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NOT THE UCLA BRUINS WAY
GEORGE DOHRMANN
March 05, 2012
AFTER THREE STRAIGHT TRIPS TO THE FINAL FOUR, BEN HOWLAND'S BRUINS UNEXPECTEDLY BEGAN TO STRUGGLE. FORMER PLAYERS AND STAFF MEMBERS TELL A CAUTIONARY TALE OF HOW DISCIPLINE PROBLEMS AND MISTAKES IN JUDGMENT CAN SABOTAGE EVEN A STORIED PROGRAM
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March 05, 2012

Not The Ucla Bruins Way

AFTER THREE STRAIGHT TRIPS TO THE FINAL FOUR, BEN HOWLAND'S BRUINS UNEXPECTEDLY BEGAN TO STRUGGLE. FORMER PLAYERS AND STAFF MEMBERS TELL A CAUTIONARY TALE OF HOW DISCIPLINE PROBLEMS AND MISTAKES IN JUDGMENT CAN SABOTAGE EVEN A STORIED PROGRAM

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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."

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