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The creator of UCLA's iconic Frisbee Cheer fondly remembers when he did it his way

Is this a basketball? Is that the court? Is that the loooooosing team?

For most of the 40 seasons since he created UCLA’s iconic basketball cheer, Larry “Frisbee” Davis would feel affirmation in the earsplitting response of Bruins students inside Pauley Pavilion.

Yes, that’s a basketball. Yes, that’s the court. Yes, that’s the loooooosing team.

As he watched a student perform his cheer last month during a game against Arizona, Davis experienced considerably less pleasure. He felt his raucous delight had turned into a hollow version of itself.

“I’m sitting up there and the students are doing the cheer,” Davis said this week in a telephone interview, “and it’s terrible, absolutely terrible. Now the way they perform it, it’s an afterthought. It’s really an embarrassment. It’s nothing compared to what I started and what it became.”

The Frisbee Cheer has devolved, its inventor feels, into something more sterile and choreographed than originally intended. The student leading the cheer stands in one spot, holding a basketball aloft while facing a camera that projects his or her image onto the scoreboard video screen.

For the roughly 25 years he led the chant, first as a student and then as an alumnus, Davis preferred to face the students directly. He also enjoyed the freedom to roam the court, sprinting up to Larry Brown on the sideline the night Brown made his debut as Bruins coach in November 1979. Davis pointed at Brown before commencing an ad-libbed routine that played off the coach’s purported charm.

Is this Larry Brown? Is he our new coach? Does he have charisma?

Every part of the cheer Davis popularized now seems mundane to him.

“It’s depressing and it’s frustrating,” Davis said, “because I know how good it could be and I know how much fun everyone could have doing it if it were done properly.”

In the dozen or so years since he last regularly performed his cheer, Davis said he’s reached out to representatives of the Den, UCLA’s student athletics organization, in an effort to teach the nuances of the routine. Sometimes he’s gotten no response, he said, and other times he’s been told the students needed to go through the athletic department “and it goes nowhere.”

A UCLA spokesman said the current Den leadership had not been contacted other than receiving a forwarded email from Davis about his wanting to lead his old cheer at a game, something he last did with the school’s permission in 2011. The spokesman added that allowing a different student to perform the cheer at each game served as a tribute to Davis’ legacy, providing those students with their own memories of a lifetime.

Davis, who remains a constant presence at UCLA football and basketball games, wanted to make it clear that he’s not groveling.

“Remember now, I’m not going to go up to an 18-year-old kid and beg to do something that I started before his parents were born, OK?” said Davis, a longtime estate planning attorney based in Northridge. “I’m 61 years old. There comes a point where you say, ‘That’s it. The school knows how to reach me.’ ”

Davis was the one trying to reach his fellow students when he started the cheer as a UCLA undergraduate majoring in biochemistry. Interest in the school’s basketball team had waned a bit in the two years after legendary coach John Wooden retired, with attendance at Pauley Pavilion dipping about 1,000 fans per game from Wooden’s final season in 1974-75.

Davis got the idea while watching Pepperdine water polo players perform a similar cheer in support of their school’s volleyball team during a match against UCLA. He later learned it had been performed previously at a Pepperdine swim meet, where a student stood up and asked, “Are those the starting blocks? Is that a diving board?”

Davis did something that made the cheer entirely his own. He copyrighted it.

The unveiling of the cheer at Pauley Pavilion during the 1976-77 season was modest, Davis starting with a small group of classmates before it quickly mushroomed to the entire student section. Davis was soon given access to the court, allowing him to engage the whole crowd.

“Every once in a while,” Davis said, “I was able to get the alumni into it and that made it really fun when you could get 10,000 or 12,000 people doing it.”

Davis took his cheer to football and baseball games as well as track meets. He made use of various props, dressing in a robe and wheeling a 5-foot-tall oil derrick into Pauley Pavilion for a game against the rival Trojans during the 1979-80 season after the shah of Iran had given millions of dollars to USC. Bruins star David Greenwood later told Davis that it was the first time he had ever stopped warming up before a game to watch a cheer.

Davis earned his nickname by continually toting a Frisbee along to pass the time during the long wait to acquire student tickets. He said he has student ticket No. 1 for Wooden’s final game in 1975 in San Diego. He never got to ask Wooden what he thought of his cheer but can guess what the mannerly coach would have told him.

“I suspect when you start pointing to the losing team,” Davis said, “he’d probably say something like, ‘That’s not too cool.’”

Over the years, Davis said, the school increasingly placed restrictions on his routine that pushed him away. He stopped doing it around the time the Den was formed in 2003, when a different student was designated to perform the cheer each game.

The cheer’s legacy seems secure. A video of an impromptu Frisbee Cheer being performed at UCLA’s national championship game against Florida in 2006 can be found on YouTube, and players still savor hearing it in the minutes before tipoff.

“I really do love that chant,” UCLA junior forward Thomas Welsh said. “It kind of gets me fired up to go out there and hopefully fulfill the expectations of making them the losing team and us coming out the winning team.”

Davis enjoyed one last hurrah in 2011, when he received permission to lead the cheer at a time when his oldest son was a UCLA junior. It was the first time his son had seen him perform the routine as an adult.

“I walked back to my son and I said, ‘Well, so, what do you think? How do you think your old man did?’” Davis recalled. “And he said, ‘That was pretty good, Dad.’ Two girls behind him said, ‘Frisbee’s your father?’ I don’t know if he got any dates out of it, but it was pretty funny.”

Davis said he planned to attend UCLA’s game against USC on Saturday at Pauley Pavilion, though not in the capacity he would prefer, having felt he was nudged aside by school officials.

“Some of them don’t recognize a good thing when they have it and to leverage history and tradition properly,” Davis said, “but I’m not in charge and because I’m not in charge, I don’t have a voice in that. I just do my thing and I’ll be at the game against ’SC on Saturday, hidden somewhere up in the crowd being a fan.”

ben.bolch@latimes.com

Twitter: @latbbolch

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