Special Report: Not the UCLA Way (cont.)
But Nelson's behavior -- and Howland's tolerance of it -- undercut team morale. Combined with the partying of the other freshmen and the three sophomores, it torpedoed the season. UCLA won four of five against weak competition to open the year but then lost six of its next seven, falling to Portland (by 27), Long Beach State (by 11) and Mississippi State (by 18).
Team members say that if Howland had taken a harder line with his young players, most of them would have come around. "But with Reeves," one player says, "the only thing to do was to kick him off the team."
Instead, another player was sent packing. In early December after Gordon departed, Howland told the Los Angeles Times: "We have expectations of how our players represent the university on and off the court. When those standards aren't met, there are consequences." Gordon had certainly done enough to warrant getting kicked off the team, but team members felt it was not his hard-partying ways that sealed his exit. Gordon was the rare player who second-guessed Howland's coaching, both in practice and to the media. Just before Gordon left the team, he and Howland had a heated exchange in practice over the way Howland wanted Gordon to defend a certain play.
The message some players took from Gordon's departure was this: At UCLA you could fight, you could drink alcohol and do drugs to the point that it affected your performance, but the one thing you could not do was question Howland's knowledge of the game.
Gordon's exit failed to change the culture of the program, and New Year's Eve was once again a flash point. Several underclassmen had arranged for a party bus to shuttle them around town, but at the last minute Howland instituted a bed check. An assistant coach would visit the players' apartments and dorm rooms and make certain no one had gone out.
When informing the players of the bed check, Howland remarked, "So there will be no party bus," which led some underclassmen to conclude that they had an informant in their midst. Nelson thought that Honeycutt, one of his roommates, was the rat, and he got his revenge. A short time later, Nelson returned home from a night of partying, piled Honeycutt's clothes on Honeycutt's bed, and then urinated on the clothes and flipped the bed over. When asked by SI about the incident, Nelson said, "I would dispute that that is exactly what happened, but I understand people would say that is what happened. But I think, most of all, you should know that Tyler and I are still friends."
It didn't appear that Nelson was punished for the incident, but players say that Honeycutt was given his own single dorm room. (Through his agent, Honeycutt declined to comment.)
A few months later, when UCLA lost to Cal by 13 in the second round of the Pac-10 tournament, the careers of the program's three seniors, Keefe, Roll and Dragovic, came to a close. For the following season, the only returning scholarship players would be from the two recruiting classes that had caused so much discord.
The program now belonged to them.
By all accounts the 2010-11 season was an improvement. According to five people associated with the team, the atmosphere was better. In March 2010, Howland announced that Morgan was being dismissed from the team for undisclosed reasons, leaving only Anderson and the dependable Lee from the Baby Bruins class. UCLA lost Moser, who transferred to UNLV, but forwards David and Travis Wear transferred in from North Carolina and would be eligible to play the following season. Joining them was a four-man class of recruits. Center Joshua Smith's indolence was a worry, but guards Tyler Lamb and Matt Carlino were hardworking and respectful, and the final recruit, guard Lazeric Jones, was the school's first significant junior college transfer since 1986.
UCLA opened the season 5-4, including an embarrassing loss to Montana at Pauley Pavilion. But the Bruins loaded up on victories against nonconference lightweights and took advantage of another down year in the Pac-10 to finish third in the conference at 13-5 (23-11 overall). UCLA returned to the NCAA tournament, a sign of recovery even though the Bruins lost to Florida in the round of 32.
"It was better," says one team member, "but remember: Reeves was still there."
From the first practice, Nelson's treatment of Carlino was a divisive issue. Carlino suffered a concussion during the preseason that caused him to miss the first three games. Nelson ridiculed Carlino for letting the injury sideline him. He told Carlino he didn't belong at UCLA and wasn't any good. He would yell at Carlino to leave the locker room, calling him "concussion boy." When Carlino returned to workouts, Nelson would go out of his way to set a screen on Carlino so he could hit him. Eventually, players say, Carlino dreaded practice. It was of little surprise when he left UCLA midway through the season and transferred to BYU.
