A recent stroll along Bruin Walk brought a baseball spring-training-like surge of optimism. It was warm and sunny, UCLA's campus buzzed with the energy of 20-year-olds and hope sprung eternal.
The football team is decent, but the basketball team is the franchise.
Like USC football, UCLA basketball is a community treasure. It gets the headlines now because John Wooden earned them years ago. Los Angeles may be gaga about the Lakers, but it will always have room in its heart — and expectations — for the Bruins to excel.
They haven't in recent years. The king of the mountain has somewhat vacated the top. After Ben Howland's run of three straight years in the NCAA Final Four — 2006, '07 and '08 — and a return each time without another title to go on the wall next to Wooden's 10, the road has gotten rough.
Howland is about to enter his 10th season as UCLA's coach, and he has had nine departures to the NBA in that time. They used to wait to graduate. Now they barely wait until April. Howland recruited the talent, taught it defense and was trampled by men in NBA-logoed sport coats and fat bank accounts. How do you keep them down on the farm when they can drive an Escalade?
Then, last year, a talented player named Reeves Nelson, notable for excessive tattoos and immaturity, kept Howland and the team unfocused and out of sorts before being asked to leave.
The UCLA faithful, exceedingly restless by then, blamed Howland for not being charismatic enough to outbid the Escalades, and for not practicing better psychology on Nelson.
Somehow, the recent visit felt as though the past was just that, that the clouds are starting to part. Spring-training illusion?
A renovated Pauley Pavilion, given a $136-million face-lift, will draw back the curtains for the Bruins' first home game Nov. 9. That will be against Indiana State, scheduled out of symbolism, not rivalry. Indiana State was Wooden's only other college job, before he came West in the late 1940s to create Bruins basketball legacy.
Before that opening game, UCLA will unveil a bronze statue of Wooden in the North Plaza. That will be Friday and will be directly outside Pauley, the house that Wooden built and opened in 1965.
The new Pauley, redone with donations certainly influenced by the knowledge that Wooden's legacy deserved this, is shiny and statuesque, with lots of tall glass pillars and a robust new look. Those who are allowed a sneak peek emerge with the same word: Wow.
In the 18 months that old Pauley was being turned into Taj Mahal Pauley, Bruins basketball was a collection of nomads. They played home games in other people's homes, most often at the downtown Sports Arena, which was a nice place as recently as, say, 1975.
"The hardest part," Howland says, "was practicing in the men's old gym [on campus]. It's like an echo chamber. You can't teach because they can't hear."
Travis Wear, who developed well last season and is expected to play a big role in any success the Bruins have this season, puts it more succinctly. "That was tough," he says.
On the day of our visit, the Bruins held their fifth practice. It was still in the men's old gym, but the glimmer at the end of the tunnel is now a floodlight. They move into new Pauley on Monday, and into spacious locker rooms, theater-style film rooms and a team room with big couches, leather chairs and TV screens on the wall. A major-college basketball powerhouse will finally have fitting digs.
Pac-12 Conference Commissioner Larry Scott has cut television deals that will fund conference schools like never before — $12 million a year to each school for the next 11 years.
"He's done a great job," Howland says. "We have our own Pac-12 Network, we have our games on Fox, and we will be on ESPN for 11 games and CBS for two."
There is still the shadow of the NCAA hovering. Two of Howland's top recruits, Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson, have yet to be released to play while the NCAA, either with grounds to look deeper or a desire to look tougher, reviews the eligibility of both.
"We are being patient and cooperative," says Howland, who has little other choice.
Barring a banning of Muhammad and/or Anderson — or even despite it — the feeling remains that this is the dawning of a new age of Bruins basketball success. Howland seems more relaxed, more flexible. Those allowed to watch practice say they see hints of a more wide-open offense.
At 55, Howland is a grandpa now. Little Ben is 6 months old, but if he ends up playing defense like his grandpa did, he will never acquire the nickname "Gentle Ben."
Howland holds Wooden sacred, as do all who have ever had a connection to UCLA basketball, and says, "Think of the thousands of students who will walk by the statue every day."
He says his only regret in nine years is not bringing home an NCAA title in one of his three Final Four trips. If he ever does so, it would make it 12 for the Bruins — one for Jim Harrick and 10 for Wooden.
Which would present a nice four-sided, equal-number display symmetry of banners in the house that Wooden built.