Shabazz Muhammad wears a goofy smile and nerdy glasses, but beneath them pumps the cold blood of a basketball player who proudly calls himself a “killer” on the court.
David Halberstam saw something similar in Michael Jordan: a ferocious competitive rage.
It’s this quality that Muhammad says defines him most, the trait the UCLA freshman star says made him who he is today.
“I’ve always had a killer instinct,” Muhammad says, “and that’s what separated me.”
When Muhammad was in third grade, his father, Ron Holmes, worried that it might hinder his son.
“But my wife said, ‘Ron, you have to let him alone. Let him be who he is, because that might be something that could help him become a very good player,’” Holmes says.
Muhammad indeed became a very good player. He is averaging a team-high 19.6 points per game and has scored 21 or more points in each of his last four.
Meanwhile, UCLA has won five straight games heading into its Pac-12 Conference opener Thursday versus California at Pauley Pavilion.
Yet the “killer instinct” that the swingman embraces is also something he says he has to control.
It’s not always easy.
If he ever lost in a game of one-on-one against his younger brother Rashad Muhammad, Muhammad would explode like Vesuvius.
“He’d punch the ball, start yelling, throw a fit,” Rashad says.
To stir the pot, Holmes wouldn’t let them play again for a day, knowing Muhammad would burn red-hot in the meantime.
“He never wants to lose,” says Muhammad’s sister, Asia Muhammad.
“Ever,” she adds.
Then in high school, Las Vegas Bishop Gorman Coach Grant Rice started taking Muhammad out of blowout wins — not to protect Muhammad, but to protect the losing team.
“He wouldn’t go out there and go through the motions; he’d go out there and punish them,” Rice says.
“When he smells blood, when he smells weakness, he goes right at them.”
Says Muhammad: “I’m trying to show no mercy.”
Not only would Muhammad go at opponents, Rice says. He would go at his own teammates.
“If they didn’t go 100%, they were going to get an elbow to the face or dunked on,” Rice says.
This continued at the club basketball level, where Clayton Williams, Muhammad’s coach on the AAU team Dream Vision, says Muhammad played that way in part so he had “the right to hold others accountable.”
And Muhammad has carried this mentality to UCLA, where coaches and players laud his effort in practice and his drive to stay late at the gym most nights.
“He’s a really fierce competitor, with everything we do, everywhere,” says his freshman teammate Kyle Anderson.
Adds fellow freshman guard Jordan Adams: “He plays to win. He does not take plays off. He’s always aggressive.”
He also loves to take big shots that strike a dagger into opponents’ hearts, such as the two clutch three-point shots he buried in overtime during UCLA’s upset of then-No. 7 Missouri.
Though a freshman, Muhammad has jumped on UCLA teammates whose effort he thought was lacking at times. But Muhammad says he wouldn’t do so unless there was a comfort level among them all.
And, Muhammad adds, he’s still learning to temper his killer-instinct temper.
“It’s a really good thing to have, when it’s appropriate to use it,” he says.
Muhammad says his competitive fire started burning in middle school, when he was short, “really chubby,” lacked athleticism and had a mild bout with Tourette’s syndrome.
Others picked on him, he says, and their ridicule became his fuel.
He is gifted, no doubt, but Muhammad swears his killer instinct is what separates him.
And the gap is widening every game.