Column: UCLA point guard Tyger Campbell responds to offensive hair taunts with clutch play

UCLA guard Tyger Campbell in action against Akron during a first-round NCAA tournament game.
UCLA guard Tyger Campbell dribbles against Akron during a first-round NCAA tournament game on March 17 in Portland, Ore.
(Craig Mitchelldyer / Associated Press)

The first thing you notice is the hair.

Of course you do. Everybody does. It’s one of the talking points of the NCAA tournament. Reporters have asked about it. Announcers have wondered about it. The cameras are in love with it.

“It’s just my hair to me … it just looks all crazy,” UCLA’s Tyger Campbell said with a chuckle.

It’s crazy spectacular, this wonderous collection of freeform dreadlocks that rise from Campbell’s regal smile like some majestic crown.

He began letting it grow when he was 11 because he hated getting haircuts. He later decided he wanted to express himself through dreds, and his parents acquiesced in exchange for a guarantee that he would not express himself through tattoos. Today his skin is free of script, and he has had exactly one haircut in the last decade.

“I’ve had it for so long, I don’t really look at it like a big deal,” Campbell said.


Opposing fans, however, think it’s a huge deal. His beauty has been a beast. Throughout the Pac-12, he is constantly taunted about his hair, or because of his hair.

Fans hold up signs urging him to get his hair cut. Fans shout that he’s a bad player because of his hair. Fans in Arizona chanted his name with a profanity for 35 minutes because of an animosity seemingly based on his hair. The taunting left his 12-year-old brother Trez in tears and led his mother to later confront Wildcats’ coach Tommy Lloyd about his failure to control the crowd.

UCLA star Jaime Jaquez Jr. hails from a competitive Mexican-American family that explains how he manages to push through injuries to play.

“I don’t know how many grown men heckle another man about their hair, that’s weird,” said his mother Jennifer Krekeler-Campbell. “But, they do.”

Yet, it doesn’t work. He doesn’t rattle. He doesn’t respond. He plays through the boos. He rises above the hate.

His hair, his mother said, “is such an expression of him,” that he simply doesn’t care what they think or say.

“People think they can try to get into his head,” Krekeler-Campbell said. “They don’t.”

Truly, the only thing bigger than Tyger Campbell’s hair is his heart.

He has ignored the unruly fans to become one of the country’s best point-guard playmakers. He has tuned out the negative voices to become an increasingly accurate shooter and the team’s leading tournament scorer.

He doesn’t hear them. He doesn’t see them. He doesn’t look around. He only looks ahead.

“I don’t really worry about it. … I just focus on what I can control … how I can help the team,” he said. “It would bother me if it was something like me making a mistake, but I can’t control what the fans are chanting at me, so I try not to let it affect me.”

UCLA coach Mick Cronin notices. All the Bruins notice. They wince at the insults. They feed off of his response.

“He’s got tremendous, tremendous toughness,” Cronin said. “That kid, he’s a fighter.”

UCLA guard Tyger Campbell puts up a shot over the defense of Saint Mary's forward Kyle Bowen.
UCLA guard Tyger Campbell puts up a shot over the defense of Saint Mary’s forward Kyle Bowen (14) during the second half of a second-round NCAA tournament game Saturday in Portland, Ore.
(Craig Mitchelldyer / Associated Press)

During a brief span on a misty night in Portland last week, he put it all together to save a season.

With the Bruins on the ropes against Akron in the first round, Campbell again turned off his ears and put on his blinders and calmly scored eight of the Bruins’ final 10 points in their 57-53 victory.

Corner three. Mid-range jumper. Logo three. Shrug. Shrug. Shrug.

“Just making sure we win,” he said afterward of his trademark lack of emotion. “I don’t really fall into those selfish things or getting hyped or anything.”

He was calm and cold-blooded again in the second-round win against Saint Mary’s, scoring 16 points with four assists, one turnover and a perfect eight-for-eight night at the free-throw line. He will need to be even sharper Friday at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center in the Bruins’ Sweet 16 matchup with North Carolina, especially since UCLA’s emotional leader Jaime Jaquez Jr. is hobbled because of a sprained ankle.

The Tar Heels will surely bring a big crowd north. Some kids will surely start chanting about you-know-what. But they should know, if they imitate countless other jeering sections by playing the Bob Marley card … well, his family considers that a compliment.

“People try to make it negative thing about the Bob Marley thing … but if you listen to Bob Marley, the vibe that he is, that chillness that he was, it really does embody Tyger,” Krekeler-Campbell said. “He’s laid back, he’s cool, he loves everyone, he wants everyone to get along, he kind of has that Rastafarian feel.”

Campbell has always been the object of attention, even before he had hair. Take his first name. Yep, it’s what you might think. Krekeler-Campbell was giving birth to him in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, as Tiger Woods was on the hospital room television winning the 2000 Mercedes Championship.

“I was watching ESPN when I was giving birth and I was like, ‘What would be a cool name to be heard when a sportscaster is calling out his name?’ she said of a conversation with her husband Tony. “We were saying names out loud and we picked Tiger, and obviously we’re watching Tiger Woods and we’re like, ‘Tiger, duh, it’s a great name.’ ”

He’s got tremendous, tremendous toughness. That kid, he’s a fighter

— UCLA coach Mick Cronin

UCLA guard Tyger Campbell reacts with center Myles Johnson and Kenneth Nwuba.
UCLA guard Tyger Campbell (10) reacts with center Myles Johnson (15) and Kenneth Nwuba, center, after a second-round NCAA tournament game against Saint Mary’s, on Saturday in Portland, Ore.
(Craig Mitchelldyer / Associated Press)

They substituted a ‘y’ to make the name different, and a star was born, with Campbell streaking across the national junior basketball circuit by the time he was in eighth grade and playing in the center of attention since.

“Tyger has been through a lot as a young person. … He’s always had the hair… he was rated in the top three in the country as a grade-school player … he’s always had high expectations and had to live up to them,” Cronin said.

Then he arrived at UCLA in 2018 and suffered a season-ending knee injury before the season started. When he recovered, Steve Alford had been fired, Cronin had been hired and Campbell was charged with carrying out the tough coach’s hardscrabble vision.

Three years later, they are a perfect match, even if it does seem as if Cronin jumps a little higher and screams a little louder when addressing his veteran point guard.

Said Campbell: “When [Cronin] got the job my freshman year, he could have recruited a lot of other players, he kind of just let me grow and keep working. … He really just had my back, I’ve just grown through him instilling confidence in me.”

Said Cronin: “He’s a huge reason why we’ve been able to do what we’ve been able to do these last three years to build this program, a huge reason.”

Yet after all this, it still inevitably comes back to the hair, which was the topic of this question posed to him during a news conference last weekend during the first round in Portland.

UCLA guard Johnny Juzang was an electric scorer during the Bruins’ Final Four run last year, but he has been far less productive this NCAA tournament.

“There is an ongoing conversation in the Pac-12 about who’s hair is heavier, yours or Haley Jones at Stanford who plays with an intense weave. Are you familiar with her?”

Krekeler-Campbell heard the question and later said, “That was cringe-worthy … a little cringey.”

Campbell heard the question and — what else? — shrugged and smiled and answered with an uncommon grace.

“Yeah, I’ve seen some stuff, but I don’t know how much my hair weighs,” he responded. “I have never weighed my hair. Probably a couple pounds, a little heavy.”

On the contrary, the weight is probably incalculable.

Goodness, does Tyger Campbell carry it well.