Pauley Pavilion. Home of more championship banners than any other college arena. Old stomping grounds of Lew Alcindor, Bill Walton, and John Wooden. Truly one of the sacred places in all of college basketball. What’s cooler than enjoying an exhibition game there with 5,000 other people?
(OK, OK, I shouldn’t make fun of UCLA fan for not showing up. College sports are different in the big city than they are in the hinterlands of the Midwest. In many ways, they can define an entire state where there’s not much else going on. In California in general and LA in specific, there’s a whole different attitude about college sports. They’re front running fans to begin with. Then the fact that there are a million and one other things to do each night rather than go to a meaningless college game. Like the Lakers playing last Wednesday across town, for example. So it’s not fair to compare a preseason game in Lawrence or Bloomington to one in the heart of LA. Just to prove how different things are, as I was walking in, a couple students who passed me said, in unaccented English, “Is there a basketball game tonight?”)
Last Wednesday was the night that massive storm hit the LA area. Luckily, it never hit the Westwood, so I had no difficulty finding Pauley or making it inside without getting soaked. I took a quick walk around the outside of the building to check out the massive sports complex that sits in the middle of campus. Lit, intramural football fields took up more territory than most Midwest schools’ varsity practice facilities. A tennis center built not just to host UCLA matches, but pro matches as well (10,000 seats, I bet). The whole time I walked around, I kept thinking, “Jackie freaking Robinson went to school here.” It’s very cool that Wilt Chamberlain went to KU. I love surprising people with that fact. Having a Wilt or Michael Jordan or Shaq among your alumni is very cool. But Jackie Robinson trumps everyone.
The whole time I was walking around, a loop kept running over and over on the loudspeakers. The first few bars of the UCLA fight song, followed by a perfect voice-over announcer, “Welcome to historic Pauley Pavilion the home of the UCLA Bruins. Tonight’s contest is between UCLA and the EA Sports West All-Stars.” Every 30 seconds, it would replay. You walk in Pauley about 2/3 of the way up; the bulk of the seats and the court are below you. Whenever I visit a new arena, I take a look at the court, get a feel for the seats, and then look up into the rafters. I’m a fan of minimalism when it comes to banners. It’s regal. It’s clean. It shows you’re comfortable with your success, rather than surprised by it. There is no more minimalist set of banners than UCLA’s. Eleven national championship banners for the men’s basketball team circle the building. One for the women’s basketball team. And a banner each for the collected national championships for the men’s and women’s gymnastic teams. No retired banners. No Final Four banners (UCLA has actually lost a game in the Final Four on occasion). Nary a reference to their many conference championships. At UCLA, you have to win a national championship to get hoisted into the rafters. Very cool.
I grabbed a hot dog and a large Sprite ($7 total. Ticket, $7. Parking $7. Hmmmm…) and found my seat in the upper level. The EA Sports West All-Stars were catering to the locals, and featured three former Bruins on their roster: Matt Barnes (the ultimate Steve Lavin player. How is a guy with this much talent playing on roving All-Star teams a year after he left school?), Ray Young, and Ed O’Bannon. Forget the fact he had one of the greatest college hoopster names of all time (“ED O’BANNON!”), or that he looked absolutely perfect cutting the nets down in 1994, Ed O’Bannon is to modern UCLA fans what Danny Manning is to me. He’s the living link to the last title. And like Manning, his so-so NBA career makes his college exploits even more impressive. It’s almost like the basketball gods decided Ed and Danny should always be remembered for how they ended their college careers rather than anything they did after that. As an added bonus, EA ran out Rico Hines, another former UCLA player, about halfway through the first half. “Tonight’s special guest host…” I was close to Hollywood, after all.
One of the strangest things about Pauley is the empty space around the court. For those of you who have been to Allen Fieldhouse, imagine the area behind the baskets between the court and the bleachers being about 100 feet of bare concrete rather than an extension of the court that is only 20 feet or so wide. I’m not sure why, but the bleachers on each end are placed well back from the court. For only holding 12,000+ people, Pauley feels a lot bigger because of this empty space. It’s bizarre. I’m sure it has something to do with earthquakes, mudslides, or rampaging fires. Then, other than the bleachers that surround the court, everyone gets an upholstered seat with arms all to themselves. No chance of squeezing in an extra few hundred fans for big games by asking people to share their bleacher space with someone else. Comfortable, but I don’t want to be comfortable at a college-sporting event.
