Here’s a little secret about USC versus UCLA as it pertains to basketball and the players who will take the court at Pauley Pavilion tonight.
For the most part, they seem to like each other.
That’s not how the rivalry is supposed to work, at least not according to fans and a good number of players who have participated in the football version of this cross-town game over the years.
“Have you ever felt hate before?” Matt Ware, a former UCLA football player, once asked. “Multiply that by 20 -- that’s how I feel about USC.”
Former USC quarterback Carson Palmer echoed that sentiment: “You don’t understand how much hate there is until you experience it.”
When the Trojans tip off against the 15th-ranked Bruins tonight, the arena should be packed and loud. The game figures to be intense, maybe even chippy, with first place in the Pacific 10 Conference at stake.
But outright loathing? Don’t count on it.
As UCLA forward Josh Shipp said: “I’m pretty much cool with all their guys.”
It seems that basketball and football have very different effects on the rivalry.
First, basketball players are not trying to take each others’ heads off. Second, they grow up in an insular world of youth tournaments and travel squads.
With the USC and UCLA campuses so close, many of the players had the same coaches and private trainers. Tonight’s game will serve as a reunion of sorts for USC freshman DeMar DeRozan and Bruins freshmen Jrue Holiday, Malcolm Lee and Jerime Anderson.
“I’ve played with them and against them for years,” DeRozan said, “ever since I first started playing AAU basketball.”
UCLA forward James Keefe was on a youth team with USC’s Taj Gibson and Daniel Hackett. He and Trojan forward Keith Wilkinson ran in the same Orange County circles.
Even the players who don’t meet as kids quickly become acquainted. They gather for the well-known summer pickup games at UCLA. The teams bump into each other in airports and hotels during the conference season.
“We make the same road swings and we sometimes talk with each other,” Wilkinson said. “People don’t realize how close the guys are on both teams.”
All of which takes considerable steam out of the hatred thing.
“You know them too well to talk bad to them,” Holiday said. “But that’s what kind of makes it fun, knowing each other and not talking serious, serious trash. It’s more playful.”
So where does the intensity come from?
Players on both teams said the USC-UCLA game is unlike any other on the schedule. They feel the buzz on campus the week before, they hear it from crowds at the arena.
“When it’s close to game time, and we put on the ‘SC jersey and they put on the UCLA jersey, it’s like you’re getting ready for battle,” DeRozan said. “That’s how we all treat it.”
Also, it seems, growing up together cuts both ways.
“You know a lot about their personalities, their moves,” UCLA guard Darren Collison said. “That makes you even more competitive, trying to take your friend out.”
When the teams met at the Galen Center last month, the Bruins eked out a victory in a game that turned physical. Midway through the first half, Hackett was talking at UCLA forward Drew Gordon after the whistle blew and Gordon, his arms raised, turned in such a way that his elbow clipped the USC guard’s face.
Gordon insisted the blow was unintentional, to which Hackett replied afterward: “His nose is growing on that one.”
With USC fans howling in protest, the incident suggested that one truly hard foul might boost the hostility factor in this rivalry by several notches.
Think Duke’s Gerald Henderson hammering North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough two years ago. Or the Boston Celtics’ Kevin McHale clotheslining Lakers forward Kurt Rambis during the 1984 NBA Finals.
Collison doesn’t see that happening. To him, the USC-UCLA basketball rivalry is less contentious than the football version because the respective sports are so different.
“With football players, you actually have physical contact and there is more aggression,” the senior said. “Basketball, it’s not as physical.”
Hard to imagine USC linebacker Rey Maualuga seeking out Patrick Cowan to apologize for leveling the UCLA quarterback during the 2006 game. But tonight, Gordon said he planned to speak with Hackett on the court.
“I don’t think there’s going to be any bad blood,” Gordon said. “I mean, there shouldn’t be.”
On the air: TV: Prime Ticket; Radio: 1150, 710.
Where: Pauley Pavilion.
Records: UCLA 17-4, 7-2; USC 15-6, 6-3.
Update: The 15th-ranked Bruins, shooting a Pac-10 best 50%, need a victory to maintain at least a tie for first place in the conference standings. Just as important, they want to build on the momentum gained from two impressive wins last week. The Trojans have won five of their last six games, including several close victories, but let a lead slip away in last month’s 64-60 loss to UCLA. “There were two 10-minute stretches where they whipped us,” USC Coach Tim Floyd said. “The first 10 minutes and the last 10 minutes.”
-- David Wharton