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Mata-Real plays fair, even when life doesn’t

Lorenzo Mata-Real learned at a young age that life would not always be fair.

His father, Federico Mata, left the family when he was 4, maybe 5. His mother, Reyna, worked long hours to provide for her only child, who spoke Spanish as his parents did and learned English by watching educational programs on PBS.

Lorenzo grew to be a massive 6 feet 9 and 240 pounds, a voracious rebounder and persistent shot blocker as a center at South Gate High. He earned a scholarship to UCLA and worked his way up to starting all 36 games at center last season on the Bruins’ Final Four team, averaging 23.1 minutes, 6.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.2 blocks as a junior.

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It was his greatest moment, but his father could not share it.

Federico Mata has been in prison in Texas for the last three-plus years for reasons Lorenzo said he cannot recall. More likely, he just wants to forget.

That may be his way of coping, of again making the best of the difficult hand he has been dealt. It’s a skill Mata-Real has called upon regularly this season after losing his starting job to freshman Kevin Love.

Mata-Real could have sulked.

“I was tempted, but that’s not me,” he said.

He could have resented Love. Could have shunned him or thrown an especially nasty elbow here or not-so-subtle shove there on the practice floor to test the freshman’s mettle.

Instead, Mata-Real -- who added his remarried mother’s surname to the back of his jersey this season -- has responded with admirable grace. He has taken it upon himself to tutor Love in the necessities and nuances of defense, and his efforts are welcomed by Love, whose play at the defensive end sometimes falls short of Coach Ben Howland’s standards.

“I really pick up on him as much as I can,” Love said Tuesday, before the Bruins practiced in advance of games at Washington State on Thursday and Washington on Sunday.

“You wait till senior night. He’s going to get the biggest ovation you’ve seen in a long time. Not only because of what he’s done here, being on two Final Four teams, but because he’s such a great kid.”

Because of Love, Mata-Real and the Bruins might reach the Final Four again this spring.

That’s what matters most, Mata-Real said, more than his disappointment over having his minutes cut to 16.8 per game and not starting a single game as a senior.

“I’m just glad that we’re winning,” said Mata-Real, who is averaging 3.5 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in a season interrupted by a foot injury, a concussion, a groin pull and, most recently, a sore left wrist.

“I feel good no matter how many minutes I play, whether I play six or 20. I just go out and play hard all the time.

“As long as we continue to win games, that’s all I want. That makes me happy, that we play well and we win as a team.”

Howland has played the 6-10, 260-pound Love and Mata-Real at the same time, creating a formidable front line. In the Bruins’ 63-61 loss to Texas on Dec. 2, Howland played Mata-Real in the closing seconds in place of Love, a tribute to Mata-Real’s savvy on defense.

But more often than not Mata-Real is on the bench, watching Love fling chest-high passes almost the length of the court while averaging 17.8 points and 11.2 rebounds and generally exceeding his grand advance billing.

Mata-Real is the first to cheer Love and every other Bruin.

“I knew I was going to get a chance to play and stuff, and that opportunities were going to come,” Mata-Real said.

“He’s a great addition to the team. He’s one of the best freshmen in the nation right now and he deserves everything that’s being said about him. I’m trying to help him out. I’m the veteran on the team. He’s learning from me and I’m learning from him.”

What could he be learning?

“He has great offensive skills. I’m trying to see what he does and do some of the moves he does,” Mata-Real said. “I defend him all the time in practice. It’s a hard matchup.”

If it weren’t difficult, it would be something new for Mata-Real. And, maybe, less rewarding.

This season, with all its tribulations, has made him tougher and better able to face whatever may come next.

“It made me kind of grow as a man,” he said.

“I can’t control how much time I play. I just go out there and stay focused. I’m more mature now.”

Besides a return to the Final Four, Mata-Real has two other goals this season.

He hopes to have breakfast with John Wooden, whom he greets with a hug and is rewarded with a thumbs-up whenever the coaching legend sits courtside at Pauley Pavilion.

And he hopes that his father, who is due to be released next month, will be able to see him play in person for the first time before he must return to Mexico.

“He calls me, and even though he isn’t really there for me he would call me and help me out,” Mata-Real said. “I know he was trying.”

That last wish may not come to pass. Life isn’t always fair. But Mata-Real will persevere, as he always has, bringing unexpected grace to his path.

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Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.


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