No More Mr. Nice Guy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Toby Bailey's long and productive UCLA career, summed up in a final irony:

Here's someone who got overloaded with attention before he was a complete basketball player--and now that he's a complete, dominating basketball player, he's not getting all the attention.

Bailey's long and pristine Bruin career, encapsulated in one strange contradiction:

The Bruin who had never been in trouble, never skipped a practice drill, never complained, never been witnessed doing anything but pouring his heart out on the floor . . . had to jump-start the backstretch of his senior season by grumbling at the coach and being tossed out of practice last month.

All that did was trigger the respect of his teammates, get Coach Steve Lavin and Bailey communicating again and set loose Bailey for an amazing run that has led UCLA to the semifinals of the NCAA South Regional against Kentucky in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Friday.

"I'm not saying that other people should do this," Bailey says with a light laugh, "but I think no matter what I had done, I'd been looked at kind of as a goody-goody on the team by the rest of the players.

"And it's hard to be a leader when your team doesn't really feel like you're down with them because you're the one who's the goody-goody, and they call me the coach's son, this and that. . . .

"I think when that happened, they kind of saw that I wasn't perfect. I have the same problems as them. And it just made the team get a lot closer."

In mid-February, a lot of big and little things had been compounding inside Bailey's head, he acknowledges.

As he eyed his NBA future as an off-guard, he was playing forward by necessity for UCLA, having to defer perimeter responsibility to two freshman guards, Baron Davis and Earl Watson.

Bailey also was brooding over his end-of-game turnover against Stanford on Feb. 12, which sealed the Cardinal's Pauley Pavilion victory, and the flat, seven-point, eight-turnover performance against California two days later.

"During the beginning of this season, it was really on my mind--did I make a mistake by waiting another year?" Bailey said, referring to considerations of leaving for the NBA early. "I have to perform this year. Everything has to go smooth this year. We have to go far in the tournament in order for me to get drafted. So many different things were in my mind. . . .

"Once I put that out of my mind, I've just had fun, letting whatever happens happen. But that's a hard thing not to think of. . . . I've been playing since I was 5 or 6 years old to get to this point. And it's all come down to this."

Finally, in an admittedly rather bland incident by UCLA standards (no yelling, no gesturing, only a few bad drills, a murmur at the coach, and walk to the locker room), Bailey snapped.

And maybe that was the shock that has recharged and rerouted this Bruin season, with Bailey at all times leading the way.

"It just showed that I was down for this team," Bailey said. "And after that, everybody followed my lead.

"I didn't do anything bad to get kicked out of practice. It was the most low-key kicked out of practice ever. . . . It was just something out of my character, and I'm glad it happened and ever since then everything has been smooth."

Since UCLA was destroyed by Duke on Feb. 22, in the four regular-season and two NCAA games that have constituted the Bruin resurgence, Bailey has been one of the best players in the nation.

Over the span, he has averaged 22.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, four assists, one blocked shot and 2.2 steals, and made 56.4% of his field-goal tries and 58.8% from three-point distance.

Beyond the statistics, though, Bailey has brought a sense of purpose to the proceedings, an energy from the tipoff that seems to have been translated at last to his teammates.

In UCLA's struggling first-round game against Miami, it was Bailey who made the two key plays in the final minute, who shook his fist in the air after drawing a crucial foul.

And in the Bruins' upset of Michigan last Sunday, it was Bailey who attacked the bigger Wolverines from the start, chopped at the ball, dived for it, practically ripped it from a few Michigan players' hands, and poured in 14 first-half points to get the tide rolling.

There's a new equation to deal with when you're playing with the Bruins: Find an answer for Bailey's intensity, or lose.

"Certain teams you can tell they're afraid of you in the beginning, they don't know exactly what to expect in a tournament game," Bailey said. "I think that's kind of how Michigan was.

"Even though they were good, they had never won a national championship; they hadn't won many tournament games--that team, personally. I think they were still kind of green and not very experienced. And when we stuck it to them early, I think it was key for us."

