"Don assured us we weren't secondary to his goals," says senior guard Gerald Madkins. "It's just that the guy is so intense and confident, he felt big enough to carry us on his back, and we had to let him know that's not where we wanted to be. We wanted to share the burden. That seemed to be a revelation to him."
In UCLA's crushing 74-69 upset by Penn State in the first round of the 1991 NCAA tournament, MacLean made his first seven shots, then didn't score another basket before fouling out, after which he tearfully criticized the officiating. The game seemed to be a microcosm of the Bruins' disappointing season. They started 13-1 but wound up losing eight of their last 18 games. "It's like we were destined to fall apart," says MacLean, whose self-confidence and motivational focus seemed shattered after an incident in the Bruins' 105-94 overtime loss to Arizona in Pauley on Feb. 10: After a UCLA basket gave UCLA a 77-75 lead, MacLean was assessed a technical foul for tossing the ball into the crotch of Wildcat center Brian Williams. "Cheap shot!" cried ABC's Dick Vitale, both then and repeatedly in succeeding weeks.
"I had been making a concerted effort to behave myself," says MacLean. "Then that happened. It was stupid, but I don't think I should have been vilified the rest of the year." Nevertheless, after the season MacLean resolved to clean up his act. Also, presumably, to clean up on Arizona.
Having lost six of seven career games to the Wildcats, MacLean exploded at Tucson on Jan. 11, scoring 16 of UCLA's final 21 points in a stunning 89-87 upset. Quick-releasing his uncanny on-the-way-up jumper, MacLean finished with 38 points and nine rebounds as the Bruins broke Arizona's 71-game home court winning streak.
"MacLean took himself to another level that day," says an interested observer, Bill Walton. "He went and got the ball and kept shooting it. He absolutely would not let UCLA lose."
That performance alone may have silenced some NBA experts who have questioned MacLean's "heart." Those doubters "must be living in the ozone," says Harrick, "especially with all the dogs I see playing in the NBA." Marty Blake, the guru of scouting gurus, rates MacLean (with career averages of 20.6 points and 7.8 rebounds) this way: "He's better than people think. And he can score from anywhere off anybody. Defense? Playing defense is like shoveling snow. It's hard work. But if you're an athlete and quick enough, it's just a matter of adjusting. Learning to switch, cover, adapt."
"Don has the quickest release of any college player in a long time," says Pete Newell, the Cleveland Cavalier scout at whose Big Man camp MacLean has studied. "Unfortunately, the NBA guys give a player labels that stick for a long time. Brad Daugherty was 'soft.' Michael Jordan was 'finesse.' They're not doing too badly. This kid jaws a lot and gives lip to the refs, so he's 'hard to coach.' But at camp he was a joy to work with."
"You can't instill the fire he has, says Newell's son, Tom, an assistant coach with the New Jersey Nets. "MacLean's in your face, like Rick Barry was, telling you he'll kick your ass if you're not ready. Plus, you got to love a white kid from L.A. who never has a tan."
Though MacLean grew up in white-bread Simi Valley, his basketball heritage is from summer ball and all-star games in the playgrounds of Los Angeles. It was there that he developed the strangely flat jump shot that he releases instantly after leaving the floor. Not that he gets much higher at the pinnacle of his, uh, leap. "I had to find some way to get my shot off against bigger, quicker guys," says MacLean, who also learned to sell his characteristic woof tickets in this milieu.
"Hey, our summer-league team one year was me and Don, Shawn Kemp, Chris Mills, Scan Higgins—some serious talkers, says Martin. (Kemp and Higgins are in the NBA; Mills, a junior at Arizona, is a sure bet to join them.) "Like we were supposed to go to college ball and turn into quiet guys?"