(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.


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Thursday, March 01, 2012

UCLA Basketball -- What Has Been Going On?

George Dohrmann, whose wonderful book about the troubling, depressing, and sometimes explotiative world of grass-roots basketball in California I wrote about here, wrote a piece in this week's Sports Illustrated that slams the UCLA basketball program for letting entitled high school stars run amok, for Coach's Ben Howland not holding them accountable, and, generally, for a recent demise of the program despite all-universe recruiting classes. I can't link to the article, but it's worthy of reading. Predictably, UCLA disputes Dohrmann's article and is closing ranks around Howland. You can read that piece in the Los Angeles Times here.

I have a few observations:

1. Not all all-world recruits come off badly in Dohrmann's article.

2. Howland comes off badly, as either abusive to his staff and student managers or aloof from his players, opting to let them enforce their own rules. It's a strange portrayal of someone who "manages up" well in corporate parlance, as he always seems to appear on the right media venues and has been a frequent guest on, for example, "Mike & Mike in the Morning" on ESPN Radio. Now, maybe we hear the real Howland with Greenberg and Golic, maybe we don't, so it's up to you to decide. Typically, what we see when people have their make-up on and are on stage differs from rehearsals and when we see them backstage. Translated, that means that no one is as perfect as he might seem when either rehearsed or relaxed.

3. Some all-world recruits come across as spoiled kids, juvenile delinquents, undisciplined or entitled or a combination of all of the above. That makes you wonder whether each and every major college coach has a sufficient amount of control over his program. Or, are the real puppet-masters the people who control the grass-roots and AAU teams that Dorhmann painted a gloomy picture of in his book? The ramifications of the answer to that question are that the grass-roots guys know that they can influence kids to do all sorts of things in exchange for unquestioned playing time, such as transfer to a rival school. So, for example, if Reeves Nelson was a sacred cow for the guys who sponsored his AAU program, David and Dana Pump (of whom Dohrmann has written extensiely), does that mean that Howland felt obligated to give him special treatment or risk damaging his pipeline of California talent, because according to Dohrmann, the Pumps are significant power brokers at the grass roots level? Don't underestimate the potential for that to have happened, as it seems like the AAU coaches have much more influence over kids than their high school coaches do.

4. What would you do when faced with the conundrum of maintaining your job, salary and lifestyle at the prestigious, historic UCLA program by allowing if not condoninng or embracing the petty corruptions that seem to cause even initially the most moral of men to bend if not cross the line by embracing these self-appointed power brokers and then letting the behaviors of the stars slide and accumulate, or, alternatively, take a hard stand, hold kids accountable, shape and mold them, and occasionally kick a kid off the team because he believes that the rules do not or should not apply to him because, well, he played for an elite AAU team in Southern California and had the impression that he was en route to the NBA and that he didn't need much coaching, just the opportunity to showcase and put the finishing gloss on his abilities at the next level?

The irony, of course, is that by seemingly not instilling the discipline that the winning programs seem to have, Howland might have jeopardized his trademark, if not his standing at UCLA, by allowing this to go on. So, if he overlooked things to protect his recruiting pipeline, then he might have damaged his future precisely because the talent from that timeline wouldn't do what it takes to win. In contrast, if he instilled more discipline, some of the most entitled recruits would have taken their games elsewhere, thereby damaging Howland's reputation with the AAU coaches and causing the best home-grown talent to go elsewhere. Mollify the talent, lose games. Adhere to time-honored coaching and leadership standards, jeopardize the pipeline of talent and at least fear that you will not win games. It's not an easy choice, given how great the pressure is to win.

UCLA doesn't agree with Dorhmann's portrayal, and that's to be expected. They have to protect their trademark, their brand. That said, certain numbers do not lie -- the players ultimately dismissed, those who transferred, and disappointing won-loss records given the available talent. That seems to suggest that all is not right in Westwood and has not been at some time, whether people like Ben Howland or not.

In business, leaders discuss a "root-cause analysis" for failures. I frequently subscribe to "Occam's Razor," which suggests that the simplest solution is the best one. To me, the root cause of some of the evils in major college basketball is the grass-roots system, which distorts reality for the most gifted players at a young age and creates a self-image of invincibility and unaccountability. The best players ask for feedback, work harder, work to make their teammates better and set a great example. All coaches should remember that. It seems, at least for a while, that Ben Howland might have forgotten that, so instead of molding a team of stars together, he had a roster of big names that failed to shine.

This, too, shall pass, for UCLA and for Ben Howland. It's a shame that such problems befell a historic program, a seeemingly decent guy in Ben Howland and the players themselves, who should be forgiven because they were just kids at the time. It seems that UCLA is more toward solving its problems than before, but a good lesson should be learned -- coaches and leaders should teach and lead the kids, not use them for their own purposes and gain (and that particularly goes for those who run AAU programs). If everyone remembers that they are there to develop young men into better men, stuff like this won't go on.

Sure, you might have to boot a promising player from the team, suspend him or encourage him to transfer because he will not be happy in your program. But the earlier you do it, the better, as you'll be helping your program and the player at the same time, and, importantly, early enough on for both to rebound.


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