Freshman hazing is an innocuous yet curiously elusive concept on
the UCLA basketball team. After a preseason practice in early
November, all five of the Bruins freshmen--the consensus choice
as the country's best recruiting class--were herded into the
team's Pauley Pavilion locker room and forced to dance in front
of a video camera to the song How Deep Is Your Love by Dru Hill
and Redman. Production problems developed as soon as the camera
started rolling. "Everybody started gettin' busy, not just the
freshmen," says sophomore guard Baron Davis, whose unplanned
boogying cast him in the odd role of hazing himself.
Such confusion is understandable when 12 of your team's 14
players--and all the regulars--are either freshmen or
sophomores. The baby Bruins have less experience than any other
Division I school except Southwestern Louisiana, and in November
they played like it, losing to Maryland and Kentucky in the
Puerto Rico Shootout. Since then, however, UCLA has squeezed off
eight straight wins, including home victories over No. 6 Arizona
last Saturday (82-75) and Arizona State on Monday (88-85, in
overtime). In so doing the Bruins ran their record to 10-2,
lifted their ranking to No. 7 and established themselves as a
team that, with some sorely needed maturity, could contend for
the national title. "We're not ready to accept the fact that
we're young, and therefore we'll be ready a couple of years down
the road," says third-year coach Steve Lavin. "We think we're
capable of winning it all this year."
That will depend on the development of the most talented
freshman class since (Warning: hype approaching) Michigan's Fab
Five. While 6'3" guard Ray Young and 6'7" forward Matt Barnes
have contributed as reserves, three other first-year
players--Dan Gadzuric, JaRon Rush and Jerome Moiso--have spent
most of the season in Lavin's starting lineup. Gadzuric, a
6'10", 245-pound center from The Hague, the Netherlands, has
averaged 8.4 points and 5.7 rebounds even though he has been
hobbled by tendinitis in both knees. Gadzuric played soccer
until he was 13, when he took up basketball to make better use
of his great "length," as he puts it. "I had no idols," he says.
"We didn't get any basketball games on TV, and I spent a lot of
time playing by myself." He found companionship on the court by
spending three years in Byfield, Mass., where he was a
McDonald's All-America at Governor Dummer Academy.
Then there's Rush, UCLA's highly touted 6'6" forward from the
Pembroke Hill School in Kansas City, Kans. Rush has started
seven games for the Bruins, averaging 11.9 points despite
suffering from a sore back and, it turned out, a serious bout of
homesickness. Dru Hill has another song, called One Good Reason,
which was exactly what Rush didn't have when he stayed home in
Kansas City after Christmas break, missing two practices and the
Bruins' 92-67 victory on Dec. 29 over Loyola Marymount. Rush
said that he had been late for his Dec. 28 plane to L.A. and
that instead of simply catching the next flight, he returned
home to his family and began enjoying himself so much that he
spent the next two days there. After a three-hour conversation
with Rush when he returned to UCLA on the 30th, Lavin suspended
him for the Arizona game, saying, "I've got to find a balance of
tough love and understanding."
Gadzuric and Rush were expected to be at the head of the Bruins'
class of 2002, but the surprise of the year has been Moiso
(mo-EE-so), a 6'11", 230-pound forward who at week's end was
leading UCLA with 13.7 points and 6.8 rebounds a game while
showing off a dazzling array of offensive skills: a virtually
unblockable turnaround jumper, a deadly hook and a lefthanded,
roof-scraping outside shot. He popped for 25 in the 66-62 loss
to Kentucky, the highest output this season for a Bruins freshman.
Moiso grew up in Guadeloupe, the French Caribbean territory that
has produced such athletes as Marie-Jose Perec, the
gold-medal-winning sprinter at the 1992 and '96 Olympics, and
World Cup '98 soccer star Lilian Thuram. He took up basketball
at age 13, playing on an outdoor asphalt court in his hometown
of Abymes. "The impact of the Dream Team was what got me
interested," Moiso says in his rolling French accent. Soon he
was discovered by Georges Bengaber, a member of the French
basketball federation, who invited him to join Bamelot,
Bengaber's club team in Guadeloupe.
Bengaber taught him the fundamentals well enough that by age 14
Moiso made a French Caribbean all-star team that traveled to
France for a series of games. There, officials from the National
Institute of Sport spotted him and offered him a chance to come
to their academy, where he honed his skills against the country's
top young players from 1994 to '97.
Although he has played for both the French junior and senior
teams, Moiso has mixed feelings about France. Born in Paris, he
moved immediately to Guadeloupe with his mother, Anick, who works
in Abymes as a nurse. Jerome feels no attachment to his father,
who lives on the mainland. It's worth noting that when France
played Brazil in last year's World Cup soccer final, Moiso was
rooting for Brazil even though he watched the game on a bus in
Italy with the French junior team.
It was in Orlando, at the 1997 Nike Hoop Summit, which pitted an
international all-star team against a team of U.S. high school
stars, that Moiso first met UCLA assistant coach Jim Saia. Before
committing to the Bruins, Moiso spent a postgrad semester at
Milford (Conn.) Academy last year to improve his SAT score, but
his game, like Gadzuric's, retains a Continental flavor. "They're
more agile than most big men you see here," says Davis. "Dan is a
center, and he's one of the fastest guys on the team, and Jerome
has so many moves, it's scary."
Even so, neither Gadzuric nor Moiso started against Arizona--Lavin
sat them for taking off practice earlier in the week with what he
considered minor maladies--and yet by the time they had both come
off the bench, with 16:13 to play in the first half, UCLA led
13-4. Before long they were displaying the agility that Davis had
talked about. On one play Bruins sophomore guard Earl Watson
attempted a lob pass to Gadzuric. Realizing that the ball was
thrown too high, Gadzuric wheeled to face the basket, caught the
ball off the glass and then went up and dunked it.
Moiso was no less impressive, whether he was adjusting in midair
to snatch an entry pass, hitting a turnaround jumper in the face
of Arizona's A.J. Bramlett or beating the shot clock with his
first three-pointer of the year. In a game that UCLA dominated,
Moiso finished with a game-high 21 points and Gadzuric had 10.
"I've never seen anyone even close to their big freshmen," said
Arizona coach Lute Olson afterward. "Moiso's an incredible jumper
and as good a shooter as they have. If he gets out at the top of
the key, you had better guard him."
Note to Lute: If you run into Moiso off the court, be sure to
guard against his wit, too. When asked last week why he wears the
number 0 on his uniform, Moiso had a quick reply: "Because I'm
not a very good player." Then he smiled. Confidence comes easily
when you're making all the right moves.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH HIGH 5 An old-timer as a mere sophomore, Davis soared for 20 points as the Bruins bounced the sixth-ranked Wildcats. [Baron Davis]