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Davis acts to spark African American growth at UCLA

Baron Davis smiled, excited about the good news coming from UCLA.

It was Sunday, 90 minutes before Davis’ Golden State Warriors played the Lakers, a day after his former school clinched a trip to the Final Four ... and the last thing Davis wanted to talk about was basketball.

Davis was hyped about his meeting with UCLA interim Chancellor Norman Abrams, who came to the Warriors’ hotel earlier in the day to address Davis’ concerns about declining African American enrollment at the school.

This year, Davis and former UCLA football player Brendon Ayanbadejo formed a group called “We Should Not Be the Only Ones,” whose name references the concern that an athletic scholarship could be the lone path to UCLA for African American high school students if things don’t change. Something had to be done after this year’s UCLA freshman class had fewer than 100 African Americans -- the lowest number in 30 years -- among the 4,700 new students.

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During the hour-long meeting with Abrams, Davis suggested funding inner-city programs and involving UCLA’s extensive alumni network in awareness and mentorship programs.

“He was really receptive to everything that we’re trying to do,” Davis said. “He wants to help, to make it a part of his initiative as acting chancellor.”

Ayanbadejo would like to see UCLA play host to high school students over the summer, teach them everything from biology to history in a college setting to educate and inspire.

Because for now, the message the school is sending, intentionally or not, is that African Americans are welcome on the court but not in the classroom. Will the school produce another Ralph Bunche or Tom Bradley, or is it only interested in the next Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Marques Johnson?

Nine of the 15 basketball players (60%) are black. About 3% of the student body is. The disparity in the racial makeup shows how little the NCAA’s tournament has to do with college.

Teams play on the opposite side of the country from their campuses. Games start at 10 p.m. Eastern time. Those students who have the right combination of luck and cash to get tickets are usually relegated to the upper deck.

And data compiled by the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports showed that only half of the 65 schools in the tournament graduate more than half of their African American basketball players.

I have less of a problem with that than I have with African American students not getting to elite colleges in the first place. It’s much more important to ensure equality of opportunity more than equality of outcome. Only it shouldn’t take a deadeye jump shot to get that chance.

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Just getting exposed to the minds and the resources at a place such as UCLA is an advantage, even if a player leaves early to go to the NBA (as Davis did after his sophomore year) or a student drops out. College isn’t just about getting a diploma. It’s about learning. It’s about forming lifelong connections.

And networking.

It’s the postgraduate pipeline that really makes the difference between UCLA and most other schools in the UC system, which is why the argument that African American students can simply enroll in other schools doesn’t hold up.

Even Davis has tapped into his UCLA connections to get into the movie production field. He still feels connected to the school. His off-season home is 15 minutes from campus, where he works out and hangs out when he’s in L.A. There’s a bittersweet taste to this school year.

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“I love the fact that the sports program is on top and the sports program continues to rise, especially the basketball,” Davis said. “I am a part of that tradition. I’m so proud of Coach Howland and the team’s success. On the other hand, it is disappointing to see the decline in [black enrollment] numbers from even the time when I went there, just the fun and the atmosphere that was presented when I was there. Those numbers are shrinking. You could see the numbers shrinking even when I was in school there.”

Davis’ sophomore year, 1998-99, coincided with the implementation of the anti-affirmative action Proposition 209 and the number of incoming African American freshmen dropped to 131 (from 219 the year before). And those are starting to look like the good old days.

“There’s some changes that need to be made,” Davis said. “I think that UCLA is the greatest university in the country. I believe that with our great alumni association and past and present student athletes, we can do something special.”

Ayanbadejo said the group’s membership is up to 50 former UCLA athletes.

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“We’ve got to fundraise, we’ve got to advertise,” Ayanbadejo said. “We’re still building up our backbone.”

For the record, Davis thinks UCLA, with Josh Shipp back in the lineup this season, will reverse last year’s championship-game loss to Florida when it takes on the Gators in the national semifinals Saturday.

“I think there’s an upset brewing,” he said.

And maybe, back on campus, there are some changes coming.

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J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Adande, go to latimes.com/adande


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