UCLA’s Playing Style Is for Some a Final Bore
The scoreboard flickered with the sort of numbers that Southern Californians love.
At a football game.
The playing surface was littered with the sort of diving stops and up-the-middle defense that Southern Californians adore.
At Dodger Stadium.
To many in its hometown, UCLA’s return to college basketball’s Final Four with a 50-45 regional championship victory over Memphis on Saturday was more confusing than cathartic.
This is fun?
This is entertaining?
This is L.A.?
More Deadwood than Hollywood, the cold-blooded Bruins are two winnable games from making their town’s sports fans face a long-dreaded question.
What if a national championship is brought to Los Angeles by a bore?
Will they be loved like Shaq’s Lakers? Will they be embraced like Pete’s Trojans?
Will they become the pulse of the city like Tommy’s Dodgers, or regional folklore like Scioscia’s Angels?
Or will they be briefly applauded and then largely ignored because, well, they’re metal cogs in a city of gold statuettes?
“It’s a good debate,” said Jeff Fellenzer, a basketball insider who teaches a sports business and media class at USC. “How important is it for sports in this city to be entertaining? I believe you have the most fun if you win, but one could argue whether that is true in this town.”
The Bruins, who play Louisiana State on Saturday in a national semifinal in Indianapolis, are certainly worthy of the respect given this town’s other sports successes.
They play Shaq-tough, and Tommy-hard, and Pete-smart.
They came back after trailing by 17 points to steal one tournament game with a steal.
They won another tournament game with such floor-burning defense that they could afford to miss 19 free throws and make only four second-half baskets.
The players are nice, selfless kids who pass the ball and the credit and actually apologize for wanting to shoot more.
“That’s immaturity on my part,” Arron Afflalo said recently.
The coach is intense but media-friendly, caustic but classy, the kind of guy who will bench a player for a bad shot, then afterward publicly praise his effort.
Plus, Ben Howland is so prepared it’s as if his team comes with a navigation system installed.
After their Pacific 10 Conference tournament championship victory against California, the Bruins said they not only knew nearly every Cal play, but also the shirt-tugs and head-nods that tipped those plays.
“It was freaky,” Cedric Bozeman said.
He could have been speaking for his entire team, which is everything that most modern sports teams are not.
So where’s the buzz?
Why was Saturday’s 10.2 Los Angeles rating for the Memphis game only one-third the rating the game received in Memphis, and less than one-third the rating of other recent L.A. teams in playoffs and World Series and bowl games?
The game was the fifth-most-watched show in Los Angeles all week, but compared with other local postseason runs it was less than average.
And did you talk to anyone after the game, or after any of the first four UCLA tournament victories?
The three words I have heard most often are “A great game.”
But the next three words, spoken in the same breath, are “Hard to watch.”
“It’s comparable to the great Chuck Knox’s Ram teams,” Fellenzer said. “There’s a lot of criticism for being boring.”
Another person compared the Bruins to those Ram teams.
Yeah, Chuck Knox.
“I’m very impressed with UCLA; there’s a lot of similarities,” said the coach who won five consecutive division championships without going Hollywood. “UCLA is very well-coached, they play good defense, they don’t make many turnovers. And they win. Isn’t that the name of the game?”
In most towns, yes. In this town, where the most important statistic is often entertainment value, sometimes it’s not enough.
This town has never had a “No-Name Defense.” But there has been a “Wild Bunch.”
This town would never have a “Steel Curtain.” But there has been “Showtime.”
“To me, it’s all positive, and people who don’t like what they’ve been watching, they should just go watch the NBA,” said Fairfax High Coach Harvey Kitani, who is coaching a team of McDonald’s All-Americans.
But he acknowledged that some of those people might be the young stars he’s coaching.
Is our society so skewed that UCLA could win a national title and get hurt in recruiting?
“That could be the case,” Kitani said. “The way they play could lead to negative recruiting, people telling kids you’re not going to score points, you’re not going to get your looks, all these selfish things that some players listen to.”
There’s no question that Howland’s game plans will change as the players mature.
An older Jordan Farmar and wiser Afflalo will be given more freedom. When Josh Shipp returns from the injured list next season, the Bruins will have a third scorer who will loosen everything up.
“You have to understand, we have a lot of young players, and we’re building this from the ground up, doing it the right way,” Howland said. “We’re doing what wins for us right now.”
The Bruins won’t be Wisconsin or Washington State forever.
“And the real sign of a buzz will be next year, when it will be very tough to get a ticket at Pauley Pavilion,” Fellenzer said.
But for now, fans will just have to remember that even in the modern sports culture, victory can occur without vitriol, domination doesn’t have to be dazzling, and a 43-37 score can last forever.
That was, in 1948, the final score of John Wooden’s first game at UCLA, a victory over UC Santa Barbara.
And somehow, the boring Bruins survived.