As someone who was only six yrs old when John Wooden retired and didn't get
to experience the Golden Era of Bruin Basketball, I only truly became a UCLA fan
during the national championship game in 1980 under Larry Brown. That was great.
In the intervening 20+ years -- aside from one shining moment in 1995 -- there has been a lot of disappointments for this Bruin fan.
Not necessarily because of wins or losses. But because of the way we did business. A very telling moment, for me, came in 1992, at the Elite 8 game vs. Indiana in Albequerque. We were a #1 seed, and had beaten the Hoosiers soundly in an early season game. We had Don MacLean, Tracy Murray, Ed O'Bannon, Darrick Martin, Mitchell Butler, Gerald Madkins, et al. Feel good about your chances, right? Wrong. Got completely outcoached, out-hustled, out-toughed, and gave up, losing 106-79. UCLA gave up 106 points. And frankly, IU wasn't that good.
However, that game summed it up for me. A coach that wasn't elite, players who were hugely hyped but under-performed at key moments, and the sad reality that we were not going to be champions; not when it really mattered.
I'll give huge credit to the 1995 team and coaching staff. Wonderful job. But has any national champion momentum been squandered faster? Ever? Next year, there was the humiliating loss to Princeton, proving that Harrick had no idea what he was doing. And then getting fired, and athletic director giving the job to a guy who should be hawking self-help products on late-night cable.
The disappointments continued. It wasn't so much the fact that we only would reach the Sweet 16. It was way we'd get there. Rosters loaded with ultra-elite talent, playing without purpose for most of another forgettable regular season, enduring blowout losses to Arizona or Stanford every year -- when we'd see up close what great coaching looked like (and yes, Lute Olson and Mike Montgomery were pretty great back then) -- before waking up from our stupor to out-talent a number-one team at least once per season.
Then we'd win a couple tourney games, come up against a top-10 team with a real coach, and slink away after another thrashing.
Duke, Kentucky, Iowa State, Missouri. Didn't matter. They'd brush us off on their way to a deep tourney run.
As the evidence continued to mount, it was demoralizing. I stopped watching by the end. Anyone who watched great basketball didn't see it when he watched the Bruins; and for those Bruin fans who got to enjoy the Wooden Era, I can only imagine what a letdown it was.
It culminated in that disgusting farce of a season in 2002-2003, when the Dead Lav Walking Tour played up and down the West Coast, when we lost to absolutely everyone, including exhibition teams in Pauley Pavilion called Branch West Something.
It was the low point.
But then, new Athletic Director Dan Guerrero did the smartest thing a UCLA AD had done, in, well, forever.
He inked Ben Howland. Handed him the keys to this rusted-out Rolls Royce, gave him a garage, top-notch mechanics, good tools, and got the hell out of the way.
After four years, how could you be any prouder of this program?
UCLA plays so unbelievably hard, and so smart, and so confidently-- almost every game -- that it's a thing of beauty.
After decades of the letters "UCLA" being synonymous with sleek but soft athletes, who weren't tough, who didn't like defense, or physical play -- in fact, who didn't like winning enough to make the sacrifices it required -- well, I still have to convince myself I'm not dreaming.
That Ben Howland can get McD's All-Americans, guys who are somewhat finesse-oriented at heart, and get them in the weight room, get them selling out on the defensive end, get them talking only about defense in the post-game press conference (I'm picturing Jordan Farmar here), it borders on miraculous to this sports fan.
In a lip-service, spin-everything world, Coach Howland insists on hard work. And toughness. And dedication. And intelligence.
Nothing could be more beautiful, in my eyes. There's something almost old-fashioned about this UCLA program right now, that makes it even more special than just the results on the court, the conference titles, the Final Four berths.
The details that really stand out for me are the ones like Arron Afflalo helping up a sobbing Adam Morrison off the court after the Gonzage Miracle in last season's NCAA tournament, when Morrison's own teammates were nowhere to be found.
It's Farmar, after beating Memphis, being asked by reporters in a press conference to hold up the Final Four trophy, and telling them (politely!) that at UCLA we only hang championship banners.
It's Coach Howland, during every interview last year, praising Cedric Bozeman's toughness, and heart, explaining on national TV about Bozeman's shoulder injury, and how much it meant to the team for him to be playing.
It's clinching the Pac-10 title in Pullman this year, and the players respectfully celebrating the win away from the cameras, in the locker room. Darren Collison said after, essentially, that the theam wouldn't disrespect anyone's home floor, that they weren't going to be jerks about it.
It's our coach, developing overlooked, underappreciated guys like Lorenzo Mata and Alfred Aboya, and turning them into workhorses who absolutely don't shrink from the big stage, when some of the pretty All-Americans would rather call the whole thing off, and start thinking about their pre-draft workouts.
It's our bench, who never gripe about minutes, who are <i>always/i> into the game, who explode off their seats when our starters make a big play, especially on defense.
It's our star player, who is also our hardest working player, who, when it's his time to shine, delivers. He was tight the last two games that his jumper was denting the rim, but Arron Afflalo still figured out how to get it done from the free-throw line. And matched up vs. the best team UCLA has played, against the most talented swingman he's faced, Afflalo plays the game of his career, and cuts down the nets on his way to another Final Four.
You hear players say they hate to lose, who are ultra-competitive, who tell the world how great they want to be. But Arron Afflalo is what that actually looks like. He's a 6-5 guy who can barely dunk, for whom everything looks strangely difficult, but there is one area, <i>competitiveness</i>, where Afflalo is off the charts. And that's why he's a first-team All American.
And how refreshing is it that it's the same quality he shares with his coach?
Ah, Coach Howland. There are so many telling details about what makes him great:
-- That he never looks happier when a Bruin takes a charge. That the scrimmages in practice, where no team can score for 10 or 15 minutes at a time, because of the suffocating defense and physical play, thrill him. That he loves nothing better than watching tape, preparing his team, waking them up at midnight in the hotel before a game to do a walk-through of the opponents' offense. That he's so into the game, on the sideline it's all he can do to stay off the court and triple-team the opponent with the ball.
-- And just as importantly, I love and respect the fact that Coach Howland never embarasses himself, never skips a post-game handshake, always compliments his opponents, and never, never quits on his own team by giving up and throwing a program on the court and getting a technical.
-- You have to love that Coach Howland honors the past, embraces Coach Wooden, welcomes former players/Bruin greats, and when he's interviewed on camera, says things like, "UCLA is the greatest public university in the world," and "At UCLA, we have high expectations. This is the greatest college basketball tradition in history." And he means it. And lives it, every day, every game.
Bruin fans, this team, this coach, this program, really are special. And so is this time.
To me, it's the New Golden Era. Let's savor every minute of it.