Finally, Miguel Arrives at UCLA : Actually, He's Been There 4 Years, but Now Is Living Up to Promise

Times Staff Writer

Nigel Miguel, the new campus hero, sits alongside Bruin Walk, with the noon sun streaming down on him, his girl friend at his side and the student body filing by, murmuring, "Nice game."

It's not bad, this campus hero business, if it doesn't kill you first.

None of this was expected to occur this season, not Miguel's stardom, nor UCLA going into a late game with USC to decide anything in the first division of the Pacific 10. USC is tied for first. UCLA is a game and a half behind. The Bruins have first-place Arizona and third-place Oregon State queued up behind the Trojans for games in Pauley. As they said in "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice", imagine the possibilities.

Miguel is still the starting point guard, as Hazzard announced he'd be, last July 4 or thereabouts, to gasps.

The former small forward-big guard-benchwarmer who'd averaged 4.0 points as a junior and shot 39.8%, is in double figures now and shooting 48.2%. In the conference, he's 51.2%. And he has a great shot at being the league's Defensive Player of the Year.

Surprised? Not him. Not exactly.

"I expected it," Miguel says. "But I expected it before and it didn't happen. . . .

"I know you're a student first and a basketball player second, but you still think of yourself as a player. And you hear things: 'I wonder why they gave him a scholarship. He hasn't done anything since he's been here. . . . '

"I felt like I had to do this, for my mom, especially. We went through some hard times, especially my junior year. A lot of times I'd see her after the game and she'd be holding back tears. I'd go home and she'd be hurting so bad for me there would be tears coming down her face. That really used to get me angry. And the anger inside was turned against the coaching staff."

Now on days after games, he can barely walk. He plays the point. He leads the team in assists. And he guards the opposition's best player, unless it's a 7-foot center or a little guard.

Anyone else--6-8, 215-pound Wayne Carlander, 6-9 1/2, 210 Detlef Schrempf, 6-10, 220 Ken Barlow, 6-7, 210 Chris Sandle, 6-7, 195 Billy Thompson, 6-5, 185 Chris Mullin--is likely to be his.

Miguel is 6-6, 183 and most of those guys like to elbow back. After he held Schrempf to 2 for 7 in Pauley, Washington's Marv Harshman credited Miguel with being a fine tackler. After their second meeting, when Schrempf's revenge topped out at 14 points, Harshman accused UCLA of intimidation tactics. But after the first Washington game, Miguel wore a flak jacket to practice to protect his own bruised ribs.

"You know Detlef, he's a tremendous player," Miguel says. "I respect him. But he's a crybaby, to tell you the truth.

"Every time he gets open, it's with a little nudge, an elbow. He gets away with it because of who he is. I understand that aspect of the game but there should be something I can do to protect myself. But if I knock his elbow down, he's crying. So I just have to let him know. . . . "

In one stretch, Miguel held Schrempf, Sandle and Washington State's Joe Wallace to a combined 6 for 28 from the floor. Barlow, the leading Notre Dame scorer, went 3 for 10 against him.

Carlander, two inches taller and 32 pounds heavier, was held to 5 for 13 at the Sports Arena. But two of the shots Carlander made helped turn the game for USC, too.

"He made some shots I couldn't believe," Miguel says. "I had my hand on the ball on two of his shots and he went right through it. He's real strong. And at SC, they let him get away with a lot of bumping and pushing."

Of course, Miguel and Carlander go way back. All the way to that high school all-star game at Cal State L.A. in 1981 when Carlander and Patrick Ewing tangled.

"I was there," Miguel says. "Wayne and Pat were pushing and shoving. I heard Pat say to the referee, 'Get him off me, get him off me.' The referee didn't do anything. Then it happened again, as the ball went through the basket. We were running down court when Pat swung out. He hit Wayne in the side of the head. I said, 'My goodness.'

"A few minutes later, Wayne and Pat were going at it again. I knew from that day that Wayne was a competitor. I thought he was crazy, but I respected his competitiveness. . . .

"I just have to hope the referees won't let him get set in the key. They don't have to call it, just let them know. Because I'm giving up a lot of size. And if he gets set in the key, they can't be calling ticky-tack stuff. . . . Sometimes Wayne talks to the referee, when somebody bangs him. That cracks me up. For every five licks he gives, they call one."

Miguel is kind of competitive himself. The Lakers' Michael Cooper, an old friend from summer pickup games, tells Miguel that he enjoys watching him play. Miguel is not unaware of a possible resemblance to Cooper's career, a low-round NBA darkhorse, who made it first as an athlete and a defender.

Miguel is an athlete and a defender. Along with that, and his ability, hard work and suffering, there is one other factor in his turnaround. His new coach.

Walt Hazzard installed him at point guard, passing up a likelier prospect in Corey Gaines. Hazzard didn't think Gaines would provide as much leadership. Hazzard dug out the old clips from Miguel's All-American high school days.

"Basketball Weekly," Miguel says. "We had just come back from a tournament in Mannheim, West Germany. The story said I wouldn't be in college more than three years, that I'd go hardship after my junior year. Coach Hazzard said, 'We can't make liars out of these people.'

"Coach Hazzard always calls me, 'The greatest thing that almost never happened.' "

After a while, Hazzard started calling him that. In the first weeks of practice, Hazzard climbed all over Miguel. Miguel didn't know if he was coming or going. At that moment, he didn't expect to be a campus hero.

"When I did what he told me to do, he'd say I should have done something else," Miguel says. "When I did what I wanted to do, I should have done something else . . .

"At first, I was kind of apprehensive about talking to him. I talked to Mrs. Hazzard a little more than I talked to him. She told me, 'If you have something to say, you can say it to him.'

"When things weren't working out the way they should, I asked my father to ask Coach how I was doing. The next day Coach Hazzard pulled me out and said, 'You don't have to use your father as a middleman. We can talk.' "

Miguel now says Hazzard is like another father. After the Louisville game, he put his arm around Hazzard's shoulders in the interview room.

"I'm happy," Miguel is saying. "I'm just hoping to get one more chance. These last games are for the seniors. This one Thursday night is for Coach.

"We lost that emotional game to USC and it kinda snowballed. But it's our turn. We're on the other side of the fence."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World