Changing of the Guard

And so the big-time, fast times, showtime UCLA basketball season hinges on this:

A kid so nervous before the Bruins' last game, he said he was hyperventilating in the layup line.

A kid so excited by an earlier victory, he called his high school coach at 5:30 a.m.

A kid so determined to improve his free-throw shooting, he once tried envisioning the basket as a woman.

A kid who is, believe it or not, still a kid.

For all the Bruins' experience and attitude, they will not survive March without help from the sort of uncut gem that makes these days so rich.

Valparaiso can have Bryce Drew.

UCLA has Travis Reed.

Starting Friday in the NCAA South Regional semifinals at power forward against Kentucky.

Thinking three things.

"Don't mess up, don't mess up, and . . . " Reed said, pausing.


"And don't mess up."

While it took the devastation of Baron Davis' knee injury to perhaps land 6-foot-6 freshman Reed in the starting lineup, his appearance there is not without merit.

Finally, Toby Bailey will be able to move out of the forward spot and back to shooting guard, where he was dazzling Sunday against Michigan and throughout his career.

And finally, delightfully, there will be somebody on the floor with these future NBA players who can remind us that this is still college.

Reed said one reason he was so nervous at the Georgia Dome last weekend was that he had never played inside a dome before.

"We walked onto the floor for practice and I heard echoes," he said. "And I thought, 'Dang, echoes?' "

Against Michigan, the only echoes were produced by him, as reminders of the three great UCLA seniors when they were kids.

After sitting for 15 minutes, Reed had a big tip-in at the end of the first half to help thwart another Michigan run.

Then in the second half, giving up 80 pounds to 311-pound Robert Traylor, Reed courageously broke him down for nine points and two defensive rebounds in 17 minutes.

In a game decided by three points, he even made three of five free throws, far beyond expectations for a 30% foul shooter.

But then, he diligently shoots 200 free throws a day, and is helped by a legion of friends from Fontana. On Sunday, many were giving instructions to him through their television sets.

"I was staring at the TV by myself, just shouting," said cousin Brandon Taylor. "That's the way it is with Travis. I felt like I was playing with him."

Reed is that sort of person, everyone says. Everyone's little brother.

"He is just a big kid," said Gary West, his coach at A.B. Miller High. "Just a big, goofy guy."

West gave that same explanation to his worried wife when Reed awakened them at 5:30 a.m. the Sunday after scoring 14 points against New Mexico.

"I was so pumped up I couldn't sleep and I figured, he's a coach, he's always up doing something," Reed said.

After a South Central childhood marred by violence--in high school he wore the name of a deceased friend "John-John" on his shoes--16-year-old Reed and his family moved to Fontana.

He has been making for up his lost innocence ever since.

"He'll be spending the night at my house, and end up rough-housing and playing video games with my 9-year-old," West said. "I'll have to come in and say, 'OK you guys, go to your rooms.' "

During his junior year at A.B. Miller, Reed asked his father if he could get a tattoo.

"I thought, 'Oh, no, it's going to be something wild,' " Carl Reed said.

Then Reed came home with the words, "We are all in God's hands" written on his right arm. His father beamed.

"Well, that's how I feel," Reed said, "Besides, when I'm 80 or 90, I don't want some tiger all over my arm."

One more thing about the tattoo: He asked his coach to drive him to the parlor to get it.

Reed, by his count, is one of only two UCLA players who still don't have a car.

"That's OK," he said. "You know, I've been walking for a while now."

Although many had not heard much of Reed before the Michigan game, since he averaged only 11 minutes a contest, he already was famous among teammates.

He is their rap master.

At least, he thinks he is their rap master.

He makes up rhymes before each big game, and chants them in the locker room before the team takes the floor. In high school once, he even rapped in the team sideline huddle during a game.

He says he can't repeat the raps for publication because they come off the top of his head and he can't remember them.

Turns out, maybe that's a good thing.

"A horrible rapper," West said. "I played a tape of him and Baron Davis rapping on TV for our team, and everybody went nuts. He tries but, boy, they are terrible."

Reed heard that the old high school team howled at the tape, and he couldn't believe it.

"My own guys were dogging me, even my own cousin!" he said. "I tell you what. If I didn't play ball, I would be a professional rapper."

He laughs, you don't know if he's serious, you decide it doesn't matter.

He will be there Friday, fighting Kentucky's Nazr Mohammed the way some other UCLA freshman once fought Corliss Williamson. On a night that could end the wondrous ride of the three seniors, he will remind that UCLA still has a fun future.

A future that is wearing a wrist band on his left knee, and socks pulled up in honor of Michael Cooper, and an unassuming expression that nobody would mistake for mean.

Did you hear the one about the kid who asked for Travis Reed's autograph? Except he didn't have a pen or paper?

It was late one night and the kid's friends had suddenly run off, leaving him waiting in line with nothing. Reed shrugged, took off his baseball cap, signed it, and handed it over.

Guess he hasn't learned about that, either.

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