George Dohrmann's investigation into the fallow years of Ben Howland's UCLA tenure dropped in Sports Illustrated today, and it desperately wants to be a cautionary tale. It wants you to make the connection—even if it can never quite do so itself—that the undisciplined and troublesome recruiting classes brought in after the Bruins' 2008 Final Four run were the catalyst for a program's fall from the elite. Instead it's an interesting but typical picture of a team with some issues, and if this weren't Westwood, and wasn't constantly being measured against the ghost of a program that hasn't existed for nearly 40 years, it wouldn't raise an eyebrow.
It's emphasized that the successful Bruin teams were built around unheralded prospects (only Jordan Farmar was in Rivals.com's top 25), but the 2008 recruiting class was one of the best ever assembled. The implication being that Howland somehow foreswore the "UCLA way," that clean-cut players who work hard are superior to highly-prized prep schoolers. If you buy into this line of thinking, the rest of the story will go down a lot easier.
"Some of the newcomers clearly didn't appreciate the commitment needed to succeed at the top level of the college game," Dohrmann writes (editorializes?), singling out Jerime Anderson, Drew Gordon, and J'mison Morgan. "They were famous before they ever played a game...[they] chafed at being treated as anything but the stars they were coming out of high school."
Despite the acknowledgment that the earlier, more "mature" teams had enjoyed VIP table service at clubs with NBA players and models, these Baby Bruins are condemned for their partying ways,
On the final day of 2008, Howland met with the team and told players not to go out on New Year's Eve. The Bruins had an early-morning practice scheduled for New Year's Day and were departing for Oregon in the afternoon. Howland stressed that it was time to get serious.
Three members of the team, not all of them freshmen, ignored Howland's orders and attended a giant rave at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. "We did what you do at a rave: We took Ecstasy," says one of the players. The trio did not get back to Westwood until between 4 and 5 a.m. and barely slept before arriving at Pauley Pavilion for an 8 a.m. practice. The players bragged about their night to teammates and commented on how they were still feeling the effects of the Ecstasy.
A few days later an assistant coach phoned the players who attended the rave and asked if they had gone out on New Year's Eve. They denied it, but soon afterward each was ordered to submit to a drug test. "I took something that was supposed to get [the drugs] out of my system," says one player. "I never heard anything about the results [of the test], so it must have worked."
Ignoring the ethical and legal questions of forcing players to take a drug test, team unity was apparently in disarray. The freshman blew off a bowling trip before the postseason, and lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament—a long fall from the previous year. Was it because Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and Luc Mbah a Moute had left for the NBA, or because of the bowling trip? The SI story seems to support the latter.
The following year, Reeves Nelson came aboard. Nelson is tipped as a troublemaker, and the biggest sign of a program lacking direction. A few of Nelson's transgressions:
Nelson often reacted to hard fouls or calls against him in practice by committing violent acts against teammates. He did not deny to SI that he would stalk his targets, even running across the court, away from a play, to hit someone.
Once, Nelson got tangled up with forward James Keefe while going for a rebound. Keefe was playing with a surgically repaired left shoulder, and Nelson pulled down suddenly on Keefe's left arm. That reinjured Keefe's shoulder, and he missed several weeks. Later in the season Nelson hacked walk-on Alex Schrempf, the son of former NBA player Detlef Schrempf, from behind on a breakaway, knocking Schrempf to the ground. The back injury Schrempf suffered sidelined him for months. In another workout Nelson threw an elbow at Lane after the whistle, injuring Lane's ribs.
Walk-on Tyler Trapani was another Nelson victim. After Trapani took a charge that negated a Nelson dunk, Nelson went out of his way to step on Trapani's chest as he lay on the ground. Trapani is John Wooden's great-grandson.
[Matt] Carlino suffered a concussion during the preseason that caused him to miss the first three games. Nelson ridiculed Carlino for letting the injury sideline him. He told Carlino he didn't belong at UCLA and wasn't any good. He would yell at Carlino to leave the locker room, calling him "concussion boy." When Carlino returned to workouts, Nelson would go out of his way to set a screen on Carlino so he could hit him. Eventually, players say, Carlino dreaded practice. It was of little surprise when he left UCLA midway through the season and transferred to BYU.
Several underclassmen had arranged for a party bus to shuttle them around town, but at the last minute Howland instituted a bed check. An assistant coach would visit the players' apartments and dorm rooms and make certain no one had gone out.
When informing the players of the bed check, Howland remarked, "So there will be no party bus," which led some underclassmen to conclude that they had an informant in their midst. Nelson thought that Honeycutt, one of his roommates, was the rat, and he got his revenge. A short time later, Nelson returned home from a night of partying, piled Honeycutt's clothes on Honeycutt's bed, and then urinated on the clothes and flipped the bed over.
But it's Howland who comes in for the harshest criticism. He's painted as an enabler, not punishing Nelson for any of these transgressions, and as a bully in his own right.
In a game during the 2007-08 season, several players on the bench noted Howland's frustration with the shot selection of Westbrook, whose freelancing had resulted in several baskets. But rather than substituting for him, Howland informed one of the officials that Westbrook was wearing socks bearing an NBA logo, which violated NCAA uniform guidelines. Howland told the official he had an obligation to remove Westbrook from the game because of his socks. The official claimed to be unaware of the rule and let play continue.
On April 15, less than a month after the  season ended, Howland summoned to his office one of the student managers, a sophomore who was known to party with the players. The manager had mentioned to an assistant coach that some players drank and smoked marijuana too often during the season and that they needed to get more serious for UCLA to improve.
Howland told the manager that he needed to know who those players were and exactly what they were doing. The manager refused to name names, so Howland told the manager that if he didn't tell him, he would be terminated.
"I tried to be vague at first, told him some of the freshmen had problems, but he kept on me," says the manager. "I was just a college student, and Coach Howland is telling me I have to tell him everything."
The manager eventually told Howland what he knew, but the coach still terminated him. According to the manager, Howland said, "You are just as guilty as the players."
After each of the incidents [with Reeves Nelson], Howland looked the other way. One team member says he asked Howland after a practice why he wasn't punishing Nelson, to which he said Howland responded, "He's producing."
What do we have here, if not a star player receiving special treatment because of his abilities, and a coach unwilling or unable to handle the realities of college basketball? (Players told Dohrmann that Howland was "reluctant to discipline the freshmen out of trepidation that the best of them would transfer or leave early for the NBA.") Again, if this isn't UCLA, maybe this doesn't get 6,000 words.
There's no talk of on-court factors in what's supposed to be an exploration of the Bruins' mediocrity, a basketball story that features very little basketball. Instead we get the soap opera. Players drink, players use drugs, players don't listen to their coach, star player's a dick, coach is a bigger dick. That's UCLA, and that's a lot of teams, teams that win and teams that lose. Dohrmann desperately wants correlation to equal causation, but I'm not even sure there's correlation here.
Special Report: Not the UCLA Way [Sports Illustrated]