I'd heard Howland could be a tad gruff, a bit no-nonsense. But, despite not knowing us, he was gracious and engaging. It was a cocktail hour, after all, an informal setting before the annual UCLA Hall of Fame Induction dinner.
The conversation ranged, first about Josh Shipp's recent hip injury, then about Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo and their improvement, before it eventually turned to recruiting. And one of us asked about Kevin Love, who was about to start his junior year of high school in Oregon.
"He's a center, right?" asked another bystander.
"He's the center," said Howland, instantly. He obviously couldn't say more, but he'd said plenty.
Keep in mind: this was November 2005 -- just before Howland's third season -- before any Final Fours, any Pac-10 championships, any headlines about UCLA's "return to glory."
But even then, attention was focused on the importance of Love potentially coming to Westwood to play college ball.
Even back then, it felt like if Love would sign on, then 2008 could be The Year for UCLA.
Turned out, 2006 and 2007 were both pretty amazing for UCLA. But as both squads came up just short in Final Fours, their lack of a dominant inside player glaring at that highest level, it was hoped by Bruin fans that the addition of the 6-foot-9 bruiser with the old-school fundamentals, the shooting touch of a guard, and with such overall dominance and precocity that UCLA assistant coaches swore he could have started for the Bruins as a high school freshman. If they could just land him, it would be the missing piece of the puzzle.
It made sense on paper: add the national high school player of the year to the nucleus of two Final Four teams Darren Collison, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Josh Shipp, Lorenzo Mata-Real, Alfred Aboya, and Mike Roll -- and voila: an inside track to a national championship.
And it turns out, that view was pretty accurate. But not entirely.
Due to injuries, the Love Learning Curve (i.e. pass him the ball as much as possible), and occasional lax play, things didn't go precisely as planned for UCLA. The season seemed perpetually on the brink.
But with each amazing comeback win -- intermixed with just enough occasional dominance to let everyone know that the Bruins had it in them -- it seemed like fans could believe. Maybe this team was The Team that would join the 1995 Bruins as post-Wooden champs. Maybe all the nailbiters showed how nerveless the team was, not how inconsistent. Maybe the Bruins, when sufficiently fired up, could take a team apart. Certainly, they did in their Elite Eight blowout of Xavier.
But sports, like life, have a funny way of not going quite as planned.
And so, when the Bruins lost to Memphis, 78-63, in the Final Four in San Antonio, and The Season that all Bruin fans had been pointing to, finally, sadly, ended… it's been a hard one to take.
"I couldn't have been more disappointed to have gotten there [the Final Four] again and not won a national championship," said Howland a couple of days afterward, in a press conference. "It was very frustrating. I thought this was our best chance."
The ending was surprisingly pedestrian -- almost inappropriately so, in this season that packed more drama into it than a dozen episodes of The Wire.
Nutshell: A really good team (UCLA) plays against an even better, more athletic team (Memphis) that is frankly more focused and intense. Better team leads most of the game and pulls away to win by double digits.
That's the surface explanation, anyway. And it's pretty much true, but it was only part of the story. Sitting in the Alamodome, a couple of things were clear to me.
No. 1: Memphis was bigger, faster, and more explosive than UCLA -- even more than came across on TV. Up close, in person, it was glaring. But UCLA has faced that kind of team before, compensated, and beaten them. To wit: Memphis '06; Kansas '07.
Which brings me to the Point No. 2. The way they game unfolded, helter-skelter, fast-paced, almost exactly how Memphis wanted it to… it felt to me like a Tigers' win was almost inexorable. The Alamodome just had that vibe. But when I re-watched it on Tivo, days later, it looked less inevitable, and more preventable.
Because in that game, the Bruins gave away the main advantage they've had in almost every contest the past three seasons: their insistence on playing the way they wanted to. More than any team in the country, UCLA knew who and what it was. In 2006 & 2007, when they'd take down more athletic teams, and dominate teams with similar levels of talent, it wasn't just because of the stifling Bruin defense, the scrappy offensive rebounding, the methodical perimeter offense. In my opinion, those things were part of the larger whole.
UCLA beat teams because it made the other guy play the Bruins' game. The Bruins knew exactly who they were, and how they needed to play. It sounds simple, but it's not. It's about relentless effort against other elite athletes, wearing them down, imposing your collective will on theirs.
UCLA had to do that to win. And so it did. Repeatedly. And that takes a level of discipline among the players and coaches that is seriously uncommon.
Know-nothing announcers and dunk-crazy fans dismissed it as ugly basketball, or boring. They didn't know what they were watching. It was actually kind of amazing.
So, this season, in the Final Four, on the sport's biggest stage, UCLA wasn't facing a team for the ages, like Florida. Memphis was really good, but beatable -- if the Bruins controlled the tempo, the style, and imposed their will.
