Though it has been deemed an inspirational icon, the photograph on the wall in the UCLA locker room looks suspiciously like a tacky postcard of a rainbow piercing the roof of Seattle's Kingdome, the site of this year's Final Four. The picture serves to remind the Bruins of a little detour they took before a game against Washington on Feb. 9. Coach Jim Harrick had the team bus stop at the Kingdome, and he sneaked his troops in for a quick visit, wanting them to see for themselves the destination they aspire to this season. "We hoped to get their hearts started a little bit," Harrick says, "just to see how our guys would react." Much to his delight, the Bruins' pulse rates haven't come down yet.
Harrick's move was a calculated preemptive strike against the most recent and ugly UCLA basketball tradition, the one that Harrick would rather not talk about. During his previous six seasons in Westwood, his teams have exhibited a tendency to start quickly—only to free-fall down the stretch (chart, page 51). The notion now persists that, if this is February, the Bruins' basketball fortunes should start dropping faster than the value of the peso. The malady reached the critical stage a year ago when UCLA broke from the gate 14-0 and assumed the No. 1 ranking, only to finish 7-7, cough up the conference title to Arizona and ultimately suffer a devastating opening-round loss to Tulsa in the NCAA tournament.
So here we go again. The 1994-95 Bruins have started like the hare. "I wish I could say that we aren't going to take a nosedive," senior forward Ed O'Bannon said last week, "but it's constantly in the back of our minds. It comes from being disappointed so many times in the past. For the last few years we've been talking about all the Pac-10 titles we were going to win and all the Final Fours we were going to make. If talk won games, we'd have another 10 NCAA championships already."
Sitting in his office last Friday, two days before UCLA was to face archrival Arizona in Pauley Pavilion, Harrick begged to differ. He adamantly defended his record. He proudly pointed out that his current seniors, O'Bannon, Tyus Edney and George Zidek, have an opportunity to win 100 games in their careers. For the seniors to attain that goal, the Bruins must win the rest of their regular-season games and then do what they have not done since 1980—reach the Final Four. "People just look at what we've done in the NCAAs and then say, 'Harrick's on the hot seat,' but I can tell you that it's not even warm," said Harrick, touching his chair for effect.
As the bitter Pac-10 rivals prepared to square off on Sunday, it was safe to say that the Bruins' late-season troubles had not escaped the notice of their friends from Tucson. "Sure, we realize that they always seem to come out of the box last and then collapse," said Damon Stoudamire, the star guard of the then No. 12 Wildcats. "Maybe we can beat UCLA and send it plunging into another tailspin."
Even before facing Arizona, the Bruins had a tough test last Thursday against then No. 13 Arizona State. And Harrick didn't try to minimize the importance of the two games. He told the Bruins that this would be Championship Weekend at UCLA—but whose championship? With one game separating the three teams, the Pac-10 title was up for grabs.
After the Bruins fell behind Arizona State by five points with 2:12 left, it was starting to look like swoon time again in Westwood. But UCLA clawed its way back with the help of a big three-pointer by O'Bannon and prevailed 82-77 in OT. Then, O'Bannon lifted the Bruins on his shoulders once more against Arizona, scoring 31 points as UCLA dispatched the Wildcats 72-70 and put a half nelson on the conference title—a two-game lead with five games to go.
Surprise. UCLA is now 18-2, ranked No. 2 and looking squarely at the top seed in the West Regional come NCAA tournament time. Through it all, the Bruins have been willed ahead by O'Bannon, who just might be having the most sublime season of any player in the country. Still, it appears that if UCLA is to go to the promised land, a child or two shall have to help lead them.
It is worth noting that the Bruins' current crop of freshman recruits is the first in which none of the players was even born when UCLA won the most recent of its 10 national titles, in 1975. "When was the last championship?" asked freshman J.R. Henderson, standing directly beneath the '75 NCAA banner inside Pauley last week. "I don't know a single thing about it."
"It's like a myth from a different age," said another freshman, 6'5" swingman Toby Bailey.
In fact, the only freshman able to identify the year that UCLA last won a title was Kris Johnson, who must be considered a ringer in this competition. Kris's father, Marques, was a starting forward on the 1975 team. "This is a whole new era," says Kris, "and now we're young Bruins craving a championship."
