Bruins' Steve Alford can count on a coaching forebear: his dad, Sam

As Steve Alford leads UCLA, a team that's grown closer, he can look to his own coach dad, Bill Plaschke finds

The phone rings at 2 a.m. in a lakefront home in a wooded hamlet in southern Indiana.

The old coach smiles. He's been waiting for the call. He picks it up and hears a voice that's been in his ear for 50 years, going from the squeal of a child to the baritone of a Bruin.

The old coach is being called by the younger coach. The father is being called by the son. The UCLA basketball program builds through their words.

"Hey, Dad," says Steve Alford.

"That was some game," says Sam Alford.

"You sure you don't want to go to sleep and talk in the morning?" says Steve.

"Talk now," says Sam.

They talk now. They talk always. They talk after every game, no matter the time, UCLA Coach Steve Alford and the man who coached him in high school.

"He's just watched the game on TV and he's like, 'What are we doing here? We have to work on this,'" says Steve.

"He needs me, I'm there," says Sam.

Then they hang up the phone and Sam calls his grandsons, Bruins players Bryce and Kory, and talks about the game with them. Three generations of the Alford family stretch deep into the night.

"Our close family, our Bruin family, it all comes from the same place, it all starts with Big Sam," said Kory.

And so it will continue Friday when UCLA plays Gonzaga in the NCAA basketball tournament's Sweet 16, a most unlikely Bruins team fueled by a bond that has held tight through a rocky season and a glorious spring.

The creator will be somewhere in the stands sitting next to his bride of 52 years, Alford's mother, Sharan. They will be part of a large and loud Alford clan that includes Steve's wife, Tanya, and daughter, Kayla. The group could be seen on national television sitting directly behind the bench for the tournament's first weekend in Louisville, unabashedly hooting and hollering and ... mumbling?

"Yeah, Sam likes to mumble at the referees," said Sharan.

"It's funny, I can actually hear some of his sarcastic remarks from the bench," said Steve.

"That's when I elbow him and tell him to be quiet," said Sharan.

Afterward the group gathered outside the locker room in a display of family that the UCLA players now recognize as their own. They file past to shake Big Sam's hand. They marvel at the enduring closeness between the aging father and grown son.

"We got through all the tough times this year because Coach Alford turned us into a family," said Norman Powell. "You can see that in everything he does."

Steve laughs and shrugs. Of course he wants his parents around him. Wouldn't anyone?

"I love it," he said. "I'm here today because of my mom and dad. I'm blessed to be able to include them in all of it."

As the Bruins have grown bigger this spring, they've actually gotten smaller.

As Hollywood's team has captured larger headlines, it's become more apparent that this is really a small-town Indiana operation, John Wooden's Bruins acting more like Gene Hackman's Hoosiers.

"It really hit me when I was coming to the bench late in the Alabama Birmingham game," said Bryce. "I look over at the bench and there's my father, my brother, my mom, my sister, my grandparents, my uncle, my cousins, everybody, like we're all really here."

The other Bruins see the same thing. With Steve setting the example of the unselfish family man, his team has followed his lead into the Sweet 16 by sharing the ball and the glory. It's that rare selfless Los Angeles sports team that doesn't seem to care who gets the credit.

"This is about family, man," said center Tony Parker.

When Alford and his father are not talking on the phone, they talk in arena hallways or offices, as Steve's parents have been at 16 games this season, from the Bahamas to Tuscaloosa to Las Vegas to Louisville.

During one monthlong stretch each of the past two winters, Alford's parents have stayed with him in his Calabasas home; Sam comes to campus with Steve at 6:30 a.m. and spends all day with his son, either sitting at a little desk in his office, hanging out at coach's meetings, or watching practice.

"I look at Steve and think, wow, he really wants his mom and dad around this much?" said Sharan. "You don't find that a lot."

Sam is 72, but he occasionally reminds his family of his legendary free-throw shooting prowess on their backyard goal. Sam hasn't worked a sideline in years, yet he reminds Steve of his vision by watching endless game replays and offering insight.

"I'll get a call from my mom and she'll say, 'Your father just watched the UAB game for the fourth time!'" said Steve.

"I try not to meddle, but sometimes I just can't get the coach out of me," said Sam.

That coach spent 31 years leading Indiana high school basketball teams, most notably New Castle Chrysler High, where he helped Steve become Mr. Basketball and earn a spot on an eventual national championship team at Indiana. Sam went 452-245, was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, and will serve as its president this year.

When Steve was in high school, Sam was offered an assistant coaching job at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee. It was his chance to capitalize on the endless, underpaid hours spent teaching kids in relative anonymity. Yet because he wanted to coach his son through high school, he turned it down.

He was never given another chance, yet he's never had a single regret.

"If I had to do it over again, I would do the same thing, because to me, life is all about being with your family and raising your kids," Sam said.

Steve has never forgotten that sacrifice. He gave his father his 1984 Olympic gold medal, but he's since given him much more. When Steve became a college coach, he brought his father along, hiring him as an assistant during a 12-year span at Missouri State and Iowa. His father finally retired, but Steve wouldn't let him out of his sight, and now he's become as much a part of the Bruins basketball program as those half-court shooting games his son arranges after practices.

"Because of me, he never got the opportunity to be a college coach," said Steve with a grin. "And now we're doing it together at UCLA? Can you believe that?"

Once this year, after one of the Bruins' 9 p.m. games stretched toward midnight, Steve didn't call Sam. He figured it was 3 a.m. back in Indiana, way too late for even his biggest fan. Then suddenly he received a text. Yeah, it was the old coach.

"Call me," texted Sam.

"Dad, you've got to go to bed," texted Steve.

"Call me," texted Sam.

And so he called, and so they talked, the old coach nestled in the woods, the younger coach driving the 101 Freeway, UCLA basketball returning to glory, one father-son chat at a time.

Twitter: @billplaschke

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