But they didn't. As the game unfolded, and UCLA let Memphis dictate the terms… it was over. The Tigers scrambled their fighters: fast-breaking, flying around, taking quick shots. This was Tiger Ball, and they looked pretty comfortable.
UCLA looked uneasy. And with each Bruin possession that ended in a hurried shot, a turnover, or the inability to get the ball to Love in the post, it became more and more obvious that UCLA wasn't going to win this one.
It's not that the Bruins' effort wasn't there. They played hard. But when I remember more Luc Richard Mbah a Moute jump shots than Love post-ups, when Darren Collison has five fouls, five turnovers and one basket… I don't know, it was like Opposite Day. Bruin fans might've wished that UCLA followed George Costanza's example in that Seinfeld episode…If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.
Luc wants to shoot a 15-footer? Pass it!
Collison hesitates with the ball? Drive it! Shoot!
The team doesn't pass it to Love? Throw it to him!
Seriously, aside from Russell Westbrook's forays to the basket, it wasn't a memorable or effective performance; certainly, it didn't befit a Bruin squad that won 35 games, its third consecutive Pac-10 title, the conference tournament, and made its third straight Final Four.
But you know what? It happens. It's sports. Part of the deal.
Probably the toughest part for UCLA fans is that lingering question that Coach Howland alluded to, when he said, "I thought it was our best chance."
That's what it keeps coming back to, doesn't it? UCLA, of course, should be fine, with a future full of Pac-10 titles and deep tournament runs, but the thought that maybe all the tumblers might not align again.
And I get it. Even think it myself, at times. But all those Buffalo Bills/Atlanta Braves analogies that popped up afterward, well…
The Irish band Interference sang, "If a door be closed, then a row of homes start building/And tear your curtains down, for sunlight is like gold."
A nice little meditation on optimism, and on taking action. And Coach Howland is nothing if not all about doing just that.
So rather than dwell too much on the loss, I'm going to focus on a few of my favorite things about this season. (Don't worry, there's no raindrops on roses, or whiskers on kittens.)
First, and foremost, was Kevin Love.
I've written a lot about him this season -- how could I not? -- because he was unique. But a friend of mine opined that as good as Love was, if he was only in Westwood for one season, and didn't win the title, he wouldn't go down in UCLA lore as that big of a deal. It's not an unreasonable point. But I take a different view.
Love, I would argue, had the most memorable and important single season at UCLA since Ed O'Bannon in '95. The pressure on him was enormous, and he handled it all shockingly well. First of all, he managed (despite receiving the lion's share of the spotlight) to fit in on a veteran, accomplished team. Then, he managed to pretty much always say and do the right thing, despite being under intense scrutiny. A friend in the athletic department said that it was all genuine, that Love was a serious delight to work with, at all times. Just rare.
On the court, Love started fast, got better and better, and as the season went on, his ceiling kept rising. I remember early in the season, thinking "Wow, I think he's the best player on the team." Later it was: "I think he's the best freshman in the Pac-10." Then: "You know, he's the best player in the Pac-10." Then: first-team All-American. As the season ticked down: "Wait a minute! Is this guy the best player in the whole country?"
Love's game at Oregon -- the Love Hatefest, a.k.a. the Verbal Abuse Game -- deserves to go down in UCLA history. That game should be on a video loop in the Morgan Center somewhere, in the hoops section; I'll never forget it.
Ditto his consistently outplaying (sometimes dominating) opposing centers; his ability to draw fouls seemingly at will; his crazy rebounding, his knack for the big basket, his competitive fire, etc.
And then there was his outlet passing. I question whether college hoops fans will see that again, at such a high level. Much was made of his ability to essentially shoot a chest pass from one baseline and swish a shot 95 feet away. And it's a ridiculous parlor trick, a great video clip. But it was his outlet passes in games, often in crunch time, to steal a basket with a lay-up or dunk, that were so crucial.
And there was one play in particular that I still barely believe. Against Western Kentucky, in the Sweet 16, with the Bruins on the verge of a historic collapse and playing so nervously it was painful to watch, Love grabbed the ball after a made basket when the Hilltoppers had just scored again. He immediately ran to his right to get some space, with a guy trying to face-guard him and interfere with the inbound pass. But it didn't work. In one motion, while still running, Love heaved a semi-sidearm, two-handed bullet about 60 feet to a streaking Josh Shipp, who only had one step on his defender, and hit Shipp perfectly in stride, inches beyond the defender's reach. Layup. In the clutch. Huge bucket.
All season, everyone kept repeating the conventional wisdom that Love's outlet passing was the best since NBA great Wes Unseld in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I'm sorry, can anyone who saw Unseld confirm that he could do what Love does? Seriously. I'd be surprised. After that play, I said to my buddy Pete, "I think Love may be the greatest outlet passer ever."
Anyway, assuming Love does go the League now, his one-season legacy at UCLA is pretty huge, in my mind.
But the Bruin season wasn't only Kevin Love.
