The reunion required special accommodations. Software was downloaded, volumes adjusted, laptop cameras tilted.
After some technical difficulties were sorted out, a collection of familiar faces appeared on everyone’s screen. Old friends could be seen in bedrooms, living rooms, dens and kitchens. Over the next two hours, the banter stretching past midnight on the West Coast, everyone was transported back to the same place.
“It was one of the most special nights I’ve ever had in my life,” said Jim Harrick, the old coach’s team tugging on his heartstrings once more.
Twenty-five years to the day after UCLA defeated Arkansas for its last national basketball championship on April 3, 1995, the Bruins reconvened in most unlikely fashion.
It was a Zoom meeting orchestrated by Toby Bailey, the sparkplug freshman guard on that team who was now inspiring another success story late Friday night. Bailey was something of a virtual meeting savant because he had been holding them with his family and in his work as a basketball agent amid the novel coronavirus outbreak.
“I felt like this is my family as well,” Bailey said of the Bruins, “so why not do the same thing and get all the guys together?”
The 21 participants reflected a global gathering. George Zidek logged in from the Czech Republic, J.R. Sakuragi (previously Henderson) from Japan and Ike Nwankwo from Thailand.
There were three team managers, sports information specialist Bill Bennett and every coach, once Lorenzo Romar figured out how to join the call after a 15-minute delay. The only players missing were Kevin Dempsey and omm’A Givens.
It was the most complete gathering of the team since it won the title and commenced a victory tour that included a White House visit. Players and coaches had been scattered about during previous reunions, with only a handful attending a 20-year celebration in 2015 at Pauley Pavilion.
The first hour on the call was spent providing personal updates, players followed by assistant coaches and finally Harrick. The second hour was freestyle riffing.
“There were things that we talked about from that call last night that weren’t talked about 25 years ago, and coach Harrick got a kick out of that,” said Kris Johnson, then a freshman forward.
Said Harrick, recalling those stories with a chuckle: “Remember when we did this? Remember when we did that? You know, I didn’t know some of those things and it was crazy. Oh, gosh. It was funny.”
While so much has changed since their great triumph, the Bruins enjoyed a comforting sameness as they reconnected.
“Everybody fell back into the roles we had 25 years ago,” Bailey said.
Mark Gottfried, then an assistant under Harrick and now his boss at Cal State Northridge, mimicked Harrick’s West Virginia twang while recalling how he would run a practice drill. Everybody cackled at the memory of Romar picking up star forward Ed O’Bannon’s saliva-drenched mouthpiece after O’Bannon had chucked it while walking off the court in disgust after absorbing an elbow in practice.
“There were so many moments where we are all just uncontrollable laughter,” Johnson said.
Bob Myers, then a walk-on and now general manager of the Golden State Warriors, relayed how he thought the championship run started with a defeat. At halftime of UCLA’s first-round NCAA tournament game against Tulsa the previous season, the Bruins trailing by 25 points, O’Bannon unleashed a chair-throwing tirade in the locker room.
“I will never let this happen again!” O’Bannon yelled before the Bruins went on to a 112-102 setback that fixed their focus on redemption the following season.
Of course, no recollection of UCLA’s title would be complete without a mention of Tyus Edney’s coast-to-coast layup with 4.8 seconds left in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
“I thanked Tyus for making that shot against Missouri,” Nwankwo said, “told him it’s paid my mortgage and my kids’ private-school tuition.”
The laughs could not fully gird the Bruins from sober reflection about the global pandemic. Stories were shared about being stranded at home for the last three weeks, venturing outside only while wearing masks and gloves. Zidek’s son Jan, who plays for Romar at Pepperdine, flew home to Prague after the campus was shut down.
“George has been in the basement making jokes about social distancing from the kids,” Johnson said, “but everybody’s aware of [the virus], everybody’s healthy and doing what they can to flatten that curve.”
These Bruins realize that the crisis will change the world irrevocably, though it can never touch the memories they created, the bonds they forged or the night all those years later that they got to share their love for one another.
“It really is strange, it’s a whole new world we’re living in and it’s going to be even crazier when we come out of this thing — it’s never going to be the same,” Bailey said. “But the good thing is it does do this. … We brought all the guys back and I haven’t seen those guys in 25 years, so there’s good parts to this dark cloud, there are silver linings.”