Nelson often reacted to hard fouls or calls against him in practice by committing violent acts against teammates. He did not deny to SI that he would stalk his targets, even running across the court, away from a play, to hit someone.
Once, Nelson got tangled up with forward James Keefe while going for a rebound. Keefe was playing with a surgically repaired left shoulder, and Nelson pulled down suddenly on Keefe's left arm. That reinjured Keefe's shoulder, and he missed several weeks. Later in the season Nelson hacked walk-on Alex Schrempf, the son of former NBA player Detlef Schrempf, from behind on a breakaway, knocking Schrempf to the ground. The back injury Schrempf suffered sidelined him for months. In another workout Nelson threw an elbow at Lane after the whistle, injuring Lane's ribs.
Walk-on Tyler Trapani was another Nelson victim. After Trapani took a charge that negated a Nelson dunk, Nelson went out of his way to step on Trapani's chest as he lay on the ground. Trapani is John Wooden's great-grandson. (Nelson confirmed all these incidents to SI and expressed his regret, saying, "On all that stuff, I have no trouble admitting that I lost control of my emotions sometimes. I take responsibility for my actions. I'm really just trying to learn from the mistakes I made on all levels.")
After each of the incidents, Howland looked the other way. One team member says he asked Howland after a practice why he wasn't punishing Nelson, to which he said Howland responded, "He's producing."
But at what cost? Nelson was hardly the player around whom to build a team. He was a classic bully, targeting teammates who weren't as athletically gifted as he and tormenting the support staff. At the end of practice, he would punt balls high up into the stands at Pauley Pavilion, turn to the student managers and say, "Fetch." Nelson frequently talked back to the assistant coaches. When they told him to stop, he would remark, "That's how Coach Howland talks to you."
Many players say Howland degraded his assistants, but only Nelson used that as license to treat the assistants with disrespect. Donny Daniels, a member of Howland's staff since Howland arrived in Westwood, would leave after the season to take the same job at Gonzaga. One player says that when he asked Daniels why he was departing, Daniels kiddingly responded that if he had to coach Nelson for one more season, he would kill himself. (Daniels, through his lawyer, denied making that statement.)
Nelson showed Howland only slightly more respect. By his own admission, he often ignored the head coach's phone calls, and Howland resorted to calling one of Nelson's roommates, asking him to coax Nelson onto the line.
When asked by SI why he didn't discipline Nelson, Howland said in a statement: "I firmly believe in the philosophy of giving all of my players the chance to do things the right way. There have been challenges with some student-athletes during my tenure here at UCLA, and we have utilized plenty of resources to help them, the specifics of which very few people would know anything about."
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."