He was flying high over the Rocky Mountains with America’s darling college basketball team … and they were all about to die.
What sounded like the fictional Rolling Stone magazine story involving the rock band Stillwater in “Almost Famous” was terrifyingly real for Mick Cronin. His UCLA Bruins were about 90 minutes into a chartered flight to Milwaukee to play Marquette in December when a jarring announcement came over the loudspeakers: The plane needed diverting.
No reason was given, but word quickly spread to Cronin in the coach’s seat near the front of the converted Boeing 737. The cockpit windshield had shattered. The plane needed to land immediately.
The Bruins’ bid to reach a second consecutive Final Four has rarely been the-seatbelt-sign-is-now-off smooth. There have been some wacky setbacks, leading scorer Johnny Juzang falling off a scooter, center Myles Johnson accidentally elbowing two teammates in the face and forward Mac Etienne getting cited by police for allegedly spitting at taunting Arizona fans.
Three players went down because of serious knee injuries, two lost for the season. Guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. constantly dealt with bad ankles. Top defender Jaylen Clark sustained several blows to the head that sidelined him for extended stretches. The team didn’t play for 26 days after a COVID-19 outbreak.
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Some might say the Bruins have done well just to make it this far. Fourth-seeded UCLA (25-7) will open the NCAA tournament on Thursday evening at the Moda Center against 13th-seeded Akron (24-9) after pushing through a slew of difficulties, none more dire than the crisis at 30,000 feet.
As the Bruins eyed one another nervously on that flight, there was no play they could call, no shot they could take, that would dictate their fate. Cronin gazed at his 15-year-old stepson, seated nearby. He thought about the more than dozen players on board and how their lives were just starting and how he was responsible for them all.
“They’re kids,” Cronin recently told The Times while recalling the ordeal. “I’ve had a heck of a run if it ends tomorrow.”
Images of what might be happening in the cockpit were unavoidable. Cronin pictured an imploded windshield sucking air into the plane, the captain and first officer covering their faces with masks like fighter pilots.
Seated behind their coach, the players didn’t know the severity of the situation. Some slept through it. Juzang contemplated how he might get farewell messages to family and friends. The turbulence that wobbled the plane during a rapid descent toward the Denver International Airport, accompanied by an eerie noise, further jangled everyone’s nerves.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” Jaquez would say a day later, “if we’re going to live or if we’re going to die.”
The bumpy ride ended without further incident, the Bruins going on to Milwaukee on a different plane the next morning. They beat the Golden Eagles with ease, giving Cronin confidence that his team was rounding into form.
“I thought the Marquette game was a turning point for us where we were finally kind of able to put last year, the Final Four run, to bed and get focused on this year,” he said.
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The coach paused for a moment before adding, with a laugh, “and then COVID hit.”
Three days after returning from Milwaukee, Cronin woke up feeling crummy.
The symptoms were instantly recognizable, and he knew he had to get tested. A positive result ruled the coach out for that night’s game against Alabama State. Plans were hatched for veteran assistant Darren Savino to coach the team.
Less than an hour before tipoff, as fears mounted about a widespread outbreak, the game was canceled. More than 10 positive tests among players, coaches and staff came back in the next few days, leading to the cancellation of a showdown against North Carolina in Las Vegas. Players departed for Christmas break not knowing when they might play again.
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When the team resumed practice on Dec. 27, it had four scholarship players available. Games against Arizona State and Arizona were postponed, part of four Pac-12 games the Bruins eventually had to make up. As additional players rejoined the team after being medically cleared, they were so out of shape that a few vomited in a trash can while running sprints.
The team put out calls seeking a replacement opponent before restarting its conference schedule. Long Beach State agreed to come to Pauley Pavilion for the second time in as many months, suffering a nearly identical fate in a 96-78 loss.
There was one significant difference. This game was played in front of just a smattering of family members as part of increased attendance restrictions amid the surging Omicron variant.
No amount of fake fan noise could substitute for the real thing. A week later, playing before another tiny home crowd, UCLA came out flat before getting flattened during an overtime defeat against Oregon.
It was the Bruins’ only home loss of the season.
A team that returned every contributor from that remarkable run from the First Four to the Final Four a year ago didn’t make it to the season opener without casualties.
Freshman guard Will McClendon, expected to provide shooting and defense off the bench, suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in preseason workouts. About a month later, Etienne went down with the same injury.
In his first 24 seasons as a college coach, Cronin only had one player suffer a torn ACL; now he was dealing with a third Bruin sustaining that injury in a matter of months after Chris Smith also hurt his knee in December 2020.
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The season opener offered no reprieve. Forward Cody Riley got tangled up with a Cal State Bakersfield player and suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee. That left the Bruins with only one proven big man in Johnson, the graduate transfer from Rutgers, until Riley returned in January.
The team persevered for a pulsating overtime triumph over then-No. 4 Villanova and entered a heavily anticipated rematch with top-ranked Gonzaga — seven months after the Bulldogs prevailed on a buzzer-beating 40-footer in the Final Four — as the No. 2 team in the country. Having slogged their way to a win over Bellarmine the previous night, the Bruins came out listless again and got trampled by 20 points.
There was a partial explanation, though Cronin wasn’t about to use it as an excuse. Cold and flu symptoms had ravaged the roster in the season’s early going, most everyone feeling out of sorts. None of that mattered to Cronin.
“People play sick,” he said last week. “They beat our ass, period.”
The hits that Jaquez kept taking were literal. An errant elbow from Johnson that caused blood to gush from his face during a game against Nevada Las Vegas. His head hitting the hardwood with a thud only four days later. Ankles that were sprained and inflamed, requiring protective braces and robbing him of his usual lift around the basket.
Starting with a loss to rival USC on Feb. 12, Jaquez averaged 4.3 points during a three-game span in which he shot 31.6%, hardly resembling the player the team had heavily relied on since his freshman season.
That setback against the Trojans represented the team’s third loss in four games. At that point, a return trip to the Final Four represented a worry for another day. This team needed to prove it belonged among the top four in its conference.
Sustaining a rhythm has been tricky for a team that has had its expected starting lineup available in only 17 games because of injuries and illnesses, not to mention a one-game suspension for point guard Tyger Campbell because of an unspecified violation of team rules.
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“It’s like somebody’s got a voodoo doll poking holes in my team,” Cronin cracked in late February.
Juzang, one of the team’s three scholarship players to avoid the initial COVID-19 outbreak, later contracted the disease and missed two games. He sat out another game after taking a tumble off his scooter and injuring his hip. A sprained ankle suffered late last month forced him to miss an additional 2½ games.
As if the Bruins didn’t have enough issues, they were forced to play six games in 12 days near the end of the regular season because of makeup games. Cronin pushed back against the busy stretch, resting Riley one game while calling it load management.
Just as it had toward the end of its first two seasons under Cronin, UCLA started to play some of its best basketball, winning six of seven games before the Pac-12 tournament. Jaquez powered through his ankle injuries to become a low-post force, averaging 23.4 points on 56.8% shooting over his last five games. Johnson used those massive elbows to help him deflect passes, block shots and grab rebounds while moving into the starting lineup.
Finally healthy, the Bruins reached the Pac-12 tournament championship, where Juzang started to resemble the player who went on a scoring spree in last season’s NCAA tournament. After sinking a three-pointer at the halftime buzzer, he snarled and shimmied his upper body.
“We’ve got to get him back to being great for March Madness,” Cronin said after falling to Arizona. “So hopefully, knock on wood, we’ve got everything in our past.”
After all the disruptions, as they enter the season’s most meaningful stretch, the Bruins appear to be flying high again, ready for wherever this ride will take them.
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