe at the full mention of them. The drinking, the fighting, the rule breaking: Either I misread John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success, or the new coaching geometry in Westwood has turned into a distorted rhombus.

There was once a concept of the UCLA way. That ideal now seems about as paradoxical as healthy dorm food. Stories about how the great Coach Wooden was for the most part able to reel in future Hall of Famers like Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton during times of great social change.

Ben Howland, in his ninth season, has become the longest tenured basketball coach at the school since then. He took over a program that had come off its first losing season since the Wizard of Westwood came to town in 1948, but soon had the team NCAA tournament-bound in a couple of years, then going to three straight Final Fours from 2006 to 2008. However following losses to Florida in the 2006 final and 2007 Final Four, as well as the 2008 defeat to (vacated), the program has seemingly plunged into the Morgan Center’s version of the abyss. It used to be that anything other than a national championship at the school was a failure, frowned upon by UCLA supporters in much the same way as my parents looked at me when I told them I wanted to have a career in sports media.

Today, however, those Final Four appearances are a rallying point for Bruins fans in denial, used as a crutch to support hopes that things will get better. It’s not as if the failures have been for lack of wont. The school’s annual of tradition of leading the way in recruiting is alive and well. One big problem is many of the program’s prized recruits bolt to the NBA all-too-soon, from Kevin Love to Jrue Holiday. The ones left behind have been depicted in not-too-flattering terms by national publications. Especially in the Twitter era, a story such as the one detailed last week is about as well-received by an 18-year-old straight out of high school as a piece of Allen Ginsburg prose. It does not help the cause to find UCLA’s incoming-freshman recruiting pitch trending under #mayhem.

If the details of SI’s story are to be believed, the only thing missing from the Animal House culture of UCLA basketball is Josh Smith smashing an empty can of Pabst on his forehead or Jerime Anderson playing the William Tell overture on his throat. As it is, the story detailed drug usage, alcohol consumption before practice, fights, and even the requisite instance of Reeves Nelson urinating on suspected stoolie Tyler Honeycutt’s clothing, a behavior pattern that led to his dismissal and subsequent signing with a Lithuanian team, basketball’s version of a gulag.

Before I go too far with my apparent ivory-tower indignation, keep in mind I went to UCLA once (as hard as it is to believe), graduating on my 5th attempt at a communications degree. The point, however, is that the school’s basketball team, so long the pride and joy of Bruins athletics, was expected to at least play better than my fraternity’s intramural team if they couldn’t act better than we did. To make matters worse, players have transferred out of the system only to flourish elsewhere, with Mike Moser and Chace Stanback now the top two scorers for UNLV, Drew Gordon averaging a double-double for the University of New Mexico, and Matt Carlino thriving at BYU. Purportedly, they left after their notion of this esteemed franchise was shattered once they discovered the reality in much the same way I felt the first time I walked into my local Department of Motor Vehicles.

Naturally, this has left a large group of boosters disenchanted. It has been over a decade-and-a-half since UCLA snapped up its last basketball championship. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Toby Bailey is off somewhere trying to hawk a parcel of land in upstate Utah on some late-night infomercial. There was a time when I could tell the O’Bannon brothers apart from Brooks Brothers. Now? I’m not so sure.

Whenever someone teases me about my UCLA lineage, I invariably recite the NCAA-record 108 national championships stat that anyone from UCLA has come to memorize right alongside their Social Security number. But, after dusting off the 11 national championships won by the basketball team, and a football national championship recognized by a defunct news agency, what follows is a lot of mumbling and eye-rolling. The other sports are great accomplishments, championed by the athletic department especially, but the pride and joy comes from the hardwood hardware. Just as cross-town rival USC is a notorious football school, so it goes with UCLA and basketball.

It has been open season on athletic director Dan Guerrero, with the fans and supporters of the school growing angrier with every disenchanting loss during the football season, eventually leading to Rick Neuheisel’s ouster. Now many of those same folks are reloading the guillotine for Howland. Ben’s coaching pedigree is an accomplishment itself, but in this day and age can the school afford to sit back and not only perhaps miss the NCAAs again but have its reputation sullied in the national media? Such a thing would be unthinkable for a guy like Mike Krzyzewski, for whom the only question that can be asked of his legacy during his 30-plus years at Duke is how come you pronounce Krzyzewski “shu-SHEFF-skee”?

Believe me, it’s never an easy thing to read that UCLA, the vaunted Bruins, have in effect become the Bad News Bears. Regardless of whether this kind of reported behavior happens at other schools, apparently what has been going on over at UCLA was notable enough to make it onto the cover of the same publication which has, for years, featured scores of Bruins making headlines for sporting achievements.

The womanizing, the brutality, and illicit behavior make it seem like this has turned into an episode of “Spartacus.” It used to be that UCLA basketball gave all its alumni a chance to rejoice with a hearty eight-clap. Now, I’m not so sure whether the Eight Clap is a cheer for the team or an unfortunate side effect from the team’s off-the-court behavior.


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