It was quiet-ish, by no means raucous, but banners speak louder than words and UCLA most certainly has that rack to hang their hat on. And believe me, they do. The arena and experience drip with Wooden and historical lore; from the statue that adorns the Pavilion concourse to the pyramids on the jerseys and the banners themselves, right down to the halftime honoring of the 1972 championship team (including two Arizona dads, Walton and Bibby), the UCLA experience comes right at you with a full dose of “Nana nana boo boo, we good.”
And with such comes a fan base leaving something to be desired in noise production and timeliness, a perceived arrogance marinated in the aforementioned lore. But it’s deserved. With regards to the timeliness, I will give a moderate hall pass as I was grossly reminded of Los Angeles’ infamous traffic and only wish it upon a handful of contemporaries.
But traffic was never an issue in arriving to Los Angeles.
Definitely no traffic issues getting there. Of slight concern was my aggression towards a piano bar 29th birthday party Friday night but ultimately that never proved a deterrent to departure but did ensure my ibuprofen consumption. Roommate Tim and I were out the door and into the Red Dragon by 5:45am and at Spencer’s door by 5:57am. Spencer would sleep for the better part of the next 393 miles.
We stopped briefly in Palo Alto to acquire our fourth companion, Justin, and breakfast at Starbucks. Then onward and southward. It was during this part of the trip that we learned Justin lives exactly one Prius tank of gas away from Venice Beach. We rocked the hell out of Songza playlists like “’90s Crowd Pleasing Hits,” “100 Worst Songs,” and “’90s One-hit Wonders,” and other songs of requisite road trip nature. We had an adult conversation about religion with references to sociology and general human nature while Spencer slept. We dissected the hell out of Arizona basketball – past, present, and future – and concluded that Johnny Dawkins is on the hottest seat in the Pac, what realistic expectations are for Beavers and Cougars, and whether or not we’d ever want to own a Ranch (the consensus was ownership without having to deal with horses). Spencer never snored.
In-n-Out was acquired just outside of Los Angeles – a road trip requirement – with the 80-degree weather being met with mixed reviews and begging the question of how any of us ever played High School baseball double headers in July in 104-degree Tucson summer heat wearing cotton socks, polyester pants and sliders, a jock strap, a cotton shirt, a mesh jersey and a hat. For the record, I loved the 80-degree heat.
Arrival in Westwood would prove less simple.
Following back-to-back cabbies shaking us off like a 3-0 slider, we sat down to recuperate from the rejection at the local drinking establishment and conjure up a cab plan. Fortunately our waitress was kind enough to call us a cab. Unfortunately for her she’d attended Arizona State. We tipped her for the cab effort and gave our condolences on her adolescent decision.
At a cost of $40 covering just 6.6 surface street miles and 40 more minutes of asinine conversation, we arrived at the predetermined libation house, Barney’s Beanery, adorned in red as I explained to a young Wildcat (sub-six years old, not at the bar) why I’d just encouraged him and his family to Bear Down. Paying it forward I believe they call it. Drinks ensued with nary a word of trash exchanged as both Cats and Bruins alike lamented Ryan Kelly’s miss-less return (although I will fully admit it embodied everything I love about the drama of sport) amongst the pre-game anxieties.
Then we headed to Pauley.
I was intrigued to see the redesigned and modernized pavilion. Much had been made of the school’s investment in the old stadium (The Bruin Road Show) but perhaps the fellow behind me in line – who also noted I would be having to change my shirt upon entry to which I informed him of his probable disinterest in seeing me shirtless – said it best, “You can’t do a $100 million overhaul of a $5 million building.” So very LA to give a facelift to an aging wonder while ignoring innate flaws and failing to address intimacy. The 50+ year-old, on-campus gem was cleaned up, given a contemporary look and feel with a professional viewing experience. Aesthetically, it worked. But the stadium seating still begins a fair distance from court-side and the acoustics won’t quite aid an already peaceful audience. Which is the exact point my friend in line was making: Pauley was never a viewer’s dream, but at least now it looked nice.
