Despite my phobia for driving cars and displeasure for sitting in traffic, I took two trips out to Los Angeles to attend 2 Men’s basketball games at Pauley Pavilion; the December 10th game against the Michigan Wolverines, and again on January 21st; about a month later.
Los Angeles is the kind of city where neighborhood proximity pretty much dictate one’s social habits. Nothing illustrates this more than the location of USC, a little private school across town that you may or may not have heard of. Let’s just say that there aren’t an abundance of BMW dealerships, jewelry shops and banks in the surrounding neighborhood. Once you step off campus at USC you’re officially back in the real world. Trojans students and faculty work in a cocoon are in a world unto themselves, while UCLA is like more of a vacuum.
UCLA, a public university; is its own ecosystem, nestled within the exclusive section of town that is Beverly Hills. Westwood has its own choices of movie theatres, eateries (shout out to Fatburger) and banks to the point where its possible that a UCLA student to live in seclusion in relation to the rest of Los Angeles.
I made some rookie mistakes my first go around as a driver there. I didn’t give myself enough leeway and made it to the campus at exactly 7:00 PM for a 7:00 PM tip-off. After paying for parking and jogging to the arena–located in the middle of campus, I had to wait in a yet another long ass line to get inside the frigging building (Los Angelinos are notorious for showing up to sporting events late, and now I understand why).
I typically go to sporting events early because I like to vibe the place out and watch the players get loose for the game. Driving in traffic for two hours and still being late, I walked in Pauley Pavillion irritated; rushing to sit down in my ticket section. The “Oohs” and “Ahhs”of the crowd tormented me with each passing second. I finally sat down in the 200 section (great seats) with the score already 12-14 and four minutes having ran off the clock.
That lesson prepared me for the second time around. I arrived on campus 1.5 hours ahead of the 1 pm tip-off. I had enough time to park, walk over to Kinross to grab a Fatburger, and walk back to Pauley. With about 30 mins until tip-off, I was surprised to find lines of no more than eight people. This only further proved the theory about people in L.A. unable to get anywhere on time.
You can feel the history within the walls the very second that you enter Pauley Pavillion. Part of UCLA’s mystique is their long and storied history of producing champions and NBA players. You can’t talk about UCLA basketball without mentioning John Wooden, the legendary coach who went on to become one of the biggest ambassadors the game of basketball has ever had.
At UCLA, Wooden won 10 national titles–once with a run of 88 straight wins that lasted 3 seasons. Wooden, arguably the greatest college coach of all time, was known as much for his words of wisdom as he was for his coaching accomplishments. The man created what is known as the Pyramid of Success (there is model replica glass display in the arena concourse), a chain of philosophical guidelines that he used to help his players. John Wooden was just as much of an instructor as he was a coach. His approach to the game was for his young men to learn the game within the game. He insisted that the true opponent was an internal one and that the only result that mattered was that one played their personal best.
At the program’s peak, many legendary players passed through Westwood. Men such as Jamaal Wilkes, Kareem Abdul Jabbaar, Walt Hazzard, Marques Johnson, Bill Walton, Baron Davis, Gail Goodrich, Sydney Wicks, and Henry Bibby (father of future Wildcat great Mike Bibby) all won under the tutelage of John Wooden.
What I liked most about Pauley Pavillion was the way they’ve meticulously preserved remnants from each era of UCLA basketball. You’re just as likely to run into a banner commemorating Matt Barnes or Reggie Miller as you would a plaque with the image of Bill Walton or Lew Alcindor.
Both games I found myself swept up in the mirth and excitement. The arena is well lit with hardly a bad location among the 13,000 plus seats. The court sports a classically simple design, displaying the blue and gold UCLA letters in cursive at half court. There is a bigger than usual student section from both behind one of the baskets and along the sideline opposite the bench. The band loudly and proudly played the UCLA fight song and the crowd took direction from the cheer team U!!! C!!!! L!!!! A!!!!!!!
I’ve gone off before about how beautiful the UCLA cheerleaders are (they look like grown ass women. One pair of beauties passed me in the concourse at the Zona game. I geeked out for a brief second before I remembering that I was 40 yrs old.), but what equally impresses me are the complexity of their routines. I suspect that these young ladies are dancing as if they are auditioning for the Lakers dance team (in L.A. you never know who could be in the stands). Makes you wonder what the future holds for some of these young ladies. I would believe any scenario thrown out there: Doctor, lawyer, NBA dancer, Playboy Bunny, reality housewife, porno star–the whole spectrum comes into play.
UCLA fans, both young and old, proudly wore their blue and gold strolling the concourse, looking for the nearest restroom or vendor stand. I passed many older fans for whom it was obvious that they’d had season tickets for generations. Los Angeles is a huge city full of transplants so it shouldn’t have surprised me (but it did) to see so many Arizona and Michigan fans/alums in the crowd at these games. These fans would manage to find their voices during the other teams’ runs, but would always eventually get drowned out by the chorus of “UCLA” chants.
