For UCLA, everything old is new again
Earlier this week, a homeless man curled up on a bench outside an entrance at UCLA’s new basketball headquarters.
Cleaning and maintenance crews milled about inside, where fresh blue paint provided new trim on a 52-year-old facade.
Worn seats were vacant, exposing a lower bowl awash in the color of the Bruins’ archrival.
Home sweet home?
It’s the closest thing for now.
UCLA will play most of its home games this season at the Sports Arena — in the shadow of USC — while Pauley Pavilion undergoes a $136-million makeover intended to transform it into one of the top facilities in the country.
The flip side is that the 17th-ranked Bruins must endure five months as visitors in their own primary home, starting with their opener Friday night against Loyola Marymount.
“We really don’t have any home games this season,” sophomore forward David Wear said.
The self-proclaimed Bruin Road Show will feature 14 games at the Sports Arena and four games at Honda Center in addition to the recent exhibition at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario. UCLA is fanning out across Southern California to appease various pockets of its fan base while maintaining one central home.
To help navigate it all, school officials distributed 20,000 glossy maps providing directions to the venues and detailing their histories. The cover features a picture of sophomore center Joshua Smith, who didn’t make much of a marketing pitch for the Sports Arena last month after the Bruins scrimmaged there.
“I don’t like it, to be honest,” Smith said. “It’s terrible. When we walked in, I felt like we were on the set for a ‘Hoosiers’ movie or something, like, in the 1980s. You look up and it’s like Miller Lite [signs] and, like, old. You’re like, ‘Oh, wow. This is what we’re calling home?’”
As Coach Ben Howland likes to point out, it worked for John Wooden. The legendary coach won his first two national titles while the Bruins played at the Sports Arena from 1959-65 before moving into Pauley Pavilion.
Smith seemed to think the arena’s interior had gone untouched since then, given he also groused about dust flying off chairs in the locker room. But new sofas and carpeting were recently installed as part of $200,000 UCLA paid for in improvements to the facility.
There is also a new scoreboard and video board in addition to blue accents throughout the building and blue lighting that will illuminate the exterior at night. Though the old red seats in the lower bowl remain, white slip covers with UCLA logos have been affixed to every seatback.
Familiar faces will greet fans because the same ushers and concessions workers who manned Pauley Pavilion are expected to make the 12-mile trek to the Sports Arena. All 11 NCAA championship banners will hang from the rafters, providing another comfort associated with the Bruins’ on-campus home.
On Thursday morning, workers pieced together sections of the hardwood court with the Sparks’ logo. About the only thing left to do by tipoff Friday was to cover center court with a UCLA decal.
School athletics officials expect a slight decrease in attendance from last season, when the Bruins averaged 7,759 fans for games at Pauley Pavilion. About 75% of the 6,600 season ticket-holders from the 2010-11 season renewed their seats, according to associate athletic director Scott Mitchell.
In an effort to boost attendance, UCLA lowered ticket prices by as much as 33% and will offer round-trip bus transportation from Jackie Robinson Stadium for $16 per game. Students will be bused for free.
Howland is scheduled to visit fraternities and sororities on campus starting next week in a bid to rouse student interest. Fewer than 100 students showed up for the exhibition Sunday in Ontario.
Attendance doesn’t figure to be a problem Feb. 15. That’s when the Bruins play host to USC, which called the Sports Arena home before moving into the nearby Galen Center five years ago.
“They may have more fans than us at that game,” said UCLA senior guard Lazeric Jones, who raised the possibility of getting booed on his home court.
The Bruins could be forced to improvise to drown out their rivals. Mark Harlan, UCLA’s senior associate athletic director, said the rivalry game could be one of a handful of times in which the Bruins bring their entire 250-member band.
The commute “home” figures to be the main headache caused by what amounts to a season-long road trip. Instead of walking to home games on campus, players must ride a bus in mid-afternoon traffic.
For weekday games when the Bruins don’t stay at a downtown hotel the previous night — a typical routine for weekend games — they must leave Westwood by 4 p.m. at the latest.
“Not being in Pauley this year is definitely a logistical nightmare,” Howland said.
UCLA will have held only four practices at the Sports Arena before the opener because of concerns about traffic delays and missed classes. The Bruins have mostly practiced on campus in the old men’s gymnasium, which has a high school-length court.
There is a possible upside in addition to a sparkling new home a year from now; players said all the hassle could bring them closer together.
“That’s how I look at it,” junior forward Reeves Nelson said. “Even our home games are going to be on the road, so it’s going to force us to stay together as a team, bond and then it’s just going to be an us-against-the-world mentality.”
Maybe the Bruins should keep one of Wooden’s sayings in mind throughout a season that figures to test their resolve:
Things turn out best for those who make the best of the way things turn out.
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