June Collison grabbed the arm of her husband, Dennis, early in last Thursday’s UCLA game at Oregon. She had just watched her son, Darren, the Bruins point guard, do a joyful, instinctive cross-over dribble, an insouciant moment of playing basketball by feel.
Collison’s sleight of hand earned him a small bit of space, just enough so he could back up and get an open jump shot.
“At the same time,” June Collison recalled, “I looked at Dennis, he looked at me, and we both said, ‘Darren’s back.’ ”
Collison, the Bruins’ 6-foot-1, 165-pound point guard, scored 22 and 33 points in fifth-ranked UCLA’s road wins at Oregon and Oregon State last weekend. He’ll try to keep it going as the Bruins continue Pacific 10 Conference play tonight against Arizona State and Saturday against Arizona. Both games will be at Pauley Pavilion.
Each of Collison’s scoring marks against the Oregon schools were career highs, but it wasn’t the points that brought an inerasable grin.
“That’s how you’re supposed to play basketball,” Collison said. “This game is never predetermined. You make a play based on the play before. You take advantage. You never predict.”
From the moment Collison went with his instincts in the first minute of UCLA’s first exhibition game in November, when he tried to make a cut and his left knee gave way, this basketball season has been one of frustration and determination for Collison.
What at first seemed to be just a sore knee turned out to be a severe sprain that kept him out of practice for weeks and caused him to sit out the first six games.
It also caused him angst trying to play with a big knee brace. Then, as the knee began to feel better, Collison suffered from food poisoning and sustained a hip pointer against Washington.
“I had tried to stay upbeat through everything,” Collison said. “The hip thing was hard to take.”
Collison had ambitious plans for this season. Watching film, he’d picked up bits and pieces of how opposing guards scooted in front of him, disrupting the pick-and-roll play that is critical to UCLA’s offense.
Two and sometimes three times a day, Collison worked out. He also lifted weights.
He worked on basketball moves at Los Osos High with other major college players from the Inland Empire, Sean Marshall from Boston College and Anthony Goods from Stanford. He attended Steve Nash’s guard camp in New Jersey. His former youth coach, Keith Howard, accompanied him here, there and everywhere.
“By the time the season got here,” Howard said, “Darren was just raring to go.”
Early in that first exhibition game against Azusa Pacific, Dennis Collison turned to June and said, “Darren is dragging his left leg.”
June didn’t see it and Darren kept playing, but when the game was over a message was given to the Collisons that they should come to the locker room.
“When I got downstairs I could see the frustration in Darren’s eyes,” June said. “I looked at his knee and it wasn’t swollen. That’s what I kept saying. It wasn’t swollen.”
It was, however, loose and painful, and the sprain that was at first expected to keep Collison out a couple of weeks kept him away from the game a month. And, even after he returned, away from being himself, a whirling dervish capable of playing the best on-ball defense in the country according to UCLA Coach Ben Howland.
Until last Thursday.
Which was a surprise even to Collison. For while his knee was feeling better, the hip pointer brought daily pain.
After practice on Jan. 22, Collison said he wasn’t sure if he could play against the Ducks. Knowing that teammates Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Lorenzo Mata-Real were both unlikely to play because of concussions, Collison kept quiet about his hip.
“It was really paining me and I wasn’t sure how it was going to come out,” he said. “But with Luc and Lorenzo hurting, Mike Roll out, all the factors, I just went out and played. I took control and all of a sudden, I just realized, my instincts were back.”
Said Howard: “Darren’s greatest gift is his ability to improvise. He’s not one to calculate what he’s going to do and in order for him to be a high-level athlete he can’t think about what the body is going to do. What I saw this past weekend, his lateral quickness is back, his acceleration is back. His first step was back.”
Collison said there was a purpose to his struggles. “What I learned is every game, appreciate it,” he said. “Cherish every moment. Always be positive, never be negative.”
Also one other thing: “I’m so ready to play.”
vs. Arizona State, 7:30, FSN Prime Ticket
Radio -- 1150.
Site -- Pauley Pavilion.
Records -- UCLA 18-2 overall, 6-1 Pac-10; Arizona State 14-5, 4-3.
Update -- Four of the top five Sun Devils scorers are from Southern California, including freshman guard James Harden from Lakewood Artesia High, who leads the team with 18.8 points per game; junior Jeff Pendergraph, from Etiwanda High, who has 31 blocked shots and is shooting 62.2%, second best in the Pac-10; sophomore Derek Glasser, a guard from Artesia who ranks second in the nation in assist/turnover ratio; and sophomore Jerren Shipp from L.A. Fairfax High, who will be going against his brother, UCLA junior Josh Shipp.
No. 5 UCLA vs. Arizona State
at Pauley Pavilion, 7:30, Prime