Boyz on the Wood : On Seat of Their Pants, Bruins' Final 5 Going to Final Four

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Flyin' Bobby Myers, as the last man on the UCLA bench is known by his fellow squatters, is shooting free throws at one end of Pauley Pavilion, long after the whistle ending Tuesday's practice session has sounded.

"He's a funny guy," 11th man Kevin Dempsey says from the other end of the gym, nodding in Myers' direction. "Look at him. He's over there shooting by himself and he knows he's not going to play."

Funnier still, a few minutes later Myers is approached with an interview request. This bears explanation, so Myers is told it's for a story about the UCLA reserves, the end of the Bruin bench, the final five on the team flight to the Final Four.

"The bench?" Myers replies, grinning broadly. "That's me. You got the right guy."

A similar request of ninth man omm'A Givens, 1994 high school All-American and Washington State high school player of the year, elicits an arched eyebrow and a hard stare.

"Is that what I am?" Givens retorts. "A reserve , huh?"

Givens mulls this over for several seconds.

"I guess I didn't expect to be called 'a reserve,' " he says. "Hopefully, that won't be the case too much longer."

Dempsey, the veteran of the group, has heard this before, seen this before.

"The five bottom guys--I think we argue and fight the most on the team, and we don't ever play," Dempsey says. "There's about three guys in our bottom five who think they're 10-year veterans in the NBA."

He laughs.

"I think the bottom five are more competitive than the top five. All we do is fight and bicker. It's amazing sometimes in practice. They want to be in there so badly. I think we've gotten into more fights than the starters have."

It's a tough crowd, the Bruins' bottom five would have you believe.

Hence, the nicknames.

The Wrecking Crew.

The Murderer.

Icy Ike, founding member of the Dark Side.

How on earth is Big Country supposed to contend with that?

Chances are, Oklahoma State's Bryant Reeves won't have to contend with any of them. UCLA Coach Jim Harrick relies on a strictly enforced seven-man rotation--the guys he plays call themselves Toby and Cameron and Tyus and George--which generally leaves the Wrecking Crew, the Murderer and Icy Ike to bide their time on the bench, hoping for foul trouble or a blowout and thinking up new nicknames.

Dempsey, Myers and freshman Kris Johnson are the Wrecking Crew. Why? "I think it was in a movie," Johnson explains. Adds Myers: "We've been calling ourselves that since the Arizona game. You go on the road, you get on the bus, sometimes you've got nothing to do. So we have this call. We just yell, ' Croooooooooo! ' "

Collectively, the Crew averages 4.3 minutes of playing time per game, or 1.43 minutes per Crew member. Johnson is high-point man, averaging 2.7 a game. Dempsey averages 2.0 points and Myers 0.4.

Sometimes during games you've got nothing to do.

Givens is the Murderer, so called because of his proclivity for inflicting bodily damage to teammates during hyperactive intrasquad workouts. "He plays so hard in practice, he hurts people," Johnson says, admiration in his voice.

The Murderer averages 6.1 minutes and 1.7 points.

Ike Nwankwo, a 6-11 sophomore center, is Icy Ike. At least that's what it says on his vanity license plates. "The other guys thought I was trying to be Mr. Big Shot, so they changed it," Nwankwo glumly reports. "They call me 'Spicer' instead. Spicer. They know I can't stand it, so they keep calling me that."

Icy Ike/Spicer averages 5.2 minutes and 2.9 points.

It's a mixed group, with mixed feelings about being tag-alongs on the road to Seattle. Myers, a former walk-on who played his way into a scholarship, and Dempsey, back in uniform after two seasons marred by back problems and an ulcer condition, are happy-to-be-here types. Givens, the Bruins' most ballyhooed recruit of 1994, and Nwankwo, the top-ranked prep player in Texas in 1992, stew over their lack of minutes. And Johnson, the son of Bruin legend Marques Johnson, is positioned somewhere in the middle--a self-described "fun guy" who worries that people might "think I'm a stiff or a nothing. Hopefully next year they'll see that I'm not a stiff."

This year, Johnson's biggest contribution to UCLA's march through the West Regional has been commandeering the "Towel Brigade," another time-killer devised by the Bruins' bottom five. Johnson and occasionally Givens wear towels on their heads, in a variety of styles, depending on the game situation--sort of a hoops version of the baseball rally cap--and maybe it's best that Johnson explains the rest:

"When the game is tight, I put on 'the Outlaw' towel. It's like a bandanna across my face.

"When the other team makes a run, I take off 'the Outlaw' and put on 'the Turban.' I just wrap the towel around the top of my head.

"And when the game is wrapped up and all is well on the Western Front, I put on 'the Terrorist.' That's 'the Outlaw' and 'the Turban,' both at the same time. I look like I'm about to throw a Molotov cocktail at somebody."

Johnson believes he has played an integral role in the Bruins' success.

"I think it pumps up the team," he says. "The guys playing, they see us on the bench wearing our towels and they get hyped themselves."

Givens, who dons a creation--"an Egyptian-type thing"--he calls "the Pharaoh," notes that "we've won 17 games in a row with the towels. We've got to keep the towels going. The towels are doing it for us."

Aside from that, the Bruins' bottom five spend a lot of time sitting and wondering. What if they were out there, running the break, lobbing and dunking, instead of modeling funny terry-cloth hats on the sideline?

"I do feel sometimes," Dempsey says, "that our last five could probably beat a lot of people's starting fives. Like against Florida International. I wouldn't be too surprised if our bottom-five players beat them by 20. I don't think they'd have much of a chance. I think our women's team might beat them too."

On this, the bottom five is in unanimous agreement.

Myers: "Actually, a lot of times we give the starters a pretty good run in scrimmages and half-court offenses. If we're playing well against them, we could probably play with a lot of teams."

Givens: " Puh-leeze ."

Johnson: "We're no stiffs. Ike's good, omm'A's good, we're all good. In practice, we try to give the first string the hardest workout they can have. I think that had a lot to do with the success of the team."

Nwankwo: "We have one of the better, I guess, 'bottom fives' in the country. Even our walk-on, Bob Myers, I think he could play in a lot of programs and make a big contribution. He could start at some places."

At the moment, however, they're along for the ride. Givens, Johnson and Nwankwo vow to correct that by 1995-96, but Myers simply enjoys the scenery and revels in his latest personal nickname: Forrest Gump.

"You know how in the movie he just kind of goes through life and ends up with the President, ends up here and there?" Myers says. "Well, I ended up in the Final Four. Two years ago, I didn't think I'd ever play basketball again and now I'm going to the Final Four."

There are worse places to sit and wait.

"If you have to sit somewhere," Nwankwo says, "I guess it might as well be the No. 1 team in the nation."

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