The onetime UCLA ball boy stood behind the baseline all these years later, hand curled in front of his mouth, openly giving his thoughts to the team he now ran.
“Come on, Mo,” Murry Bartow shouted at Moses Brown early Wednesday afternoon while the 7-foot-2 center completed a layup drill during practice inside the Mo Ostin Center.
“Wrong foot,” Bartow said as the next player laid the ball off the glass.
“Way too slow,” Bartow said in assessing the player who followed.
More than 30 years after his late father, Gene, finished a two-year coaching run as the successor to the legendary John Wooden, Murry was in charge of the Bruins.
Wearing a blue polo shirt and gray pants, he walked onto the court with a folded piece of paper that presumably contained his practice plan on the eve of UCLA’s Pac-12 Conference opener against Stanford at Pauley Pavilion. Bartow stuffed the paper into his pocket and moments later called the players together for a huddle.
“One-two-three-four, team!” everyone shouted.
It was hardly a triumphant moment. Bartow, 57, became the first interim coach to take over midseason in the 100-year history of UCLA basketball after the school fired Steve Alford, the coach and longtime friend who had brought him to Westwood last spring as his top defensive assistant. Together they had guided the Bruins (7-6) to a 4-0 start before the team dropped six of its last nine games, resulting in Alford’s dismissal.
“Obviously, the last couple of days have been hard. … Steve and I have been great friends for 30 years. Great guy, very good coach, incredible person and he’s been a heck of a basketball coach for a lot of years, so I’m standing here with obviously a heavy heart because of that, but what we’re going to do now is move on,” Bartow said to a media throng three times its normal size.
Junior shooting guard Prince Ali said Alford bid players farewell Monday during an emotional meeting at the team’s practice facility. Ali had learned of Alford’s dismissal the previous night from reports on social media.
“I would say I was shocked, surprised,” Ali said. “You never want to see that happen to anyone.”
Said sophomore forward Kris Wilkes, who had come to UCLA from Indiana, where he and Alford had been the state’s Mr. Basketball as high school players: “He recruited me and he was a big part of the reason I came out here. So yeah, it’s definitely tough to see him go.”
Wilkes appeared upbeat before practice. As players took warmup shots, Wilkes noticed teammate Cody Riley sitting on a courtside chair next to Chris Carlson, the associate athletic director who will be part of the search committee for Alford’s permanent successor.
“Hey, Cody, let’s go,” Wilkes yelled. “It’s time to win.”
The teammates commenced a brief three-point-shooting contest, smiling and laughing as they launched shots.
Bartow said the Bruins would tweak their approach but not overhaul anything offensively or defensively, noting that they mainly needed to execute better. They have averaged 65 points and 16.5 turnovers, and made only 41.6% of their shots during a four-game losing streak.
The hope is that they can correct their flaws against conference counterparts who have been equally bad; the Pac-12 became the first Power Five conference to finish December with a sub.-500 record in the last 20 years.
Bartow is not new to taking over a team in the midst of upheaval. He was the interim coach at South Florida, having replaced Orlando Antigua midway through the 2016-17 season. The Bulls were 1-16 overall and 1-15 in the American Athletic Conference under Bartow, whose overall coaching record of 328-264 over 19 seasons also includes stops at Alabama Birmingham and East Tennessee State.
Bartow fondly recalled his time at UCLA while his father was the coach from 1975 to 1977, mentioning that they had played golf with Wooden, but said he was not lobbying to become the permanent coach.
“I’ve got zero concern about that right now,” Bartow said. “I just want to try to pour everything into the players and see if we can get a little bit better.”
Bartow said the primary coaching decisions would be made by himself and assistants Tyus Edney and Duane Broussard. The team has promoted Kory Barnett from director of operations to a third assistant to fill the vacancy created by Bartow’s promotion. Kory Alford, Steve’s son, will also remain on the staff as video and analytics coordinator.
“He’s an incredibly strong young man and I’m thrilled that he’s staying with us,” Bartow said of Kory Alford. “He’s incredibly bright, he’s good at what he does, he’s got an incredible future in the game and he wants to be here and we certainly want him here because he’s a big part of our staff.”
The Bruins will enter Pac-12 play as part of no one’s projected NCAA tournament bracket, but coaches and players alike said the ultimate goal remained within reach. Wilkes said the team would try to sustain Alford’s mantra of “One team, one chance, one mission.”
“We have an optimistic vibe,” Ali said. “Everybody is aware that we’re still a talented basketball team. The Pac-12 is wide open. So we just continue to work hard, and we can do some things.”
When: Thursday, 8 p.m.
Where: Pauley Pavilion.
On the air: TV: ESPN; Radio: 570.