After 128 scrambling, often-beautiful, sometimes haphazard, always eventful games, Bailey's career, coming to a proud close, isn't that hard to figure out.

From his first splash as a freshman--making three three-pointers in an early-season game at Louisiana State--to the twin, 26-point, nine-rebound performances against Connecticut in the West Regional final and against Arkansas in the 1995 national title game, to now, Bailey is one of the best UCLA big-game players since Bill Walton.

"I've known that since when we were at an eighth-grade grammar school tournament at Loyola High School," says his father, John Bailey, who has been his club-team coach for years. "And the first half of the game, Toby dunked the ball three times.

"So the people in the stands got bored and said, 'Do something else!' And so in the second half, he came down and did a reverse dunk as an eighth-grader. You could tell this kid kind of loved the lights."

A few years later, Bailey was in an all-star game loaded with bigger-reputation players.

"The play was set for Jelani Gardner or Cameron Murray to take the shot, down by two," John Bailey says, "and Toby hit a half-court shot to win the game. And ever since then, he's just always wanted to be that man."

Said senior teammate Kris Johnson: "If there's a big game, Toby's going to show up. I mean, that's been his thing through the years. You forget about when he was a freshman how many big games he showed up in.

"It's not a question whether Toby's going to show up."

By no coincidence, that level of play and passion has NBA executives intrigued.

Before the season started, Bailey's streaky jump shot had many scouts guessing that he'd be a second-round selection. And even after his hot run, he still will have to show them in pre-draft workouts that he can be consistent with the stroke.

But there is no doubting that scoring a school record-tying 32 points in the second half against Washington earlier this month or outrebounding Michigan and creating layups for little-played freshmen like Travis Reed in March has lifted Bailey into first-round consideration.

"The thing that impressed me about the Michigan game more than anything statistically or any one individual aspect of his game, is just how involved he was in the whole process of UCLA winning that game," said Chris Wallace of the Boston Celtics.

"He showed leadership, picked up the slack when Baron Davis went down, just brought a maturity to the game. . . . I think that accounts for something--we like to see people come from winning programs, to be a positive impact on a program, which he has."

The NBA evaluators, Wallace says, understand that because of UCLA's lack of size, Bailey has been playing out of position for most of this season. In fact, John Bailey says that his son's surge has been because Lavin has started giving regular minutes to Reed and Rico Hines, two players who will set screens, play hard defense and generally free up Bailey to do more dangerous things.

"He was able to sacrifice for the team," Wallace said. "That shows that he's a winner. I would rather see a kid go and accept that challenge--that's respected more by the NBA--than sitting around and griping and complaining that 'This is not my NBA position and you're not showcasing me.' "

Bailey has been showcased enough to become the first Bruin player to accumulate 1,600 points and 400 assists in a career. And his assault on the school's all-time scoring list continues:

He is now fourth, with 1,830 points, having just passed Ed O'Bannon (and passing Walton, Marques Johnson, Gail Goodrich and many others along the way). Bailey is also sixth in assists, with 455.

So, suddenly, four years after he was a teenage poster wonder child, Bailey is a player for the ages. Which, to tell the truth, shocks even him.

"When I first came here," Bailey said, "I was looking through the record books and thinking, 'There's no way any of these records are going to be broken. I'll never be able to break these records.'

"But for stuff to be materializing like that, for me to be considered one of the all-time Bruins, that's awesome for me. As much as my dad talked about Marques Johnson and all these different players and how great they were . . . it is mind-boggling to be passing them in records.

"I'm happy that the mentality I've taken on, that I'm just having fun and I'm enjoying my teammates, I'm enjoying my coaches. I'm glad it's all coming together and I can be an example for other kids to stay in school, to finish out their years in college. They don't have to rush into the NBA."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

SOUTH REGIONAL

UCLA (24-8) vs. KENTUCKY (31-4)

Friday, 7 p.m.*

(*approximate)

Channel 2

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