Seeing red — literally — over UCLA basketball

Ben Howland and the Bruins are lurching through another awkward season, and it doesn't help when UCLA fans are outnumbered at the Wooden Classic, of all places.

Saturday night, the glass got thinner in the fishbowl where Ben Howland lives.

What he does for a living is about as private as a tweet by Donald Trump. He coaches UCLA's basketball team. One of his predecessors was John Wooden and his 10 NCAA titles. That's all you need to know.

Howland's life is as quiet and predictable as the 405 Freeway on a Friday afternoon. Expectations for him were set in stone in March 1975, when Wooden won the last of those titles. Howland was two months away from turning 18.

You don't fill Wooden's shoes. You just do your best to keep them polished. The joy and wonder of greatness can also be the scourge of those contracted to reprise it.

Howland is paid roughly $2 million per year to teach men in their late teens to pick-and-roll and screen out on the boards. So this is no ode of pity, nor would he want one.

Saturday night at the Honda Center, Howland's once nationally ranked No. 11 team lost a game that was revealing and unsettling on several fronts.

Not only was the winner the other guys, a San Diego State team that, while recently very good, has never had, nor even pondered having, a UCLA swagger. But this game that was played in Anaheim, in UCLA's metro area and the site of four victories and no defeats last season as the Bruins floated from one borrowed home to another while Pauley Pavilion was being renovated, was called the Wooden Classic. The name alone makes it UCLA's house. Teams in other uniforms are visitors, no matter how short the drive.

And then San Diego State, both team and fans, stormed the gates and captured the fort.

Frankly, it was startling to see and difficult to explain. The attendance was 17,204, and the support from the sections in Bruins blue resembled, in voice and size, church mice. This was no rout. San Diego State won, 78-69, and it was hard not to wonder whether the rabid sections in red weren't worth, say, about nine points.

Howland admitted afterward, as diplomatically as he could, that it was to San Diego State's credit, as well as a bit startling, for the Bruins to play a Wooden Classic game in a hostile environment. He didn't complain. He just expressed amazement.

His counterpart, the sage and veteran Steve Fisher, addressed the obvious, rather than plunging the needle.

"I am proud," Fisher said, "of the way our fans have allowed us to grow our program."

San Diego State plays its home games at Viejas (formerly Cox) Arena. All 12,414 seats have been sold for all games.

In this one, UCLA's fan support was token, at best. Maybe it was the hives that so many people from the Westside acquire just thinking about driving south on the 5 Freeway. Maybe it was UCLA's stunning defeat six days earlier to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. How in the name of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar could that happen?

Or maybe it was general sports fatigue, this game coming the night after the Bruins football team played for the Pac-12 Conference title in Palo Alto.

Then there was the item in the paper about the selection process between Oregon State and UCLA for whichever Nobody-Really-Cares bowl game the Bruins would get. It said Oregon State might have the edge in bowl choice because "UCLA fans don't travel well."

Obviously, that includes the 5 Freeway south to Anaheim.

Surely, the measure of a great university is not how its alums and backers support its sports teams. There are millions in the greater Los Angeles area who contribute to the quality of life in Southern California thanks to the quality of their UCLA education.

But Wooden's legacy, as special as any in sport, should be transcendent. Whoever is the caretaker of that should not have to carry on with a support deficit on his home court.

Howland is not above reproach.

The departure of his players keeps drawing big headlines and that always seems to reflect badly on the coach, as if the guy teaching Xs and O's also ought to be part Sigmund Freud.

Howland dislikes playing zone defense, always has, teaches man-to-man toughness as well as anybody in the country and then this season starts playing mostly zone. He says it is because his team "is not super athletic." That raises the question of whether a coach adapts to the players or the players better adapt to the coach. Who is the adult and who are the children?

Howland was hired by UCLA because he made Pittsburgh into a tough, fundamentally sound, full-energy team. They were not "super athletic." They didn't run a lot of pretty, figure-eight fastbreaks or try to shoot every seven seconds. Pittsburgh fans didn't get Showtime, just a lot of wins. Bruins fans, often led by the media, seem to want to make ballet dancers out of freight trains.

Howland is under contract through the 2014-15 season. This, of course, is the age of solving all problems by firing the coach. That makes Howland's earlier departure possible, although unlikely, partly because UCLA lives the cliche of throwing nickels around like manhole covers.

Still, he is certainly under the microscope and knows full well that is part of the deal.

But were he to fail, which is unlikely, it would be nice if there were at least a few people dressed in blue on hand as it happens.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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