Former UCLA greats are in awe of current Bruins’ late-season run
As the camera panned the crowd inside Pauley Pavilion, showing one UCLA legend after another on the video board, it felt like an ode to generations of Bruin greatness.
Hey, there’s Sidney Wicks, the power forward who sparked UCLA’s 88-game winning streak. Wow, that’s Lucius Allen, the guard who helped the Bruins freshmen stomp the varsity team. Oh, man, there’s Jamaal Wilkes, the small forward whom coach John Wooden once described as his ideal player.
The icons fixed their focus elsewhere, consumed by a batch of Bruins who had a losing record only 1½ months ago. Things have changed considerably over the last six weeks with this team capturing the imagination of its revered predecessors every bit as much as that of the casual fan.
“I don’t think, of all the UCLA teams that have ever put on that uniform, that the fans, the alumni, those who follow UCLA could be more proud of than this team here,” said Gail Goodrich. He was the honorary captain Saturday during the Bruins’ 69-64 victory over Arizona that gave them a seventh consecutive win and sole possession of first place in the Pac-12 Conference.
The 6-foot-1 Goodrich was an undersized, overachieving guard on Wooden’s first two national championship teams. He was known for his ability to absorb a physical pounding with a shrug, the perfect metaphor for the current Bruins.
“This team has demonstrated over the last seven games that they’re playing the best they’re capable of playing,” said Goodrich, a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame who also won an NBA championship with the Lakers in 1972. “Yes, we’ve had championship teams, but this team, who knows how far they’re going to go, but they are performing to the best of their ability; they don’t quit, they play hard and because of their defense, they’re pretty much in every game.”
Goodrich noted the Bruins (19-11 overall, 12-5 Pac-12) were outplayed for nearly the entire game by the Wildcats but kept the deficit manageable and won thanks to sturdy defense, relentlessness and heady play in the final minutes.
Those are all qualities that Lorenzo Mata-Real once embraced as a center on UCLA teams that made three consecutive trips to the Final Four under coach Ben Howland from 2006-08. Mata-Real attended the game Saturday and saw some of that same toughness in guard Jaime Jaquez Jr., who, like Mata-Real, is of Mexican descent.
“For a freshman ... his game’s pretty advanced,” said Mata-Real, who has known Jaquez since the latter player first tried out for the Mexican national team. “Obviously, he’s going to keep improving and working, but I like his game. He’s hard-nosed, he doesn’t back down from any team or anybody.”
Mata-Real, who recently won a professional championship in a Mexican professional league with Soles de Mexicali, made his way to the UCLA locker room after the game to celebrate. Jaquez handed Mata-Real one of the former Bruin’s old practice jerseys and asked Mata-Real to sign it. Mata-Real told Jaquez that he was an inspiration, tweeting out a photo of them together while calling Jaquez “my little brother.”
“I’m super happy for him and just watching him live doing well, it really gave me goosebumps,” Mata-Real said.
Mata-Real also caught up with former UCLA teammate Darren Collison, who was part of a crowd that also included Bruins luminaries Baron Davis, David Wear and Andy Hill, among others. After calling the game for ESPN, former UCLA great Bill Walton and his wife, Lori, hosted several former players and their families for a late dinner inside the nearby Luskin Conference Center.
“To see the different eras there,” Wilkes said of the crowd, “it was just fun and it brought back a lot of memories.”
The one constant for most Bruins has been winning, UCLA’s 11 national championships the biggest haul of any college basketball program even though it has added just one over the last 25 years.
This team remains on the fringes of NCAA tournament consideration, making it unlikely to raise another banner. Then again, watching UCLA beat Arizona on a night the Bruins made only 33.3% of their shots and were out-rebounded made some wonder if this team might be able to sustain its winning streak deep into March.
“You have the feeling as a fan that we’re capable of winning any game and I think they feel that too, the way they play,” Wilkes said. “They never got down on themselves, they kept pushing and fortunately they won the game. It’s just a whole different feel about this team and there’s just no quit in them.”
Wilkes, who went by his given name Keith when he won national titles under Wooden in 1972 and ’73, said the current team’s ability to maximize its potential would have delighted his old coach.
“Oh, I think he would be very pleased, very excited,” Wilkes said of Wooden. “His whole definition of success — peace of mind is knowing you gave the best you had — and that’s what they’re doing.”
The former Bruins were universal in their praise of coach Mick Cronin’s ability to extract so much from a freshmen-laden team that features mostly role players. The one constant this season has been a commitment to defense, UCLA going 18-0 during games in which it has held opponents to 73 points or fewer.
Developments anticipated two or three years into the future are happening already, as UCLA now stands alone atop the Pac-12, Dylan Hernandez writes.
Goodrich pointed to another critical factor that was missing before Cronin’s arrival.
“Look at the last two years at UCLA,” Goodrich said. “They did not play together as a team and they played no defense, they were not a team. He’s got those players thinking team both offensively and defensively.”
These Bruins have their predecessors thinking something extraordinary is afoot, with the hope of more memories to come.
“It’s been more than fun; it’s been inspiring to see the transformation,” Wilkes said. “This could be one of the most special teams in Bruin history.”
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