If UCLA Basketball really is back—and how many times have we begun this story?—history will insist that the Bruins were reborn in Arizona's McKale Center. That's where UCLA beat the Wildcats 89-87 last Saturday. The event will certainly be regarded as one of college basketball's great turning points, since nobody comes to Arizona and wins—at least no one had in 71 previous tries. A Bruin team that accomplished that feat must be pretty good, right? The kind of team that used to hang banners in Pauley Pavilion.
See how easy it is to get carried away? UCLA beats Indiana early on, becomes No. 2 in the country, stays unbeaten through a hellish game in Tucson, and suddenly there are visions of the Bruins redecorating the girders of Pauley. It's pretty hard to quash all that tradition, even though UCLA has done plenty of quashing in the 16 seasons since it won its 10th straight (and last) NCAA title. When the Bruins get off to this kind of start, no matter how great their recent lapses, it's impossible to ignore what they once were—and could be again.
Watching UCLA guard Gerald Madkins, out exactly four weeks with a broken hand, have his cast cut off for Saturday's game and come in to play 28 minutes and harass Arizona star Chris Mills—"He's ready to defend air," said teammate Darrick Martin—gave you the shivers. Seeing Don MacLean, the indomitable Bruin forward with a touch so soft the ball might not realize it's being handled, score 38 points from the wing was eerie. But to watch Martin, benched earlier in the game for taking a wild shot, careen down-court in the final moments, game tied, and sink an off-balance (that is, wild) shot to win it, well, get this team a seamstress and a ladder. Just like old times.
It was, turning point or not, a marvelous game, with lead changes on almost every possession. The home crowd, which had not seen its heroes lose since 1987, was properly hysterical throughout, and even the bearded Ooh Aah Man—the superfan who snakes across the McKale Center court and spells A-R-I-Z-O-N-A with his body as Wildcat fans chant along—seemed unusually agitated. So did both coaches, now that we think about it. UCLA's Jim Harrick, the sixth coach to try and make Westwood forget its Wizard, lost his mind over a Bruin foul in the first half and was awarded a technical; Arizona's Lute Olson, the Titan of Tucson, who had won his 200th game with the Wildcats just two days earlier, also spun out of control, over an Arizona foul in the second half, and got a T.
The players stayed cool, though, answering one another basket for basket amid McKale's nerve-racking sea of red. This cool was impressive, especially in the final 50 seconds, when the Bruins seemed set to take control. With his team ahead 87-85, UCLA's Tracy Murray attempted to inbound the ball to Martin. But Arizona sophomore guard Khalid Reeves got a piece of it and tipped it out of bounds—onto Murray's foot. Wildcat ball. Murray gave Martin a withering look for being outhustled by Reeves; perhaps he was remembering last year's game at McKale, in which the Bruins gave up the lead and the game in the last four seconds. And then, after much commotion under Arizona's basket, Wildcat forward Wayne Womack lifted up a formless shot that somehow went in, setting the stage for Martin's game-winner. "Our guy's [shot] was a 9.6, on degree of difficulty," said Harrick. "This guy's was a prayer."
The 5'11" Martin's off-balance response was launched over the Wildcats' 5'10" Damon Stoudamire, 6'1" Reeves and 6'6" Mills to give UCLA the lead with three tenths of a tick left. Not enough time for Harrick to yank Martin, in other words. "That's a good shot when it's over a guard," Harrick explained afterward, "just not when it's over their centers." Martin's problem is that he makes no such distinctions.
But if the Bruins are back—gosh, saying this is tempting when they're 10-0 and making lucky shots again—they were not truly reborn in McKale Center. The rebirth occurred in Jade West, a Chinese restaurant in Century City, Calif., weeks before the season began. That's where the M&M Boys—seniors MacLean, Madkins and Martin—summoned the other Bruins to address the ills that doomed UCLA in the second half of last season and culminated in a first-round NCAA tournament loss to Penn State. "We were one selfish club," says Madkins. "Let's just say you could look at our films and you wouldn't see two passes on any offensive set. The ball didn't exactly rotate."
Murray, whose three-point shooting is so often out of this world, noticed that the entire UCLA offense was going astronomical. "The low post was a black hole," he says. "You'd throw a ball in, and it was just absorbed. It never got back out. I'm not saying it didn't affect me, either. I was so glad to get the ball, I'd just jack it up. Who knew when I'd get it again." It was so bad that some of Murray's mates on the U.S. Pan Am Games team last summer said that, if they were him, they would transfer right away. "They said, "There aren't enough balls to play at UCLA.' "
Harrick admits the Bruins got out of hand and says he should have sat some players down. But this was, he figured, the price of talent, which UCLA had not lately been accustomed to having. The players, all high school superstars, were forming cliques and beefing among themselves—Darrick never passed, Don always shot, etc. "And the worst thing," says Madkins, "was that the other teams in the league knew what was going on, and they knew exactly what buttons to push." It was no trick at all back then to draw some Bruin into a mano a mano confrontation in which he would perform some foolhardy stunt.
The seniors explained all of this over hot-and-sour soup. "I told them, 'This is our senior year, the one we'll remember most,' " Madkins says. Maybe it was just a matter of growing up. MacLean tried to explain to his teammates that, as much fun as it had been for him to lead the Bruins in scoring for three years, he was afraid that what he would remember most about his UCLA experience would be losing to upstart Penn State. Winning mattered, after all. It's why there are more banners than retired jerseys hanging from Pauley's rafters.