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Walt Hazzard's memory alive, well

2/23/2012
Courtesy of Nick Koza

LOS ANGELES -- About an hour before the opening tip, Jacob Hazzard goes through his pregame routine. Sitting alone in the corner of the locker room and seemingly collecting his thoughts, the senior from Los Angeles Loyola pulls out a pen and writes No. 42 on his shoes.

The digits are significant to him, of course. They hold a spot close to his heart.

No. 42 adorned the jersey of his grandfather, the late Walt Hazzard, during his days in college at UCLA and the NBA thereafter. It's the younger Hazzard's way of not only paying homage to the patriarch of the family, but preparing himself mentally and physically for the task at hand.

“Not a day goes by without me thinking about my grandfather," Jacob Hazzard said. "We always called him Papa. He was a great man, a person worth remembering at all times.''

Walt Hazzard died Nov. 18 at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. He was 69. He had suffered a stroke in 1996 and endured complications following heart surgery. The loss hit the family hard, to be sure, and was felt throughout the basketball community.

Grandfather's memory lives on, nonetheless. Grandson would not have it any other way.

“Papa was a big influence, a role model, to many people all over the world, not just me,'' Hazzard said. “Growing up, I was like a sponge and tried to soak up all of his knowledge, both on and off the court. He was always there for me, for everyone in our family. I think most knew about him as the great Walt Hazzard. But not many people got to see the grandfather side.

“It was really tough for me when he died. The gym, the basketball court, has been my sanctuary ever since that day. It's the place I have gone to escape and remember all of the good times we had together. It's the place that makes me feel like he's smiling down on me.''

With basketball obviously in his blood, Hazzard appears to be following a path eerily similar to that of his well-known namesake. The 5-foot-10 guard is a key contributor for the Cubs (23-4 overall), who are No. 4 in the ESPNLosAngeles.com top 20 rankings. Hazzard & Co. travel to Upland on Friday night for a Southern Section Division 1AA quarterfinal showdown.

He has been largely, though not solely responsible for Loyola's success this season. A three-year varsity member, Hazzard recently took a major step forward and is one of three individuals scoring in double digits. Julian Harrell and Parker Jackson-Cartwright are the others.

Hazzard averages 12.3 points per game. He is shooting 41 percent from out beyond the 3-point arc and boasts an impressive 86 percent clip from the free-throw line. Far from a one dimensional player, Hazzard also averages a pair of assists, rebounds and steals.

“Jacob stretches defenses with his jumper, he keeps opponents honest,'' Cubs coach Jamal Adams said. “He's more than just a shooter though. I have no problems asking him to guard the other team's best player. He is always up for a challenge. As a coach, those are the players you want on your team. I wish I had some more players like Jacob Hazzard in a Loyola uniform.

“Walt Hazzard was at plenty of our games to see his grandson play in the past and there was pressure on Jacob because of that, I think. When you have someone in your family with a great basketball mind, it's a blessing and a curse. I commend Jacob though. He has gone about things the right way. He doesn't want any handouts. He works as hard as anyone that I know.''

College coaches and scouts are well aware of Hazzard and his exploits. He has been on the recruiting radar since his days as an up-and-coming sophomore.

Tulane and Colgate are among the handful of schools expressing varied levels of interest. No program, however, has yet offered him a scholarship.

With his future a bit unclear at this stage, more than a few programs from the Division II and III ranks have recently been in contact with Hazzard. A decision about his final destination for the next four years figures to be made after the season is over.

“Jacob is one of the more underrated guards in Southern California,'' said Joel Francisco, an analyst for ESPN Recruiting. “He's undersized but can play Division I ball because of his shooting prowess and ability to guard ones. He's ready for a step up in competition.''

Whether that happens remains to be seen. Nevertheless, Hazzard is taking steps in the right direction. And he has had the opportunity to do so this season and potentially take his game to the next level with his younger brother by his side from start to finish.

Max Hazzard is a freshman guard for the Cubs and has emerged as a reliable option off the bench in the last month. He scored a career-high 13 points in his last game, in fact. Much like his older sibling, the underclassman has his own process of honoring his grandfather.

“I write Walt Haz on my shoes,'' Max Hazzard said. “Papa meant a lot to me and my brother, the whole family, he was our everything. We want to keep the legacy going.''

And what a legacy it was.

Walt Hazzard was the starting point guard on John Wooden's first national championship team at UCLA in 1964. The Bruins defeated Duke in the finals, 98-83. Later in the year, he was a member of the U.S. Olympic basketball team that won a gold medal in Tokyo.

The Lakers made Hazzard the first pick in the 1964 NBA draft. He played in Los Angles for three seasons before heading to Seattle in the 1967 expansion draft. Atlanta, Buffalo and Golden State were pit-stops along the way before he retired with Seattle in 1974.

Hazzard returned to UCLA as coach from 1984 to '88. A stint as a Lakers scout followed and he was a special consultant with the team at the time of his death.

“When you think about it, Papa did so many special things in his lifetime, I'm just trying to keep his tradition alive, that's why his No. 42 is on my shoes each time I step out on the court,'' Jacob Hazzard said. “He might be gone, but my grandfather will never be forgotten.''

Sean Ceglinsky covers preps for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.