Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The NBA's worst-kept secret: UCLA

The NBA's worst-kept secret: UCLA

By Steve Ritea
UCLA Today
Aug 30, 2011

Lakers forward Ron Artest (center), who's petitioned to change his name to Metta World Peace, plays a pick-up game at the Student Activities Center, a favorite, low-key place to practice for dozens of all-stars during the off-season and current NBA lockout.

It’s a poorly-kept secret just about everyone in the NBA knows: If you’re looking for a casual, off-season pick-up game, there’s only one place to go — UCLA.

On any given weekday afternoon, dozens of professional basketball players can be spotted wandering past Ackerman Union and the Bruin statue, and disappearing into the Student Activities Center (SAC) for an informal, all-star game that most fans can only dream about seeing.

On a recent Thursday, the sneakers squeaking on the floors of the second-floor gym belonged to Ron Artest of the L.A. Lakers, Andre Miller of the Denver Nuggets and Elton Brand of the Philadelphia 76ers … to name just a few.

Bruin players were out on the floor, too — shooting, dribbling and guarding them in pick-up games that have become a decades-old tradition at UCLA, stemming largely from its reputation as a basketball powerhouse.

This year, in fact, UCLA will have more alumni in the NBA than any other university, Bruins Assistant Coach Scott Garson said. "There’s no better pick-up game anywhere in the country," he said of the unannounced games.

Philadelphia 76ers forward Elton Brand, formerly of the L.A. Clippers, aims for the basket.

At the former Men's Gym basketball courts, hoops history is all around them — even Coach John Wooden’s original chalkboard as well as the very gym floor where he trained Kareem Abdul-Jabbar back when the towering player was still Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. In fact, the courts, located on the second floor of SAC, used to be where the Bruins played before crowded bleachers until Pauley Pavilion became their home court.

Today, only a few spectators watch from the sidelines.

But Brand said there’s something very raw and appealing about getting to play away from the crowds and the ever-present cameras. "It’s a great, pure feeling," he said. "You’re just playing for the love of the sport. … There’s not even anyone to tape knees."

That also makes for amazing basketball moments never captured on camera, left only to linger in the minds of those who played that day.

"Yesterday Russell Westbrook did some amazing dunks against really aggressive defense," Artest said after a recent pick-up game, sweat still dripping from his brow. "There’s not many games like UCLA in any other city."

The games also function as an informal way to study up on your opponents’ moves. Miller said he might step into an NBA game and suddenly recognize someone with whom he played months earlier back at UCLA. "You pick up on other guys’ habits," he said.

Those "other guys" might soon include Bruins' Point Guard Lazeric Jones — a talented player with his sights set on the NBA. For guys like Jones, playing against the pros at SAC was intimidating at first, but it turned out to be an invaluable experience that’s preparing him for the next step in his career.

While the rules are few at SAC, there is one that the pros take to heart. At least one student has to be included in every game.

"This is one of the reasons I came here," Jones said. "This is a legendary place. … I’ve talked to Baron Davis and Earl Watson, and they’ve taught me a lot."

Including Bruin players in their pick-up games is actually one of the few rules at SAC. At least one student player has to be included in every game, said Mitchell Butler, a former Bruin who went on to play for the former Washington Bullets. On good days, there are up to three games going on simultaneously.

"We were all young pups, and the older players would share their knowledge with us, and we turned around and shared it with Baron Davis and others," Butler said. "Today, Baron’s helping young Bruins like Reeves Nelson."

With the NBA lockout delaying preparations for any upcoming season, the pick-up games, which would normally be over by now, are now likely to extend into early September.

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