Freshman hazing is an innocuous yet curiously elusive concept on the UCLA basketball team. After a preseason practice in early November, all five of the Bruins freshmen—the consensus choice as the country's best recruiting class—were herded into the team's Pauley Pavilion locker room and forced to dance in front of a video camera to the song How Deep Is Your Love by Dru Hill and Redman. Production problems developed as soon as the camera started rolling. "Everybody started gettin' busy, not just the freshmen," says sophomore guard Baron Davis, whose unplanned boogying cast him in the odd role of hazing himself.
Such confusion is understandable when 12 of your team's 14 players—and all the regulars—are either freshmen or sophomores. The baby Bruins have less experience than any other Division I school except Southwestern Louisiana, and in November they played like it, losing to Maryland and Kentucky in the Puerto Rico Shootout. Since then, however, UCLA has squeezed off eight straight wins, including home victories over No. 6 Arizona last Saturday (82-75) and Arizona State on Monday (88-85, in overtime). In so doing the Bruins ran their record to 10-2, lifted their ranking to No. 7 and established themselves as a team that, with some sorely needed maturity, could contend for the national title. "We're not ready to accept the fact that we're young, and therefore we'll be ready a couple of years down the road," says third-year coach Steve Lavin. "We think we're capable of winning it all this year."
That will depend on the development of the most talented freshman class since (Warning: hype approaching) Michigan's Fab Five. While 6'3" guard Ray Young and 6'7" forward Matt Barnes have contributed as reserves, three other first-year players—Dan Gadzuric, JaRon Rush and Jerome Moiso—have spent most of the season in Lavin's starting lineup. Gadzuric, a 6'10", 245-pound center from The Hague, the Netherlands, has averaged 8.4 points and 5.7 rebounds even though he has been hobbled by tendinitis in both knees. Gadzuric played soccer until he was 13, when he took up basketball to make better use of his great "length," as he puts it. "I had no idols," he says. "We didn't get any basketball games on TV, and I spent a lot of time playing by myself." He found companionship on the court by spending three years in Byfield, Mass., where he was a McDonald's All-America at Governor Dummer Academy.
Then there's Rush, UCLA's highly touted 6'6" forward from the Pembroke Hill School in Kansas City, Kans. Rush has started seven games for the Bruins, averaging 11.9 points despite suffering from a sore back and, it turned out, a serious bout of homesickness. Dru Hill has another song, called One Good Reason, which was exactly what Rush didn't have when he stayed home in Kansas City after Christmas break, missing two practices and the Bruins' 92-67 victory on Dec. 29 over Loyola Marymount. Rush said that he had been late for his Dec. 28 plane to L.A. and that instead of simply catching the next flight, he returned home to his family and began enjoying himself so much that he spent the next two days there. After a three-hour conversation with Rush when he returned to UCLA on the 30th, Lavin suspended him for the Arizona game, saying, "I've got to find a balance of tough love and understanding."
Gadzuric and Rush were expected to be at the head of the Bruins' class of 2002, but the surprise of the year has been Moiso (mo-EE-so), a 6'11", 230-pound forward who at week's end was leading UCLA with 13.7 points and 6.8 rebounds a game while showing off a dazzling array of offensive skills: a virtually unblockable turnaround jumper, a deadly hook and a lefthanded, roof-scraping outside shot. He popped for 25 in the 66-62 loss to Kentucky, the highest output this season for a Bruins freshman.
Moiso grew up in Guadeloupe, the French Caribbean territory that has produced such athletes as Marie-Jos� P�rec, the gold-medal-winning sprinter at the 1992 and '96 Olympics, and World Cup '98 soccer star Lilian Thuram. He took up basketball at age 13, playing on an outdoor asphalt court in his hometown of Abymes. "The impact of the Dream Team was what got me interested," Moiso says in his rolling French accent. Soon he was discovered by Georges Bengaber, a member of the French basketball federation, who invited him to join Bamelot, Bengaber's club team in Guadeloupe.
Bengaber taught him the fundamentals well enough that by age 14 Moiso made a French Caribbean all-star team that traveled to France for a series of games. There, officials from the National Institute of Sport spotted him and offered him a chance to come to their academy, where he honed his skills against the country's top young players from 1994 to '97.
Although he has played for both the French junior and senior teams, Moiso has mixed feelings about France. Born in Paris, he moved immediately to Guadeloupe with his mother, Anick, who works in Abymes as a nurse. Jerome feels no attachment to his father, who lives on the mainland. It's worth noting that when France played Brazil in last year's World Cup soccer final, Moiso was rooting for Brazil even though he watched the game on a bus in Italy with the French junior team.
It was in Orlando, at the 1997 Nike Hoop Summit, which pitted an international all-star team against a team of U.S. high school stars, that Moiso first met UCLA assistant coach Jim Saia. Before committing to the Bruins, Moiso spent a postgrad semester at Milford ( Conn.) Academy last year to improve his SAT score, but his game, like Gadzuric's, retains a Continental flavor. "They're more agile than most big men you see here," says Davis. "Dan is a center, and he's one of the fastest guys on the team, and Jerome has so many moves, it's scary."
Even so, neither Gadzuric nor Moiso started against Arizona—Lavin sat them for taking off practice earlier in the week with what he considered minor maladies—and yet by the time they had both come off the bench, with 16:13 to play in the first half, UCLA led 13-4. Before long they were displaying the agility that Davis had talked about. On one play Bruins sophomore guard Earl Watson attempted a lob pass to Gadzuric. Realizing that the ball was thrown too high, Gadzuric wheeled to face the basket, caught the ball off the glass and then went up and dunked it.