Special Report: Not the UCLA Way (cont.)
At one point in late 2008, Howland lectured the team about drinking, saying that he didn't consume alcohol during the season and asking that the players show the same respect for the program. Reminders to curtail the partying came more frequently from assistant coaches.
On the final day of 2008, Howland met with the team and told players not to go out on New Year's Eve. The Bruins had an early-morning practice scheduled for New Year's Day and were departing for Oregon in the afternoon. Howland stressed that it was time to get serious.
Three members of the team, not all of them freshmen, ignored Howland's orders and attended a giant rave at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. "We did what you do at a rave: We took Ecstasy," says one of the players. The trio did not get back to Westwood until between 4 and 5 a.m. and barely slept before arriving at Pauley Pavilion for an 8 a.m. practice. The players bragged about their night to teammates and commented on how they were still feeling the effects of the Ecstasy.
A few days later an assistant coach phoned the players who attended the rave and asked if they had gone out on New Year's Eve. They denied it, but soon afterward each was ordered to submit to a drug test. "I took something that was supposed to get [the drugs] out of my system," says one player. "I never heard anything about the results [of the test], so it must have worked."
From the outside, UCLA did not appear to be a program in disarray. Veterans of the 2008 Final Four team, including Collison, Aboya, Shipp and Nikola Dragovic, combined with Holiday to help UCLA finish second in the Pac-10. But it was a team divided from start to finish. Just before the postseason, in a last ditch effort to create team unity, the upperclassmen organized a bowling night, but the freshmen blew it off.
UCLA lost to Villanova by 20 in the second round of the 2009 NCAA tournament, ending the Final Four streak. Many on that team would look back on the season as more than just a lost opportunity. Howland had failed to correct discipline problems that would compound themselves in the years ahead.
"Guys drinking, guys doing drugs, guys not taking practice seriously, guys fighting," said one player. "You won't find that on the Pyramid of Success."
On April 15, less than a month after the season ended, Howland summoned to his office one of the student managers, a sophomore who was known to party with the players. The manager had mentioned to an assistant coach that some players drank and smoked marijuana too often during the season and that they needed to get more serious for UCLA to improve.
Howland told the manager that he needed to know who those players were and exactly what they were doing. The manager refused to name names, so Howland told the manager that if he didn't tell him, he would be terminated.
"I tried to be vague at first, told him some of the freshmen had problems, but he kept on me," says the manager. "I was just a college student, and Coach Howland is telling me I have to tell him everything."
The manager eventually told Howland what he knew, but the coach still terminated him. According to the manager, Howland said, "You are just as guilty as the players."
Howland told SI he couldn't discuss any specifics of the situation but said, "In my 18 years as a head basketball coach and nine years as the head basketball coach at UCLA, if I found out that a student manager was partying with some of our players, I would have told him to leave the program. In our program the managers are more closely related to the coaching staff than they are to the student-athletes. In fact, many of my former managers are now successful coaches, and I'm very proud of what they have accomplished."
Several team members were upset by Howland's treatment of the manager, who was devoted to UCLA basketball and, in the words of one player, "would come in and rebound for guys at 3 a.m. if they asked him to." None of the team members from that season who spoke to SI knew of anyone else being punished as a result of the manager's revelations. A few heard that Howland met with a couple of players and told them to clean up their acts, but the players knew of no further action by the coach.
In the fall of 2009, during a routine practice drill, UCLA freshman Mike Moser ran through a team of defenders and was suddenly hit in the chest by a forearm and shoulder that nearly knocked him to the ground. It was the second time Moser had been the victim of an illegal screen from fellow freshman Reeves Nelson, and he'd had enough. Moser told Nelson that if he did it again he would punch him in the face. The drill was reset, and in the words of one player who was present, "Mike comes across and Reeves just hits him again. Mike wasn't a guy who would back down. He squared up and they went at."
Fights in practice happen; competitiveness gets the better of players. But according to team members, UCLA had an alarming number of those to begin the season. A year after bringing in the Baby Bruins, Howland had added five more freshmen, all frontcourt players: Moser, Nelson, Tyler Honeycutt, Brendan Lane and Anthony Stover. Only Holiday, who left for the NBA, was gone from the previous year's group, which meant nine of the team's 13 scholarship athletes were underclassmen. With so many gifted young athletes on the team, a dustup or two could be expected in the competition for playing time. But when does a fight signal larger issues?
Is it when the scuffle occurs away from practice, like the one between Nelson and Gordon at a teammate's apartment? Gordon ended up with a black eye. Is it when players are involved in multiple fights? Gordon and Moser had fought previously during a workout. Is it when a player says Howland made light of one of his players receiving a punch to the face? After what happened between Moser and Nelson, one player says that Howland jokingly remarked to him that Howland had been wanting to hit Nelson for weeks. (When asked about the incident, Howland said, "I have never so much as contemplated striking a player in my 30 years as a coach. To think otherwise is ridiculous.")