While Kris has been slowed by injuries most of the season, Henderson and Bailey have been indispensable contributors. Henderson was drilled on the playground by his father, Milton Sr., who in the mid-1970s played in the same backcourt with Maurice Cheeks at West Texas State. Milton Jr. (a.k.a. J.R.) was an impressive scorer as a senior at East Bakersfield (Calif.) High, but his detached demeanor made coaches question his attitude, and he was not selected for the McDonald's All-Star game last spring, a particularly galling slight since he was working at the Golden Arches at the time.
Henderson's apparent disinterest masks a quiet intensity. Before his first start, at Oregon State in January, it appeared as if he might be slipping into a coma. Says Harrick, "I looked out there at J.R., and I said, 'Is he going to be awake for the tip?' "
Henderson has started every game since for the Bruins and at week's end was averaging 9.1 points and 4.2 rebounds a game. The versatile 6'9" freshman has split time between center, forward and guard, and is sometimes asked to bring the ball up the floor and run the offense in order to take some of the load off Edney, the usual point guard, whose knees are ailing. Bailey has worked exclusively off the bench but increasingly has found himself on the court in the final minutes. Described by Harrick as "a starter who doesn't start," Bailey acts as the Bruins' human jumper cable.
Against Arizona on Sunday, Bailey entered at the 13:00 mark of the first half and scored seven points in his first two minutes of action—on two free throws, a three-pointer and a follow-up rebound basket. Meanwhile, O'Bannon was hitting a couple of three-pointers of his own in the opening half, a godsend to a team that averages only four such field goals a game, by far the fewest in the Pac-10.
The Bruins and the Wildcats traded punches most of the way until Bailey caught fire again in the second half, scoring eight straight UCLA points to give the Bruins a 60-55 lead with 8:28 to go. O'Bannon's last free throw proved to be the final point of the game and also gave him a career high, mercifully expunging from the record books his 30-point performance in last year's Tulsa nightmare. "It was just too much Ed O'Bannon out there," Harrick said afterward. "They have yet to invent a defense that could stop him today."
Obscured by O'Bannon's heroics was a key strategic move made by Harrick, who had noticed on the film of UCLA's first game against Arizona this year that Bailey had guarded Stoudamire for six minutes and hadn't allowed him to launch a single shot. So Bailey and his six-inch height advantage shadowed the 5'11" Stoudamire throughout the final half on Sunday. "In that first game I actually said to myself, Wow, I'm guarding Damon Stoudamire, one of my idols; I hope he doesn't make me look like a fool," Bailey recalls. "But this time I wasn't a baby freshman anymore. I've matured a lot since then. I don't have any more idols."
While holding Stoudamire to only three second-half baskets, Bailey also scored 19 points, including a rousing dunk—preceded by an astonishing behind-the-back move—that all but sealed the win with :20 left. "Bailey played real, real big, especially on defense," said Harrick.
So, with Championship Weekend successfully concluded, the Bruins now must guard against the kind of letdown that has haunted them in the past. There was a significant dearth of trash talk in the UCLA locker room after the game, and the optimism was notably cautious. "The Pac-10 title is ours to lose," said sophomore forward Charles O'Bannon, Ed's little brother, before quickly catching himself. "Strike that. I should say it's ours to win."
The Bruins even created converts from among their harshest critics. "Come tournament time, everybody's going to be riding them, calling them chokers, saying Harrick can't coach," Arizona's trash-talking guard Reggie Geary said after Sunday's game. "But I believe that team can bear down and take care of business. They proved to me they're a team to be reckoned with."
"There are no guarantees in life, but I believe this team is finally setting a common goal," said Ed O'Bannon, pointing toward the photo of the Kingdome. "I hope we get there, so the freshmen and sophomores in this room won't have to go through college with the stigma of being underachievers, because I can promise you, it's not pleasant."
"When I first came in this locker room, that was just a picture on a wall, but after we visited the Dome, I started to wonder about playing there in front of 40,000 people at the Final Four," said Bailey, giddy at the notion. "Freshmen are blind and crazy sometimes. We're still young enough to dream, aren't we?"
Then, answering his own question, Bailey sneaked one last peek at the icon, dreaming for just a moment about what lies at the end of the rainbow.
Bailey may be too young to remember UCLA's glory days, but he doesn't play like a freshman.
Ed O'Bannon (31) won't eclipse the Bruin stars of old, but one big fan turned out to see him play Arizona.
At 6'9", Henderson (52) can play the point or put points on the board.