Commentary

Repairing the great disconnect at UCLA

What Bruins had here was a failure to communicate, but past guidance can fix future

Updated: March 1, 2012, 11:28 AM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com


"It isn't what you do, but how you do it." — John Wooden


LOS ANGELES -- Somewhere deep down, we all knew it was naive to think John Wooden's words and legacy were enough to influence all who would be granted the privilege of playing in the house he built at UCLA.

To think that "Coach" could mean as much to a bunch of 18- and 19-year-old kids as he did to the wider world that admired him and his teachings so reverentially.

And, sadly, to think that even those, such as UCLA coach Ben Howland, who care most deeply about Wooden and his legacy would always be able to live up to it.

[+] EnlargeBen Howland and Reeves Nelson
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/US PresswireBruins coach Ben Howland and dismissed player Reeves Nelson are central to an exposť on poor character evaluation of players at UCLA.

For many, that innocent illusion was shattered Wednesday by Sports Illustrated reporter George Dohrmann's detailed account of the dysfunction, lack of discipline and selfish behavior that had torpedoed the UCLA Bruins basketball program the past few years in the aptly titled, "Not the UCLA way."

For me, it ended about a year ago.

Tyler Trapani, Wooden's great-grandson who had walked on to the team three years earlier, scored what will go down as the final basket inside Pauley Pavilion before it was remodeled and modernized.

It felt both poetic and a little bit magical. Instead of goodbye, it felt like "Hello, again." The old coach, who had passed away at the age of 99 eight months earlier, flashing one last twinkle in his eye.

After the game, Trapani was brought into the postgame news conference. Howland was emotional just thinking about the symbolism.

"I pray a lot," Howland said, clasping his hands together and choking back emotion once again. "And … to have Trapani make that last shot … it means so much to me, you have no idea.

"You couldn't have written it any better."

But, while the majority of people in the room were enthralled by the story and the moment, Trapani's teammates seemed untouched by it:

Center Josh Smith, forward Tyler Honeycutt and Reeves Nelson -- the subject of some of Dohrmann's most damning anecdotes -- were slapping each other under the desk, Smith pulled off his elbow sleeve and stuck it in Honeycutt's face, and they all laughed quietly as if they were goofing off in the back of a large lecture hall.

I remember chalking up the incident as another sign of immaturity from one of the most immature group of players I've covered -- at any level.

Howland completely ignored it, although I can't say whether he addressed it in private later. The team's public relations director rolled his eyes and mentioned that he would speak with the players about it later.

But the incident is a lot simpler than that, just as Dohrmann's epic narrative can be whittled down to a pretty essential truth:

Everyone involved with the UCLA basketball program -- whether it's Howland, who genuinely cares deeply about Wooden and his legacy, or the players who behaved badly or didn't do enough to stop such behavior -- has failed to live up to the Wooden standard, which is the very thing that makes UCLA special and different from other programs across the country.

Perhaps that standard was never fair in the first place. The reaction of many of the people in the basketball world I spoke with today, in the NBA and at the collegiate levels, was tantamount to a cynical shrug. This kind of behavior does, indeed, go on at every program in America.

It's just that we thought, or at least hoped, UCLA was different. That Wooden made the Bruins different, made them better, kept them above the fray.

His words have become a moral compass for UCLA's players, coaches and administrators. Howland carries a book of Wooden's observations with him almost everywhere he goes.

"What Would Wooden Do?" isn't just a cute saying on T-shirts; it's become a Socratic method.

In their opening remarks addressing the controversy Wednesday afternoon, both UCLA chancellor Gene Block and athletic director Dan Guerrero made reference to Wooden or the standard of behavior and character Wooden established at UCLA that the Bruins have internalized so deeply.

"Because of this rich legacy, we hold ourselves to a higher standard," Block said. "John Wooden taught us that it's not only important to take pride in our achievements but also to take pride in how we live our lives."

It's fine to claim that -- admirable, even -- but it's an entirely different thing to live up to it. And it's disingenuous to hide behind it.

What's clear from the salacious and damaging details unearthed in Dohrmann's article is that Wooden's words and lessons did not penetrate as deeply as anyone would expect or hope.

Howland and his players must share in the blame. Yes, ultimately the buck stops with the coach. But it's just as naive to excuse the actions of the players in question. At some point, you are responsible for yourself.

What UCLA must determine now is whether Howland simply failed to connect at a meaningful level with this group of players or whether he will have problems connecting in the future.

As Wooden himself said, "A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment."

Howland has been able to do that successfully in the past, at UCLA and at his previous stops. This three-year downturn feels like an aberration caused by poor choices and evaluations in recruiting.

Howland recruited and signed a bunch of players who proved unfit to play in John Wooden's house. At best, he probably spent too much time trying to rehabilitate them. At worst, he sold out ethically to keep these troubled players around because some of them (read: Nelson) were productive.

Howland and Guerrero both admit that they didn't put enough weight on character evaluation with these top recruits from the now-infamous 2008 class and that they have made it a focal point of the past two classes.

"There's no question I've made mistakes along the way when you look at recruiting in terms of evaluations of players or character, in an instance or two," Howland said. "This is not to be taken with all our players. I think for the most part we've been very blessed and had great kids.

"I would say that there's no question we've really worked hard these last two recruiting classes to make sure we're recruiting great kids."

You wonder how Howland could've missed these character flaws in the recruiting process. Was he looking more closely at how highly these players were rated? Did he feel pressure to simply land the top kids after three Final Four runs in his first four years?

Whatever the case, he lost himself. He got away from what made him successful in the past. Got away from the types of players who relate and respond to him.

Howland and the Bruins deserve blame for allowing these problems to fester for so long. They also deserve some praise for admitting to them and trying to deal with them. Most of the players mentioned by name in the article have either left early or been dismissed from the program. Only senior Jerime Anderson remains from that ill-fated 2008 class. Although he clearly had behavioral problems his first few seasons and made an awful decision when he stole a laptop last year, by all accounts, he has grown into something of a team leader as a senior.

That story is of little consolation to the millions of Bruins fans disappointed by the failings of their program the past few seasons.

But it reminds us that UCLA has arrived at a critical moment, not a critical impasse.

There is a way forward from here. This time, UCLA should look to Wooden for guidance, not celebration.

"Adversity is the state in which man mostly easily becomes acquainted
with himself, being especially free of admirers then."
— John Wooden


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