On an afternoon filled with tuxedoed ushers, tap-dancing performers and anonymous players, a lovely bit of old-fashioned college basketball broke out.
His name is Norman Powell. He wears his simple striped socks low on his high-top sneakers. He wears a Bible verse on his right biceps. Neither of which is as unique as the four letters that also adorn his body.
For four years, he has worn UCLA across his chest.
"An old man," said teammate Tony Parker.
"A blessing," said teammate Bryce Alford.
A glittering anomaly is what he is, a former prep superstar who chose not to chase the NBA until he was ready, a powerful athlete who actually believed the real strength could be found in four years on a college campus.
After the Bruins defeated USC, 96-70, in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Thursday afternoon, Powell was asked whether he realized those years are finally coming to an end.
He paused. He knows. He smiled.
"I'm just trying to go out there and have as much fun as I can," he said. "I know this is my last run, and I'm trying to leave everything on the floor."
Powell was all over the floor Thursday in a game that gave him a lifetime 9-1 record against USC, and has any Bruins basketball player ever beat them more? While Isaac Hamilton's out-of-body experience stole the headlines —– the kid scored 36 points — it was once again Powell who provided the bookends.
It was his steal and fastbreak dunk that gave the Bruins a 15-13 lead they never lost. Then he finished it in the final six minutes with a dunk while being hammered by USC's Elijah Stewart. The shot was officially recorded as a layup because the ball briefly bounced off the rim, but judging from the screaming Bruins fans and leaping Bruins player, yeah, it was a dunk.
"Every time I try to dunk, I try to dunk the ball as hard as I can, change the momentum of the game, bring it to the crowd and my team," said Powell, a 6-foot-4 guard.
Watching him bring it has been one of the consistent joys of this inconsistent season, which will probably end without an NCAA tournament bid if the Bruins do not beat national title contender Arizona tonight in the tournament semifinals here. A spot in the NIT, despite its immense disappointment, might at least give the Bruins one more game at Pauley Pavilion, giving fans one more chance to say goodbye to one of the few Bruins stars in recent history to truly deserve a farewell.
Powell has thus far played in every game during those four years, the first Bruin to do so in a four-year career since Jason Kapono from 1999 to 2003. He has played with a dislocated finger, a dislocated thumb, a painful hip pointer, and one game in Seattle when he woke up that morning with a raging flu. Fittingly, Kapono was sitting court-side Thursday. Also fittingly, the quietly serious Powell said he never even noticed him.
"Norman is a testament to hard work and a strong will," Kapono said afterward. "He has truly stood the test of time."
It hasn't been just a test of time, but also ego, as Powell has had to watch flashier players show up and be surrounded by reporters and then leave him to clean up the mess. During his time, he's seen the likes of Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams and Zach LaVine leave early. He's always been the star left behind, the one who didn't quite project good enough to be drafted, the one who — unlike many others — was unwilling to risk an education to prove the scouts wrong.
"I have a chip on my shoulder every time I play," said Powell. "My will is greater than anyone's right now."
This season he has willed his way to leading the team in scoring and assists while being named first-team All Pac-12, and now he'll probably be drafted, and how unusual is that for a four-year Bruin? Since the advent of the one-and-done system in 2005, only two of the Bruins' 14 NBA picks had remained in college four years.
"I wouldn't change anything, they've been here for me through all the ups and downs, everything that happened here made me the person I am today,'' said Powell.
That person will walk across a Westwood stage this spring with a degree in history, after which he will begin his push to break into the next level, and if you think those four years weren't worth it, just look at the recent fate of Bruins who entered the league with far more star power than Powell.
For every Zach LaVine, who won this year's dunk contest for the Minnesota Timberwolves, there is a Malcolm Lee, who infamously left early for the second round in 2011, played 36 NBA games in four years and is currently in the Development League. Then there is Tyler Honeycutt, who left with Lee, played 24 NBA games, and is now playing in Russia.
"Norman didn't leave early when he had the information that he wasn't going to be drafted, and now he's on the draft board,'' said Coach Steve Alford. "He hung in there and now he's going to graduate and be drafted, and that's really neat.''
Powell's last act Thursday was to stand in front of the bench and wildly cheer. The game was no longer in doubt, but he was trying to lift the spirits of Kory Alford, a walk-on who had just missed a three-pointer.
"From the moment I stepped on to campus, I've always felt like part of the Bruin family,'' he said.
Four years later, his place in that family has been assured forever, his place at the table set neatly with a fine education, a maturation experience, and an eight-clap.