With the regular season now wrapped and the Pac-12′s seniors having played their final home games, we’re taking a tour across the conference and bidding this group of seniors farewell.
Larry Drew II by Drew Murawa
I don’t like to admit it often (because I like to pretend I can be completely impartial), but I grew up a UCLA fan and have a soft spot in my heart for the Bruins. If I’m covering a game, I’m watching it more as a basketball fan than as a UCLA fan, but the fact is, when I pull up a stool at the bar with some friends to watch a UCLA game, I am going to root – often loudly and obnoxiously – for the Bruins, just as I have done for most of my adult (and I use that tern quite loosely) life.
As such, apart from diagnosing the effectiveness of all UCLA basketball players, I also will always have an opinion about the likability of Bruins throughout the ages. Tracy Murray, I loved. Mitchell Butler, Gerald Madkins, Darrick Martin – all spark great memories. And yet Don MacLean? Sorry, but somehow despite all those points, he never did it for me. Toby Bailey? I’ve got some great memories of the guy, but we just never clicked; I was more of a J.R. Henderson guy, despite his sleepy personality. Cedric Bozeman wormed his way onto my good side in his final season, while Jason Kapono remained on the outside looking in. And, then of course, there are the unimpeachables like Ed O’Bannon, Tyus Edney, Luc Richard Mbah A Moute, Lorenzo Mata, Arron Afflalo and more.
All of which is just preamble to discussing the legacy of Larry Drew II in the lore of UCLA basketball. I’ll admit it: when the announcement came down that he would be spending his final year of eligibility in Westwood after an unceremonious early departure from North Carolina, I anticipated disliking him. The way he quit on his teammates in Chapel Hill, regardless of whatever externalities may have prompted such a rash decision, stuck in my craw. Throw in the facts that I hadn’t seen a whole lot in his game to love and that his UCLA career would be so short, and I was well prepared to push the LDII era to the well blocked-off corners of my mind haunted by figures like Trevor Ariza, Michael Fey and Jerome Moiso.
Well, I’m happy to say that, as I reflect on Drew’s time at UCLA in advance of the Senior Night celebration of his career, Drew’s going to go down on the good side of the ledger. First and foremost, after at least three years of a significant downturn in the artistry of Bruin basketball, Drew was the floor general – and a key cog – in the return to watchability. Sure, plenty of that has to do with the fact that he was fortunate enough to come along at a time when guys like Shabazz Muhammad, Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson were capable offensive threats at the end of Drew’s passes, but make no mistake – Drew has helped each of those guys achieve what they have.
But there are a lot of other facets to the Drew story that make him likable Bruin. On a team that has often displayed some sketchy body language when things weren’t going right (and sometimes even when it was), Drew has been a rock – a mature leader on a team with some emotional youngsters. And slowly but surely, as the season has gone on, some of that has rubbed off on his teammates as wins have piled up. Then, of course, as I just alluded to, in order to really earn a spot up among the favorites, you gotta make some big plays. And that game-winner against Washington (despite the rest of the game being an abomination against the sport of basketball) was a memorable moment.
But as I look back on Drew’s career from this vantage point, what strikes me the most is one of my favorite storylines in the sport we love so much: personal growth. We first got to know Drew as an 18-year-old kid, probably a little bit spoiled, with plenty of expectations on his head, expectations he failed to meet out of the gates. After a year playing spot minutes in relief of Ty Lawson on the way to a National Championship, Drew inherited the starting spot as a sophomore and, frankly, was a weak spot until Kendall Marshall usurped his spot in the middle of the following year. And the kid, a continent away from home and experiencing failure for the first time, made an abrupt decision to quit on his team. In other words, he made the type of immature decision that 20-year-old kids like me, and you, and everybody else, makes from time to time. The difference is, he made his decision in the full glare of the public spotlight. And regardless of the reasons for that decision or the story behind it, nothing is ever going to change that decision or make up for it or make it right. And you know what? That’s all right. Because one of the reasons we love sports is to watch redemption. And one of the reasons we love college sports in particular is because we love seeing these kids improve. And one of the reasons we love seniors most of all is because we’ve had a chance to see these kids grow up before our eyes in a crucible of pressure and attention.
And, framed that way, Drew’s career arc is irresistible. Kid was highly regarded as a high school player, with the famous father. Kid signs on with a blueblood program, wins a national title in his first year as little more than pinch-hitter, then repeatedly strikes out over the next couple seasons. Kid disappears from the public eye, woodsheds while he works on his game and works on his life and when kid reappears (at another blueblood, no less), he is a kid no more. He is a leader of the next wave of kids.
As a Bruin fan, Larry, it was damn good to get to know you.