Born a Bruin (cont.)
Posted: Friday April 4, 2008 3:35PM; Updated: Friday April 4, 2008 4:23PM
While he was learning the values of sacrifice and discipline at home, young Ben was getting his hide toughened at the Boys Club in Goleta, Calif., where he played no-holds-barred games of one-on-one as well as a cutthroat version of dodgeball, called prison ball, against older kids. "I got my brains beat in, but I kept coming back the next day, and it made me stronger in the end," he says. "Your genes give you some toughness, but your environment does, too."
After playing at Weber State, where he was the Wildcats' two-time defensive player of the year, and a short stint playing in Uruguay, Howland came back to the U.S. to begin the coaching career he had planned on ever since those late-night screenings of UCLA games. His first stop was as a graduate assistant at Gonzaga in 1981, where the 'Zags had a sophomore point guard so skilled and quick that he was making a mockery of scrimmages because none of his teammates could guard him effectively. So coach Jay Hillock put his 24-year-old grad assistant in against the little whippet, and for the rest of the season Howland spent practices bumping, grabbing and generally annoying future NBA star John Stockton.
Is it any wonder, then, that Howland has cultivated in his Bruins the same qualities that were instilled in him? He went out of his way to praise senior center Lorenzo Mata-Real, a former starter, for stepping aside without the slightest complaint upon the arrival of the wondrous freshman big man, Kevin Love. Sacrifice. He recognized that guard Russell Westbrook's stunning athleticism could make him more than just a dangerous scorer, but a lockdown defender -- and prodded Westbrook into becoming the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year. Discipline. He rarely institutes curfews before games. "I don't want my kids to get their rest the day before the game because I tell them to," he says. "I want them to think about the effect of staying out late on their performance, and to act accordingly." Self-denial.
Future editions of the Bruins will no doubt offer more of the same, since players who don't fit into Howland's hard-edged philosophy need not apply. "We don't really teach toughness," he says. "We recruit it." Prospective Bruins are told from the start exactly what Howland expects.
"One of the great things he does is from the time he starts recruiting a player, he's coaching him," says former assistant Kerry Keating, now the head coach at Santa Clara. "He's not just saying, 'We love you, you're a great player.' He's saying, 'You could really help us stop dribble penetration,' or 'Do you see the way [former UCLA star] Arron Afflalo closes out on a shooter? That's the kind of thing we think you'd be really good at.' He's putting in a tough, defensive mentality even before the player sets foot on our campus."
His players are hard-pressed to match their coach's defensive intensity. "Sometimes it looks like he wants to get out there and play defense with us," says Mata-Real. "I look over on the sidelines during games and he's almost down in a defensive stance himself. His intensity gets us fired up."
That intensity burns 24 hours a day. Howland is known for waking up friends, colleagues and his players at any time of the day or night, unable to contain his enthusiasm. During Pac-10 tournament in 2007, he watched California beat Oregon in double overtime, earning a berth against the Bruins the next day. It was nearly midnight when he arrived back at the team hotel after the game, but Howland didn't care. He summoned his players from their beds, brought them down to a hotel ballroom and walked through some of Cal's plays and defenses. When they were done, Howland ushered them into another room to watch film. By the time the impromptu practice was finished, it was nearly 1 a.m. The late night session paid off with a victory over Cal the next day. "We knew their plays so well we probably could have run them better than they did," Afflalo said.
But Howland would be the first to admit that there are times when even the hardest working coach has to leave it up to his players, when he simply has to hope he has prepared his team well enough. Those moments came often during this season, as the Bruins consistently made big plays down the stretch -- and yes, received a fortunate call or two -- to win tight games. "I knew we'd find a way to win," Howland said after one such game, the 51-49 victory over Texas A&M that sent UCLA to the Sweet 16. And his players know that with his preparation and drive, Howland will always give them the best possible chance to win. It is a perfect combination, a championship combination.
For Howland, the only disappointment is that Bob Howland, who died in 2003, did not live long enough to see his son reach the pinnacle of college basketball. But Ben Howland won't forget the teachings of his father that helped him get here. For he knows: work hard enough, and reality just might exceed your dreams.
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