The game against Arizona was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Day at UCLA, and he spoke to the crowd at halftime. Jabbar was honored for winning the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I got chills being in the same building as one of the greatest basketball champions of all time. He was greeted with applause as he was escorted to his courtside seat–everyone instinctively stood in reverence to such basketball royalty.
Illustration by Louis Eastman
There has been a buzz surrounding the squad this year. They have been a top 10 team all season; which explains the electricity floating in the Westwood air–and its not just the drones and cell phone towers.
The team consistently won during Ben Howland era. UCLA went to three Final Fours under Howland and put a slew of pro players into the NBA, but even with future superstars like Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love, their wins were from a “grind it out,” Big East style of play. They weren’t exactly a fun team to watch.
This current outfit that head coach Steve Alford is in charge of handling is easily the most exciting team since the mid-90’s Tyus Edney/Ed Obannon/Toby Bailey Bruins teams. The up and down style of play of those teams was frenetic and above the rim (they gave the Fab Five all they could handle during the 93 NCAA tournament). I imagine their exciting run would have been even longer had they given a scholarship to local high school phenom Paul Pierce rather than center Jelani McCoy (who to be fair wasn’t a bad player, but he was no Paul Pierce)–Pierce grew up in Inglewood and wanted to play for the Bruins (I just lost my mind for a second spacing out on a 1997 alternate reality with Paul Pierce catching oops from Baron Davis and vice versa. WOW!!!!!).
Aside Note: Speaking of Baron Davis, he was in attendance at the Michigan game. Bruins games have their own version of “celebrity row” with the arena cameras zooming in on the faces of Peter Dante and “Hills Street Blues” legend Mike Warren. I was secretly hoping to run into Jalen Rose at the game, but my tardiness erased any expectations that I had concerning the game. If he was there, I didn’t see him on the Jumbotron.
Coach Alford employs a run and gun system that emulates the Spurs and Warriors motion offenses. Seniors Isaac Hamilton and Bryce Alford (Steve’s son) anchor the team with their leadership while the youngsters, Aaron Holiday (brother of NBA guards Justin and Jrue) and freshman phenoms T.J. Leaf (who kind of reminds me of an 18 year old Nick Collison) and Lonzo Ball bring flash, height and speed for defenses to contend with.
The team relies on defense and rebounding from big men, Ike Anigbogu, (had 4 really impressive blocks in the Michigan game), and Thomas Welsh.
Pro scouts are drooling the most over Ball. When people say that he reminds them of Jason Kidd, I see it. He is a 6’6 light skinned point guard with incredible court vision. He is a better shooter than Jason Kidd was in college (he’s a threat to shoot it from nearly anywhere on the court), but I am not sure how the form on his shot will translate in the pros (perhaps he’ll find a shot doctor like Kawhi Leonard did in Chip Engelland).
The other night against Oregon, Ball hit a dagger three from deep behind the line that I’m almost certainly would have gotten blocked in the NBA. Though I wouldn’t get too caught up on his shooting form if I worked for any NBA team scouting him. Jason Kidd could barely shoot free throws when he first got to the league, but he ended his career in the top ten of all time 3 point shots made.
My only (albeit mild) critiques was that he tended to rely on his dribble too much sometimes and would get stuck in the air because he’d penetrated too far into the paint. Somehow he’d get bailed out with a spectacular pass to an open teammate, but again, the kind of passes that are spectacular in the college game become turnovers in the NBA against better athletes and defenders. He will be a lottery pick, as there is no reason for him to come back to school (other than playing with his younger brothers again). Any development he needs for the next level will have to be gained from on the job training.
UCLA is stacked with talent, but their perimeter defense is suspect. In their loss to Arizona, the U of A guards, Kobi Simmons, Kadeem Allen and Allonzo Trier, got to the rack anytime they wanted AND when UCLA collapsed the paint, they kicked the ball out for someone to hit an open 3 pointer. Seven Wildcats players were in double figures and Kadeem Allen was only 1 point away from it being 8 players.
The Arizona game showed what can happen to the Bruins when they don’t make their 3 pointers and can’t get any points in the paint. I’m curious what happens in their rematch later this month (‘Zona may be the most balanced team in the county right now).
UCLA has the depth to go far in the tournament. They are fast and can get up and down the court, routinely scoring in the 100’s. Their downfall will be their defense however. At some point this season the Bruins will need to make a crucial stop in a game. The question is will they be able to?
Either way, it is good to see UCLA basketball is exciting again. It is easy to be happy for these fans and I’m glad they have a reason to be excited. Nothing connects the fanbases of different eras more than winning and tradition, and you’ll find plenty of both at UCLA.
Bobby Mickey is the alter ego of writer and poet Edward Austin Robertson. When he isn’t involved in some basketball related activity, actively looking for parties to deejay or venues to perform comedy, he can be found recording podcasts with Craig Stein at Fullsass Studios. Follow him on twitter @clickpicka79. For booking inquiries, send contact info to firstname.lastname@example.org.