UCLA basketball alums take measured view on criticism of Howland

When Marques Johnson played basketball at UCLA, first for John Wooden and then for Gene Bartow, it was the mid-1970s and it was not unheard of for college students, athletes or not, to experiment with illegal substances and attend parties and grow long hair or big afros and wear outrageous clothes. Tattoos hadn’t quite become the “in” thing.

“You have to understand the times,” Johnson said.

And when asked if he had ever ingested anything not legal while he was at UCLA, Johnson paused before saying, “Probably, yes.”

Johnson was quick to say he doesn’t condone drug use. His point was that the UCLA Bruins recently portrayed as having used illegal substances aren’t much different from athletes and students at any time at UCLA or probably at any other university.


Some things don’t change, especially with college students.

“I grew up in the late 1960s, early 1970s,” Johnson said. “I’m not trying to downplay the dangers of drug use in society, but when I was growing up it was pretty much a given for some — not all, but some — that I played with that it was time to experiment.

“And, again, I’m not condoning it and it can create other problems. But part of it is, that’s the college atmosphere.”

In his 1983 autobiography, “Giant Steps,” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote extensively about drug experimentation when he was in high school in New York and college at UCLA. He wrote that he first tried marijuana as a 17-year-old after doing research on the drug.

Abdul-Jabbar wrote that making the decision to smoke pot was “one of my first major individual decisions.”

He also wrote that in the spring of 1966, after entering UCLA, he experimented with LSD.

“It was a gorgeous clear blue day that had shimmered even before we started, now it was simultaneously dead still and shaking like mad,” he wrote.

Abdul-Jabbar, through his manager, declined to talk to The Times.


In a 2001 New York Times Magazine story about Bill Walton, who also played for Wooden at UCLA, author Pat Jordan quoted Walton’s first wife, Susie, whom Walton met at UCLA, as saying, “Wooden let Bill smoke pot but not the other players.”

Walton did not return messages left by The Times.

Don MacLean, UCLA’s all-time leading scorer, who played four years for Jim Harrick and who works as an analyst for Fox Sports West and Prime Ticket, said that although college athletes shouldn’t be expected to stay in their rooms and do nothing but go to practice or study, they also should be expected to operate under high standards if they have accepted a scholarship.

“Personally, I’m disappointed in these guys more than what Coach [Ben] Howland has or hasn’t done,” MacLean said. “Not to minimize anyone who drinks alcohol or might experiment with other things because it does happen — I’m pretty sure it does at just about every college — but if it gets in the way of your practicing and performances in games, then it’s something that shouldn’t be there.


“I wasn’t a person who sat in my dorm room and studied all day, but nothing I did got in the way of coming to practice ready to go. Being social is part of being in college and I’m not going to condemn anybody, but this got in the way of UCLA being a good basketball team and that’s on the players.”

Stan Love, a college and NBA basketball player and father of UCLA one-year standout Kevin Love, who won the NBA three-point shooting contest last weekend, was never afraid to criticize Howland when he thought Kevin was being misused on the basketball court.

But Stan Love said Howland shouldn’t take the brunt of criticism over players who engaged in improper off-court behavior.

“If you accept a scholarship to go to UCLA and play basketball,” Love said, “with that heritage, with John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success, and you disrespect the program like that, you’re wrong.”


Love said he was “very confident” that during the 2007-08 season, the one his son played for Howland, off-court partying or drug usage “wasn’t rampant,” he said. “Kevin, Russell Westbrook, those guys were serious dudes who wanted to play at the next level. Those kids disciplined themselves.”

MacLean said discipline shown by players is always the key.

“Coaches can’t be around 24-7,” MacLean said. “You have to have a group of players leading the team to do things the right way. In a good group, guys police other guys. The older guys get the younger guys falling into line.

“When the supposed leaders aren’t doing the right things, it all falls apart.”


Johnson’s son Josiah played for Howland his junior and senior years from 2003 to 2005. He was never a star or a starter, and Johnson said because of that he wasn’t originally inclined to be a Howland fan. Josiah Johnson was involved in a parking lot fight once at Westwood with an Arizona football player and was disciplined by Howland.

“At first, I had some parental fatherly frustration with Howland,” Johnson said. “But I changed my mind. He did the right things. And he still has my support.

“He needs to be who he is, though. He needs to be demanding and stick with what worked, get the kids who will be thankful to him after they leave.”

Johnson said a coach, whether it’s John Wooden or Ben Howland, “walks a fine line.”


“That’s the delicate balance you try and approach as a coach. Do you want to have people informing on your players? It depends on how ‘hands on’ you want to be.

“Part of college is to grow up and make some discoveries. These guys are hormonal, inquisitive, gullible, available to peer pressure, and all that stuff comes into play.”

MacLean said one other thing mattered.

“Obviously, it isn’t a good thing,” he said. “What you’re asking about goes on at a lot of schools. But the expectations are at UCLA not to have this stuff while winning and winning big. Being 16-13 is why this was written. I’m not sure it would have been if UCLA was 25-6.”