Time for Ben Howland to grow a backbone

December, 6, 2011
12/06/11
3:34
PM ET
Nelson/HowlandAP Photo/Danny MoloshokReeves Nelson, UCLA's leading scorer and rebounder from last season, has been suspended again.

There comes a point in every parent’s life where they stand at the line of the sand. It is time to put up or shut up.

The toy that you've threatened to take away has to, in fact, be taken away. The sleepover, play date, party, movie night, cell phone plan -- whatever the carrot dangling in exchange for good behavior -- has to be cancelled.

It’s called teaching the concept of consequences for your actions.

Right now, Ben Howland is standing at the line.

He’s just not strong enough to cross it.

UCLA announced on Tuesday that its star-crossed forward Reeves Nelson had been suspended from the team for "conduct unbecoming a member of the UCLA basketball team."

Again.

Three weeks ago, Howland suspended Nelson for the exact same reason, a one-game ban that Nelson took so seriously that he tweeted snide remarks after the Bruins’ blowout loss to Middle Tennessee State and then missed the team flight to Hawaii after he was reinstated.

Nelson’s punishment? He didn’t start in the Bruins’ game against Chaminade. Although he did play 11 minutes and got that nice trip to Maui.

On Saturday, Howland was so fed up with Nelson’s behavior that he benched him for the entire second half against Texas. Nelson, according to media reports, responded to his punishment by pointing to people in the crowd and giggling.

And now here we are again. Nelson has done something newly egregious, bad enough to earn yet another indefinite vacation from the Bruins.

Attention, Ben, this is reality calling: The message isn’t getting through.

[+] EnlargeBen Howland
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaIt's been a nightmare season for Ben Howland and the Bruins, who are off to a 2-5 start.
It’s time to call on that thing that holds your body upright.

You remember it ...

Your backbone.

It’s time to turn that suspension into a dismissal. Nelson is walking all over Howland, and in the process, trampling UCLA.

Coaches like to say they are more than just X’s and O’s guys -- that they shape men and teach life skills.

The only life skill Howland is giving to Nelson right now is that he who dribbles best can get away with pretty much anything. Howland told Los Angeles Times columnist T.J. Simers that he believes it is his responsibility to "help these guys."

It’s a noble motive. Everyone deserves a second chance.

But a third and a fourth and a fifth? There comes a point where there is a negative return on an investment and Howland is well beyond that point.

Howland is at the point now where he is at risk of losing the slim hold he has on the skidding 2-5 Bruins. What message, after all, does it send to the rest of the team when the coach keeps putting up with Nelson’s antics? This isn’t, after all, a guy who is known to be loosy-goosy and relaxed. Howland would script the layup lines if he could.

And now here he is, pretzeling himself, his principles and the very fabric that UCLA likes to say it’s built upon, for Nelson. It’s impossible not to interpret Howland’s inaction as desperation. The wheels are flying off at UCLA in rapid succession and Nelson is, when he’s not nuclear, a critical cog in the Bruins’ machine.

Without him, UCLA has a much slimmer chance of winning. And without winning, Howland has a much slimmer chance of holding on to his job.

But at what price?

This past weekend, I had a talk with a friend of mine, a longtime youth and middle-school coach. Coach Pete told me about a middle-school football team he coached a few years back. Nine starters, smart-alecks every one of them, exited the bus one day and walked right by all of the gear on the ground. The other players picked it up, dragging it into the locker room.

Coach Pete and his other coach looked at the starters and said simply: You’re not playing in the next game.

Remember this is middle school, where nine starters equate to 18 since the best kids play both ways.

“We told them, ‘We’d rather lose without you than win with you,’’ Coach Pete recalled.

The team did lose -- got killed, in fact, by a rival program that had never beaten them before.

A few years later, a kid -- not one of the troublemakers -- from that same team came by the school to talk to Coach Pete. He’d never become much of a football player, but he’d had some behavioral issues that he’d since grown out of.

He told his coach that he didn’t remember much about his middle school football career but he remembered that moment when his teammates were suspended. More, he remembered the lesson: There are consequences for your actions.

Reeves Nelson has to learn that.

More important, Ben Howland has to find the courage to teach it.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball

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