Even with all the fisticuffs, team members didn't consider those among the lowest moments of the Bruins' 2009-10 season. "Of course you don't want guys fighting," says one, "but we had so much that went wrong that year that it is hard to make a big deal about it now."
As in the previous season, the problems started almost immediately. There were only four upperclassmen on scholarship, and they all lived away from campus. The incoming freshmen started hanging out with the teammates who were closer to their age and living near campus, but once again, not all the freshmen were the same. The mild-mannered Lane got a girlfriend early in the school year and didn't party often with his classmates. Moser and Honeycutt went out, but like Holiday and Lee, they did so cautiously. At the other end of the spectrum, however, were Nelson and Stover, who partnered with Gordon, Anderson and Morgan to form a crew that would further erode team discipline and unity.
All the distractions from the previous school year continued and the partying increased. As a result, practices were even sloppier, the difference between the few dedicated players still in the program and the underclassmen now plainly visible. If you walked into practice, you would see at one basket Mike Roll shooting free throws, using the same routine every time, taking every shot seriously; on another basket Nelson and Stover would be shooting their free throws with one hand or fading away. (Stover declined to comment.)
One underclassman upset about his lack of playing time says he stopped wearing his jersey under his warmups during games. When Howland ordered him to the scorer's table during garbage time in one game, the player responded, "Sorry, Coach, I don't have my jersey on."
"It's something I can't believe I did," says the player. "But there was so much crazy [stuff] going on it didn't seem that crazy then."
Nelson was the ringleader among the freshmen. Because of his toughness, the 6'8" forward from Modesto, Calif., was called "the prototypical Ben Howland player" by ESPN.com when he signed with the Bruins, but teammates came away with a different impression of him after only a few practices. Nelson could be a nice guy, but he had what one player calls "this crazy side."
Nelson often reacted to hard fouls or calls against him in practice by committing violent acts against teammates. He did not deny to SI that he would stalk his targets, even running across the court, away from a play, to hit someone.
Once, Nelson got tangled up with forward James Keefe while going for a rebound. Keefe was playing with a surgically repaired left shoulder, and Nelson pulled down suddenly on Keefe's left arm. That reinjured Keefe's shoulder, and he missed several weeks. Later in the season Nelson hacked walk-on Alex Schrempf, the son of former NBA player Detlef Schrempf, from behind on a breakaway, knocking Schrempf to the ground. The back injury Schrempf suffered sidelined him for months. In another workout Nelson threw an elbow at Lane after the whistle, injuring Lane's ribs.
Walk-on Tyler Trapani was another Nelson victim. After Trapani took a charge that negated a Nelson dunk, Nelson went out of his way to step on Trapani's chest as he lay on the ground. Trapani is John Wooden's great-grandson. (Nelson confirmed all these incidents to SI and expressed his regret, saying, "On all that stuff, I have no trouble admitting that I lost control of my emotions sometimes. I take responsibility for my actions. I'm really just trying to learn from the mistakes I made on all levels.")
After each of the incidents, Howland looked the other way. One team member says he asked Howland after a practice why he wasn't punishing Nelson, to which he said Howland responded, "He's producing."
But at what cost? Nelson was hardly the player around whom to build a team. He was a classic bully, targeting teammates who weren't as athletically gifted as he and tormenting the support staff. At the end of practice, he would punt balls high up into the stands at Pauley Pavilion, turn to the student managers and say, "Fetch." Nelson frequently talked back to the assistant coaches. When they told him to stop, he would remark, "That's how Coach Howland talks to you."
Many players say Howland degraded his assistants, but only Nelson used that as license to treat the assistants with disrespect. Donny Daniels, a member of Howland's staff since Howland arrived in Westwood, would leave after the season to take the same job at Gonzaga. One player says that when he asked Daniels why he was departing, Daniels kiddingly responded that if he had to coach Nelson for one more season, he would kill himself. (Daniels, through his lawyer, denied making that statement.)
Nelson showed Howland only slightly more respect. By his own admission, he often ignored the head coach's phone calls, and Howland resorted to calling one of Nelson's roommates, asking him to coax Nelson onto the line.
When asked by SI why he didn't discipline Nelson, Howland said in a statement: "I firmly believe in the philosophy of giving all of my players the chance to do things the right way. There have been challenges with some student-athletes during my tenure here at UCLA, and we have utilized plenty of resources to help them, the specifics of which very few people would know anything about."