Because whatever home court advantage you can conjure up has always come from what I’ve already mentioned: the banners, the history, the mystique and aura of the greatest program in the history of college basketball. So once inside the stadium, a fan of the sport, I had to look up and take in what no other school has accomplished. At halftime what other choice did I have but to applaud the 1972 NCAA Champion Bruins? Regardless my fan allegiances, bravo to a collection of athletes piecing together an undefeated thirty game season.
But then it was game time and the ball was tipped (VANDROSS IS COMING!!!!) and in seventeen brief seconds Mark Lyons had gotten to the rack for two and it was on.
Well Arizona would hold a lead for just 15 more seconds in this contest.
The Cats teased and toyed with a modest Arizona fan backing but ultimately didn’t have the defensive presence or ball maintenance (18 turnovers) to defeat a sound and beautifully point-guarded Bruins team. I left that remodel perhaps more impressed with Drew2 than upset with Mark Lyons’ decision making, Solomon Hill’s passive game, Nick Johnson’s shooting, Nick Johnson’s ball handling, Brandon Ashley’s disappearance, and Kaleb Tarczewski’s hands. OK, clearly I was a touch upset about a few things but just trust me when I say I was impressed with Drew2. It was senior night and he played like he was home.
And, at risk of jumping too far down Sappy Street, isn’t that what college is all about? He made kid decisions as a kid, quitting on his Tar Heel team and bolting without facing the music. And now he’s led the Bruins through what really had the foundation of becoming a tumultuous season. I mean really led and grew up. I admire that.
(Keep an eye out later this week and into next as some great bloggers guest on PacHoops with their own farewells to seniors across the conference. The LD2 one is great)
But the Cats gave it one last push. They showed that tardy fight that helped them to 14-0 with key victories over Florida and San Diego State. With 24-seconds remaining and the ball, Miller called timeout and I took a seat back in my chair; lightly rocking with a nod to my head and a pounding in my chest. I clapped hard twice because what the hell else do I have to contribute besides noise and the ball was in-bounded to Lyons.
The crowd rose to its collective feet.
Here came the high screen.
The noise level rose.
Into the lane went Lyons.
Time was evaporating.
More than half the clock gone.
A forced shot.
The crowd was quiet-ish no longer.
And the game ended and the view obstructing railing no longer mattered. The banners waved a smidgen and the seats became a little less comfortable. Dammit.
It was a long walk back to Barney’s where we exhausted the house’s Fireball supply with one modest round for eight ailing Wildcats. The game was dissected extensively back at our hotel as Cast Away played in the background. Or maybe it was the foreground as Wilson was the closest thing to sports any of us could handle.
We took to the town, a somber albeit rallying group just looking for some fun. We found it in the form of a dance floor (and whiskey) at Circle Bar in Santa Monica. It worked and was highlighted by an impromptu dance-off. Mind you, none of us were involved, and for whatever reason when Dancer A cleared himself some space we paused our own moves to observe. At this point it wasn’t quite a dance-off, really more just some guy showing some pretty nominal moves. Dancer B took notice from the opposite corner of us and jumped right into this newly formed circle; all five-foot-six of him adorned in a kid’s batman costume. He moved quickly into some splits and other impressive things I can’t really describe. Dancer A took his turn until B returned to the center of the circle. He stood there, commanding the attention of A, and with his hand raised he counted down:
3…What the hell is he doing?
2…That cape is really small.
1…This better be goo—HOLY BALLS DID HE JUST DO A FLATFOOTED, STANDING BACKFLIP?!?!?
Indeed tiny Batman had just done a flatfooted, standing backflip as the place erupted. Dancer A tried his hand at redemption but to no avail. Because you can’t beat a flatfooted, standing backflip in a dance battle.
And you can’t beat a road trip with your best friends. You really cannot.
For the second time in less than a month I’d walked out of an opposing building wearing defeat in the form of an upset. Don’t care. I’m heading to Las Vegas to take my chances again. And amongst all the madness of the road trip we began conjuring plans to get our asses to Ann Arbor next fall for the front-end of the Arizona-Michigan home-and-home.
For the charge home we’d picked up one additional pal, Faisal, and some hangovers. Nothing some ’90s hits couldn’t cure. We discussed more nonsensical hypotheticals, what the TJ McConnell effect could be, and how we were going to make it back to LA for Arizona’s trip to the Sweet Sixteen. Being a fan is great.
And Spencer didn’t sleep a wink.