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Cori Close will take UCLA into top-10 showdown with Rafer Johnson on her mind

UCLA coach Cori Close encourages her players during a game against USC in the Pac-12 women's tournament.
UCLA coach Cori Close encourages her players during a game against USC in the Pac-12 women’s tournament on March 6.
(Associated Press)

Cori Close was a first-time head coach when an Olympic gold medalist asked her for a favor. Please, Rafer Johnson said in 2011 at Close’s introductory news conference, get my daughter to move back to L.A. Then he added some advice for UCLA‘s new women’s basketball coach.

“Make sure you coach their hearts,” Johnson whispered in Close’s ear. “Just like how coach Wooden taught my heart.”

Already reeling from having each of their three nonconference games affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bruins’ hearts are heavy as they begin Pac-12 play Friday at No. 7 Arizona following Johnson’s death Wednesday. The Olympic gold medalist, humanitarian and UCLA Athletics Hall of Famer died at 86.

When Close learned of his passing Wednesday, memories flooded back. She remembered her introductory news conference. She told herself to find tapes of when Johnson, who played under John Wooden for two seasons between starring on the UCLA track and field team, came to the first day of Close’s practice and taught her players to put on their socks and shoes just as Wooden taught his players. She thought about Johnson’s 80th birthday party, which she hosted at her home.

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UCLA senior guard Chris Smith wants his coach to verbally push, prod and cajole him, always seeking to bring out his best.

The guest list was a “who’s who” of stars, Close remembered, and when they spoke of Johnson, none mentioned his athletic career that included an NCAA championship and world records before culminating in the decathlon gold medal in the 1960 Olympics. Instead, they lauded his work with the Special Olympics, his kindness and how much they respected him as a father and husband.

“He was one of the best athletes in the history of UCLA sports, which is incredible, one of the best, obviously, athletes in the world … and to say that pales in comparison to who he was as a human being, that’s no joke,” Close said. “I am just blown away by his influence.”

Last year, the Bruins highlighted Johnson during Black History Month, printing “impact like Rafer” on T-shirts along with slogans that honored other Black figures like Rosa Parks and Maya Angelou. With his daughter Jenny Johnson Jordan serving as a life coach for the team in addition to working as associate head coach for UCLA beach volleyball, Johnson was a regular sight at women’s basketball games. He sat in the third row.

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Johnson spoke briefly with sophomore Camryn Brown after a game last year. He called her by her first name and praised her for how active she was on the court. She was stunned that the former Olympic torch bearer knew her.

“He’s this huge Olympic person,” Brown said Wednesday on a video conference. “I can find joy in the fact that, ‘Wow, this person is who I’ve met.’ He’s touched my life in ways that he doesn’t really even understand.”

Brown had six points, seven rebounds and three steals in UCLA’s season-opening rout against Cal State Fullerton. The 5-foot-11 guard prides herself on being an active defensive presence and making small plays that result in big wins.

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It’s the same way Johnson used to play, Close said. Upon hearing the comparison, Brown grinned.

The No. 9 Bruins will need the blue-collar playing style Friday in a top-10 matchup against Arizona, which is led by guard Aari McDonald, who led the Pac-12 in scoring last season and was named conference defensive player of the year. McDonald had 18 points, seven rebounds, eight assists and six steals in Arizona’s win over Northern Arizona on Nov. 29.

“We sort of know what we’re going to get from Aari and Cate Reese and I think they would probably say the same about Ris [UCLA’s Charisma Osborne] and Michaela [Onyenwere],” Close said, ticking off four preseason All-Pac-12 selections. “I think it’s really going to be players like Camryn. ... It’s going to be the ones that step up in new roles and do things and make impact intangible plays.”


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