I took my seat, with my free scoring sheet in hand, and watched the teams warm up. The UCLA band was there, but they sat quietly as regular music blasted over the speakers. Was I at a college game? A collection of former players (and other former athletes I presume) gathered behind the UCLA bench, giving each other the obligatory modern male hug (grip right hands, back pound with the left hand). I recognized Marques Johnson. I was hoping Jamaal Wilkes would show up so I could thank him for sending his son to KU. Periodically a 60 second highlight package of the history of UCLA basketball would run on the video board. I was disappointed there were no pictures of Jim Harrick (understandable) or Tyus Edney (unforgivable). I was also pleased that like us unsophisticated fashion freaks in the Midwest, UCLA can’t decide on their school colors. Some people had on the traditional powder blue and bright yellow colors. Others had colors closer to those of the old LA Rams. Still others wore shirts that were really Cal colors, which should be a sin if you’re a UCLA fan. It’s comforting to know other schools have issues with agreeing on a shade of their primary color. (And can we all just agree that’s it’s idiotic for schools to go for “tougher” colors when UCLA and North Carolina, with their baby blues, are two of the most successful athletic programs in the country and always at the top in terms of marketing sales.)
The game finally starts, with all 5,000 of us on the edges of our seats. Just as the ball is tossed into the air, someone yells out, “NO MORE LAVIN!!!!” This guy was on the opposite side of the arena and I could hear him clearly. It was quiet enough that I could hear coaches of both teams yelling at their players throughout the game. I imagined myself as a coach who was totally pissed at his team’s play and taking advantage of the acoustics, “If you don’t fucking block out, Matt, I’m pulling your fucking scholarship and you’re walking your sorry ass home.” Another weird thing was the lights over those of us in the upper level were turned off as soon as the ball was tipped. It didn’t really improve my ability to see the action, so I thought that was strange. As for the game, sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. All-star teams are always a bunch of chuckers looking to score 30 on a good team and get a look from an NBA team. College teams, especially those like UCLA that are breaking in new coaches, are generally rusty in their first exhibition game. Balls were kicked, tossed into the seats, and heaved violently against the backboard. There was nothing aesthetically pleasing about what was going on on the court. To complicate matters, UCLA was clearly using its C team of cheerleaders, so there wasn’t much aesthetically pleasing off the court either. They were true cheerleaders, though, leading the student section in specific cheers during the game.
There’s something about college aged kids in UCLA gear that creates the ultimate college look. It harkens back to the late 50s, early 60s Joe College age. It’s a fresh and pure look, from an age before cynicism set in. Plus, I always think of Janet Jones in The Flamingo Kid. Solid. My perspective is probably still affected by my strong desire to attend UCLA from the time I was nine until I was 17 or so. In fact, when we moved to California, I got very excited since I could pay in-state tuition. Of course, finding out that the first B I got my freshman year of high school pretty much eliminated me from ever getting accepted put a damper on those dreams. But even into my senior year of high school, I had a UCLA hat and shirt that I wore often (Sadly, I wore them together on occasion. Worse look ever, if it’s not a game day, is wearing both a shirt and hat of your favorite team. One is enough. Only exception is if you’re under the age of 14 or actually in school.). Then I got to college and they moved to #3 on my most hated schools list. But that’s just because of basketball and recruiting.
Two more things. First, there’s something cool about the fact that UCLA has an all-sports deal with Adidas. I’ve long been a strict Nike man. It shows how cool UCLA, as a whole, is that they can sign a deal to wear Adidas and not worry about relying on the Swoosh to get props. Finally, John Wooden. I spent at least ten minutes just staring at him. He sat right behind the UCLA bench, sharing popcorn with some people in his row. At each timeout, people would approach him and shake his hand, offer paper for autographs, or just smile and wave. He’s like 107 years old and seemed alert and eager to talk to people. On a scale of 1-10, this was about a 25 on the chill factor scale. The greatest coach ever, just hanging out, enjoying the game. You don’t see that bastard Dean Smith doing this.
UCLA was ahead 34-24 late in the first half when the EA All-Stars put a run together and took a 37-36 lead into the locker rooms at halftime. I decided to pack it in at that point. It was only 8:00, but my body was telling me it was 11:00. Visalia, CA, free horse manure in Fresneck, a feature on the Fresno morning show about the new line of Bobcats, and Pauley Pavilion all in one day was too much for my system. All in all, I was impressed with Pauley and UCLA. I’d love to spend an afternoon walking around campus (that was my plan the next day but I didn’t have time) and to see a game that mattered there one day. But just being inside an arena full of so much history was enough for me.