Russell Westbrook made a quantum leap, easily one of the most improved players in the nation -- improving so much that he too might bolt for the League.
And while Westbrook's YouTube dunks were sick, and his offensive game exploded (especially in December and January), some other things impressed me more. The first: here's a kid who played only nine minutes per game last season, zooming up to 34 minutes a game this season, and giving so much effort and toughness on defense that he was named the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year.
And when Westbrook, just blossoming early in the year, suddenly was switched back to coming off the bench as a sub (a brief lineup experiment due to Mike Roll's injury), he didn't complain, saying he didn't care, whatever was best for the team. "I love Russell Westbrook," said Howland at the time. Take all those things, plus the fact that Westbrook waited until April of his senior year in high school to make his college decision, in the hope that UCLA would give him a scholarship, to thankfully sign with the Bruins, and UCLA fans knew exactly what Howland meant.
Also deserving of praise: Collison, who came back from his early injury, rounding into form in January, running the show at point guard, and playing well enough to make third-team All-American. His shooting (87% free throws, 53% on three pointers) was outrageous all season long.
And Collison's game against Stanford at Pauley Pavilion to clinch the Pac-10 title, in which he scored 19 points in the second half and overtime, and tied the game with 2.5 seconds left on two monstrous free throws, was the signature performance of his UCLA career.
And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Collison and Westbrook did as well as they did, all season, without a backup guard. Fairly unheard of, not to have a third guard. (And sorry, even though Shipp is listed technically as a ‘forward/guard,' he's a forward, so for those few minutes a game when Westbrook or Collison rested, UCLA went with one guard and three forwards -- or as Howland put it, "Our backup point guard was our starting power forward. That's tough.") In that sense alone, it's kind of amazing the season the Bruins had.
Lorenzo Mata-Real cemented his place in the Great Teammate Hall of Fame, when he ceded his starting job to the phenom Love, playing very little his senior year, and didn't complain or tank it. Coach Howland was genuinely moved about honoring Mata-Real's on Senior Day, with good reason.
Ditto for Alfred Aboya, who also saw his minutes cut -- he didn't play more than six minutes in any of the last four tournament games. But he kept playing his butt off, in typical Aboya fashion -- by which I mean he fouled everyone in sight. Still, he's one of those guys you can't help but love.
Mbah a Moute had an uneven season, battling injury, positional yo-yoing and an unclear sense of his role. Defensively dominant at times, his game against Xavier was vintage Prince, and was his best performance. It was telling that two of the three regular-season Bruin losses came when he was injured.
As for Shipp, the fourth-year junior had a season I can only describe as star-crossed. He started the year as maybe UCLA's most effective player, and was ruthlessly efficient on offense, scoring in double figures in 14 of the first 15 games. He finished the season a shell of his former self, displaying little explosiveness, his confidence (heretofore his best quality) burst like the housing bubble, and he scored in double figures in only one of the final seven games. It's unclear exactly what happened, or how he'll bounce back for next season. And given that he's already been at UCLA for four seasons, and has battled hip injuries a significant part of that time, and will put his name in the NBA draft to be evaluated, Shipp to me is the player whose UCLA future seems particularly murky. We'll see.
Not so James Keefe, who had about a polar opposite season compared to Shipp. He started the year injured, was going to redshirt, then agreed to give that up and come back and play only a partial season for the good of the team. It was refreshing, and was pretty gratifying that he kept improving as the year went on. His massive game against Western Kentucky not only saved UCLA's tournament bacon, but couldn't have happened to a more deserving player. His stock is rising, and optimism in Keefe's continued improvement and expanding role is well justified.
Finally, there is Coach Howland. In a way, this had to be a pretty difficult year. He had two healthy guards all season, in what must have been an oppressively narrow window (Love's only season, and likely Collison's last) to win it all. Because every game was so crucial to get the #1 seed in the West, he rode his starters with very long minutes. Clearly though, Howland puts UCLA into the position to win a title. Playing beautiful, tough basketball the right way, game after game, racking up huge victory totals, a conference hegemony, bringing in huge recruits -- those things cannot and should not be underestimated. I agree with all those who wouldn't trade him for any coach in the nation. The breakthrough should come, at some point.
It's too bad it didn't happen this year, with this team. But even so, this season was immensely satisfying, I think.
As a fan, there are some teams you support that disappoint you, some teams that surprise you, some teams you love, and some teams that make you crazy.
UCLA, 2007-2008, this was a team, for me, which just mattered. It did all of the above things, sometimes all in the same game. It was a team that meant something, that was captivating.
At times looking like the best team in the country, at others looking like a bunch of guys who would only be watching the Final Four at a sports bar, this UCLA squad could be counted on to win nearly always in a way that was never dull -- and to always display tenacity, and heart, and skill, and all the things that make a fan fall in love with the game anyway.
And when it's all said and done, that's enough. What it's all about, maybe.
Cheers, UCLA hoops, 2008. You won't be forgotten.