After Carlino left, there was a team meeting at which Howland said he couldn't respect a quitter. "But everyone knew why Matt left," says one player. "He didn't want to keep sitting on the bench, but most of all he didn't want to be around Reeves anymore. That wasn't quitting. That was just smart."
Carlino became eligible for BYU midway through this season and immediately became a standout. Through Sunday, he was averaging 13.0 points and 4.7 assists. He joined the list of recent players who have thrived after leaving Westwood, most for schools in the Mountain West. At week's end Moser was the leading scorer (14.2 points per game) for No. 17 UNLV, and was ranked sixth in the nation in rebounds (11.0 per game). Chace Stanback was the Runnin' Rebels' second-leading scorer (13.6 points per game). Gordon was averaging a double double (12.5 points, 10.9 rebounds) for New Mexico (22-6). Morgan has had the least impact of the former Bruins, but he did appear in all 31 of Baylor's games last year, starting 14. (He is redshirting this season.)
Early in 2011, after the conference season began, players noticed a subtle shift in how Howland handled the mercurial Nelson. "[Howland] always gave Reeves the benefit of the doubt on foul calls in practice so Reeves wouldn't lose it and be even more disruptive," says one team member. "But when Reeves started going up against the Wear twins, Coach would call it straight. That got to Reeves. He started yelling more at Coach, showing him up."
Nelson finished his sophomore season as the team's leading scorer (13.9) and rebounder (9.1) and was selected first-team All-Pac-10. He was a preseason first-team pick last fall, but he lasted only seven games.
On Nov. 14, Howland suspended Nelson for being late to a team meeting and exhibiting other behavior that was deemed insubordinate. Howland reinstated Nelson two days later, but on Nov. 19 Nelson missed a team flight to Hawaii. Howland suspended him again on Dec. 6, a move that was roundly criticized by the media for being inadequate. Three days later, Howland dismissed Nelson from the program.
Nelson's mother, Sheila, told the Los Angeles Times that she wished Howland had been stricter with her son earlier in his career. "I think what my mom was saying was that when I went to college I was just 17," Nelson, who is back in Modesto training for the NBA draft, told SI. "I'm not trying to make excuses for what I did, but I got into some weird behavior patterns, and I think my mom was saying that if instead of one big punishment at the end, what if there had been smaller punishments along the way." In a December interview with the Los Angeles Times, Howland acknowledged that he had made mistakes with Nelson.
UCLA won five in a row against soft competition following Nelson's exit, but when conference play started, the Bruins proved to be only a middle-of-the pack team. Smith, UCLA's most gifted player, was a disappointment. He has admitted to a lack of motivation, but players say that Howland also has babied him, allowing him to miss meetings and arrive late or unprepared for workouts. "Same thing as before," says a player. "Josh is a star and so [Howland] isn't holding him accountable." (Howland declined to discuss his handling of Smith.)
Whether Howland is capable of getting the program back on track is the question of the moment in Westwood. The capital he built up during the Final Four years would seem to have been spent. His winning percentage over the past three seasons (.558) is worse than that of the much-maligned Lavin during his final three years (.574).
UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero, who through a spokesperson declined SI's interview request, told ESPN.com in January, "I need Ben Howland. Why would I even think about looking at someone else?" He added, "By his own admission, [Howland] made some mistakes. But I'm going to work with him. I'm not going to crucify him for those mistakes. Because Ben Howland is a hell of a coach, and anyone who understands basketball, anyone that's been around him, that knows the game, has the utmost respect for what he does as a coach. ... We need to turn it around, and we all get that. But we will."
UCLA basketball has always had its own special shine, and any tarnish has never been tolerated for long. As tempting as it is to blame immature players -- and they deserve a heavy dose -- the team members who spoke to SI were unanimous in their belief that leadership from Howland would have prevented or at least curtailed the damage. Says one, "Can you imagine the same thing happening at Duke? Can you imagine players getting away with that stuff under Coach K?"
That is hard to imagine, just as it would have been hard to envision four years ago that UCLA would be in its current state. Back then the team was united, the players mature and humble. Who could have predicted a train running so smoothly would go off the rails? Who could have foreseen such a departure from the UCLA way?
This story appears in the March 5, 2012 issue of Sports Illustrated. Buy the digital version of the magazine here.