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THE MAGAZINE
Posted: Wednesday February 29, 2012 10:00AM ; Updated: Wednesday February 29, 2012 11:38AM

Special Report: Not the UCLA Way (cont.)

By George Dohrmann, Sports Illustrated

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Ben Howland has always been a terrific coach, but his players found him awkward and odd off the court.
Ben Howland has always been a terrific coach, but his players found him awkward and odd off the court.
AP

The task of indoctrinating a new player -- such as Westbrook, another unranked recruit, who enrolled in 2006 -- fell to the veterans. It was a team of prefects, the protectors of the UCLA dynamic, who looked out for each other, making sure that no one got into trouble, that no one threatened what they were trying to accomplish or what UCLA has always been about. They were a tight group. If they went out, to the movies or a party, they were 15 strong.

That kind of camaraderie is not unusual on good teams, but Howland's former players say he had very little to do with instilling it. He focused on basketball strategy, not team building. Each of the players who spoke to SI said they found Howland socially awkward and disapproved of the verbal abuse they say he directed at his staff, the student managers and the weakest players. One player said if he saw Howland waiting for the elevator he would take the stairs.

The players were puzzled by some of their coach's idiosyncrasies. Howland seemed obsessed with the temperature in the film room. If it was not exactly 76 a student manager was certain to feel Howland's wrath. The water bottles handed to him had to be just cold enough and not too large.

He occasionally kicked players out of pregame walk-throughs held in hotel ballrooms if the players weren't executing properly. Two players recall being tossed, on different occasions, for failing to get low enough on defense even though they were wearing jeans that constricted their movements.

In a game during the 2007-08 season, several players on the bench noted Howland's frustration with the shot selection of Westbrook, whose freelancing had resulted in several baskets. But rather than substituting for him, Howland informed one of the officials that Westbrook was wearing socks bearing an NBA logo, which violated NCAA uniform guidelines. Howland told the official he had an obligation to remove Westbrook from the game because of his socks. The official claimed to be unaware of the rule and let play continue.

As focused on detail as Howland was, his players had the freedom to enjoy the perks of being a Bruin during UCLA's run to the three consecutive Final Fours. There were nights out with current and former NBA players, television stars and models. One evening the partying started at the Beverly Hills mansion of a wealthy UCLA fan. The Bruins were then chauffeured in a Rolls-Royce to a West Hollywood club, where several players were ushered past a long line of people and given VIP treatment at a table in the back. Says one player, "We'd go back to the campus bars and students would say, 'Where have you been?' We'd be like, 'If you only knew.' "

The players on those Final Four teams were a mature group, however, and they showed self-restraint. They knew that to achieve their goals on the court, they had to discipline themselves off it. That simple realization can separate winning teams from losing teams. And at UCLA, it did.

*****

After its 2008 trip to the Final Four, UCLA lost Love, Westbrook and Mbah a Moute to the NBA, and Mata-Real to graduation. Swingman Chace Stanback, who had spent his first college season tethered to the bench, transferred to UNLV.

Such an exodus would decimate most programs. But this was UCLA, and the Bruins reloaded with the nation's No. 1 recruiting class. The 2008 Baby Bruins consisted of three combo guards -- Holiday, Malcolm Lee and Jerime Anderson -- power forward Drew Gordon and center J'mison Morgan. Holiday was the highest-ranked recruit (No. 2 overall), but all were among the nation's top 50 prospects, a distinction not even Michigan's famed Fab Five class of 1991 could claim.

Howland had never signed a group so talented and so widely expected to succeed. Holiday was called a more polished version of Westbrook; Gordon was touted as a better athlete than Love; Morgan was likened to former alltime great UCLA centers Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton.

The recruits were famous before they played a game. They would walk into a party on campus and, as one player put it, "the place would just stop."

When practices began in October, however, it was quickly apparent that while the Baby Bruins' talent was undeniable, their levels of dedication varied. Some of the newcomers clearly didn't appreciate the commitment needed to succeed at the top level of the college game.

The seven team members from that year who spoke to SI divided the freshmen into two camps. Holiday and Lee were serious and professional; they had fun off the court but never went too far. Anderson, Gordon and Morgan, by contrast, took advantage of the freedom of being in college and did what many freshmen do. They partied. The trio regularly drank alcohol and smoked marijuana, sometimes before practice, according to multiple teammates. The three players' limited time on the court -- Gordon played the most, averaging just under 11 minutes a game -- seemed to give them license to do more partying as the season progressed. (Anderson, Gordon and Morgan declined to comment.)

Several former team members who spoke to SI cautioned against demonizing the misbehaving freshmen. "We all partied when we first went to college," one says. But while asking for some perspective on the freshmen's behavior, former players said their actions affected the team's unity and performance. Practices were often sloppy because of the three freshmen's immaturity and lack of effort, and some of the Baby Bruins chafed at being treated as anything but the stars they were coming out of high school.

Older players tried to counsel them but with little success. Gordon, for one, was very emotional and reacted harshly whenever criticized, several former teammates say. He often disrupted practices and during one session set an illegal screen on Collison that so angered Collison that the two had to be separated.

Gordon was not punished for that incident, one of many occasions when Howland didn't discipline the freshmen for conduct that was detrimental to the team. One player sensed that Howland was waiting for things to work themselves out; others say they felt that Howland was reluctant to discipline the freshmen out of trepidation that the best of them would transfer or leave early for the NBA. (Citing federal privacy laws, a university spokesperson said Howland would not discuss his handling of specific players with SI.)

 
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