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Column: Fickle UCLA fans cast a shadow over Steve Alford’s great season

UCLA’s highflying and high-scoring basketball team will be on full display tonight when the squad suits up against Kentucky

The dude in the baggy blue UCLA sweats fired it up from midcourt, the soaring ball swished through the net, and Steve Alford thrust up his arms in triumph.

It was his shot. The 52-year-old coach had just made UCLA’s most impressive basket in this NCAA tournament, draining a long ball during the middle of the Bruins’ Thursday practice at the South Regional.

The crowd at FedEx Forum roared. Pep band drums thumped. Alford stalked around the midcourt logo with arms raised, as his bemused players looked on.

Finally, one of Los Angeles’ most underappreciated coaches could take a bow.

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He has led the Bruins to a 31-4 record with the most exciting team in America, yet some folks think he just rolled out Lonzo Ball and took a seat.

He has brought UCLA to a regional semifinal for the third time in his first four seasons, yet, less than a year ago, his firing was being demanded on everything from petitions to airplane banners, leading him to give up a year’s salary.

Now there is a real chance that he will return to his alma mater as the new Indiana coach no matter how the Bruins finish, and many boosters are like, so what?

So what? Are you serious?

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The tired fickleness of some UCLA basketball fans — demanding annual championships from a school that has won one title in 42 years — casts a constant shadow over what should be a marvelous moment for a good head coach who has built a team of which the school should be proud.

As the Bruins prepare for a rematch with Kentucky on Friday, the extent of Alford’s impact on his turmoil-racked team has become obvious and profound.

“This team is just so much fun, great guys, not a bad kid anywhere, I just love being around them,’’ Alford said Thursday.

His willingness to adjust created that fun, and his understanding of his players empowered that greatness.

Lonzo Ball is dealing with a father, LaVar, who has fallen off the edge of all reasoned thought and is now screaming to everybody about everything. Yet even under the brightest of lights, Alford has fostered a small-town environment where the kid only has to worry about basketball.

TJ Leaf showed up as one of the top recruits in the country, only to be completely overshadowed by Ball. Yet Alford put him in a position to become the team’s most effective scorer while allowing him to grab plenty of that spotlight.

Meanwhile, other buttons have been pushed as son Bryce has become a veteran leader while role players such as Thomas Welsh, Aaron Holiday and Isaac Hamilton have taken turns being the star.

The coach wants none of those headlines. None of this was ever about him. How many top coaches not only listen to their players, but actually admit it? At a news conference Thursday, Alford acknowledged that sometimes Ball really does run the show.

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“I’ve had very few times in a 26-year career where I’ve actually taken a pause in games and said, ‘What do you think?’’’ he said, noting that he takes Ball’s input. “Because I trust him that much, that he has such an unbelievable feel to the game. It’s like, ‘What do you want? What do you want to do defensively here? What do you want to do offensively?’ ’’

It’s one thing to recruit a talented team, it’s another thing to turn it into a 31-4 powerhouse, yet Alford figured it out … probably just in time for him to get out.

Can you imagine Alford cutting down the nets in Phoenix and then hopping off the ladder to Bloomington, Ind.? But seriously, could you blame him?

When questioned about Indiana earlier in the tournament, Alford wouldn’t close that door because he’s too honest to close that door. He loves Los Angeles, loves UCLA, and appreciates the support given to him by the administration. But it’s also easy to long for home when you’ve never really been made to feel at home by fans who have been calling for his ouster seemingly from his welcoming news conference.

In that first public appearance, he said some insensitive things about his poor handling of a sexual assault case involving one of his former players at Iowa in 2002. He later apologized for those statements, but some Bruins fans have never forgiven him.

He then waded into hot water by playing his son early in his career while benching others — notably future NBA star Zach LaVine. But Bryce has since developed a shooting touch that makes him an important weapon.

Finally, there are some people who do not think Alford, a gym rat, has worked hard enough to be engaging and accessible to boosters and fans. But that’s just his personality.

“Of all the talk about Alford, two things have never been said,’’ one booster told me. “Nobody has ever said he wasn’t a decent coach, and nobody has ever said he wasn’t a good man.”

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Alford showed his loyalty to the program last spring by giving back a contract extension that essentially cost him around $2 million. He showed his loyalty to his staff by offering up that extension in lieu of replacing some of them. It’s amazing that when those moves have been discussed recently with boosters, many of them just shrugged.

“I hope the fans know my commitment, how much I’m in this, how ingrained I am, how hard I’ve worked,’’ Alford said. “I hope they see the excitement of the style and brand we’re playing.’’

Does he think the rancor from last spring has finally quieted?

“I hope that’s changed. I can’t say that for sure,’’ he said, smiling. “I just know the pulse is much better, and when you’re 31-4, that seems to help.’’

The Bruins shouldn’t have to finish 35-4 for Steve Alford to be fully embraced.

But, yeah, it might help.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Get more of Bill Plaschke’s work and follow him on Twitter @BillPlaschke


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