Column

These UCLA athletes are students too

Bruins have to take final exams during the NCAA tournament

The UCLA basketball players gathered in their tiny locker room here Friday afternoon looking like they had just endured a difficult test.

They stretched. They yawned. They rubbed their red eyes.

"Man, I'm glad that's over with," Tony Parker said.

"Really stressful, glad to be done with it," Gyorgy Goloman said.

Turns out, they weren't talking about the previous day's dramatic South Regional victory. Stunningly, they were actually talking about real tests.

Shortly after the UCLA players awoke Friday following their 60-59 victory over Southern Methodist, nearly half the team was herded into a converted suite at the nearby Hilton Gardens Inn to take UCLA's second-quarter final exams.

They were arranged at separate desks. They were monitored by proctor Veronica Rodriguez-Mora, a learning specialist from the school's athletic department. They were given tests similar to those given their fellow students back in Los Angeles, and allowed the same amount of time to complete them. Then they climbed on the bus and drove to the arena and attended practice in preparation for Saturday's round-of-32 game against Alabama Birmingham.

"That's pretty crazy, huh?" Goloman said.

And, oh yeah, it was the second such testing session for the Bruins here in the last three days, with 11 players taking tests, nearly the entire team.

"It's pretty nuts, actually," Kory Alford said.

It's actually pretty cool. It's these sorts of tests — not the ones on the court with millions watching — that have long quietly defined UCLA athletics.

The school is one of about 10% of the nation's universities — one of five in the Pac-12 — that operates on the quarter system instead of the semester system. This means that UCLA is that rare school whose athletes are often facing final exams during NCAA championships.

Rarer still, there is no university policy requiring professors to make concessions for student-athletes. When it comes to final exams, they are treated like any other student representing the university on an extracurricular trip. Professors insist that their student-athletes take those final exams on time, and in the allotted amount of time, which means the Bruins are often attempting to win a title with a pencil in their mouth and a book on their lap.

"It's who we are, and we're very proud of it," said Christina Rivera, UCLA's associate athletic director for Academic & Student Services. "At UCLA, student-athletes are students ahead of athletes."

This is not just talk. Hang around the Bruins teams during their championship trips and it's obvious that even some of this country's greatest college athletes are still school kids.

There have been women's softball players pulled out of the middle of games to take exams. There have been athletes who travel separately from the rest of the team to accommodate exams. Then there was softball star Megan Lagenfeld, who said the most interesting thing as she was being hugged by Rivera after hitting a walk-off homer in first game of 2010 Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City.

"Hey, what time is the econ exam tonight?" she said.

The Bruins basketball players know the feeling. They were studying for finals on the trip to Louisville, so much that the UCLA athletic department even tweeted out a photo of Norman Powell sitting on the plane while peering into a laptop. They have also been studying for finals since arriving here, several of them staying up until 2 a.m. after Thursday's win for some last-second cramming.

"I know this is the NCAA basketball tournament and all that, but you have to understand one thing, man," Parker said. "We are still in school."

Parker took two final exams here, one for a science class, another in paleontology, and if he looked exhausted while making a minimal contribution in the Bruins' win over SMU, who can blame him?

"The tests and the tournament are two totally different monsters, but there is way more pressure with the tests," Parker said. "You've been playing basketball your whole life, you have not been taking final exams on fossils your whole life."

The tests actually affect Coach Steve Alford's tournament practice plans. Unlike most other coaches, he has to guide his players through book fatigue.

"We have to be careful what we do with them physically because mentally they get worn out," Alford said.

But instead of complaining, the coach is celebrating, saying, "That's one of the reasons I wanted to come here, I know it's not just about excellence athletically, but excellence academically."

So how did the Bruins do on their tests?

Said Parker: "Let us pray, let us all pray."

Said Goloman of his economics final: "I have an idea, and I hope that idea is wrong."

One guy was certain he had just completed a slam dunk. Powell sat in front of his locker Friday afternoon bleary-eyed and giddy. He had just taken an art history final that he's sure he aced. If that's the case, he will have enough credits to graduate. It would be his final college exam.

"I ran out of that testing room like, 'I'm done, I'm out!" he said, smiling as if he had just cut down some nets. "It's hard to put into words. I still can't believe it. Man, I think I just finished college!"

Far from the court, far from the cynical perception of today's student-athlete, it was quite a moment. One might even say it was a shining one.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter: @billplaschke

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