*UPDATE: The day after I posted this, Reeves Nelson was suspended once again by coach Ben Howland. I can’t imagine he’ll be at UCLA much longer…
This past week the greater Los Angeles area was ravaged by robust winds that left thousands without power and caused massive trees to be uprooted and fall on everything from cars to houses. But that disaster paled in comparison to what I had to endure on Saturday when I watched the UCLA men’s basketball team lose to Texas.
No, I’m not talking about the 20-minute delay when the winds knocked out the lights at the L.A. Sports Arena. I’m talking about what took place on the court after that.
If you live outside of L.A. and elected not to pay for the Fox Sports West package from your cable provider, you probably haven’t witnessed the horrors of this year’s disappointing brand of historically venerated UCLA basketball.
John Wooden is fortunate not to have to witness this lackluster group shatter all concepts of teamwork, discipline, and fundamentals.
It’s no secret that they’re not the most talented team—they have no shooters, lack a true point guard, and don’t have a “go-to” guy for big baskets—and I have no problem with that. Every program is going to have down years, and the Bruins are clearly suffering through one of those.
The most disturbing problem, however, is that what was seen as their greatest advantage heading into the season, their front-line size, is the very thing that has caused them to disappoint so greatly. The two ring leaders are the 350-pound Joshua Smith and Reeves Nelson, who went from being the heart and soul of the team last season to a selfish, lazy, troublemaker who is probably going to transfer soon.
Smith has a ton of talent and obviously eats up space (along with Nacho Cheese Gorditas) in the paint, but his lack of conditioning causes him to pick up stupid fouls and miss easy layups in his already limited minutes. How a 19-year-old who has access to one of the best training staffs in the country can continue to be grossly overweight is beyond me. I know he’s never going to look like Blake Griffin, but he could at least keep his weight around three bills. He’s a big boy to begin with, but you have to believe that there are some work ethic issues involved here.
Nelson is a guy who was the emotional core of a team that surprised everyone by beating Michigan State in the opening round of last year’s NCAA tournament and giving Florida a run for their money in the next round. Now he’s been suspended, benched for lack of hustle, and told by coach Ben Howland that he’s not going to start “any time soon.” A couple television shots of him smiling, laughing, and pointing into the stands while being benched during the entire second half of Saturday’s game may have been the last straw.
The last straw for me was either Tyler Lamb‘s airballed free throw or when Lazeric “Zeke” Jones, having an uncharacteristically good stretch of shooting, made a three-pointer, turned to the crowd and placed his finger over his lips to “shush” them.
Unfortunately Jones and the Bruins were playing at home.
UCLA is 2-5 and has suffered horrific losses: an 11-point defeat to Loyola Marymount and a 20-point embarrassment at the hands of Middle Tennessee State, both at home. I know a few bad apples can spoil the bunch, so I don’t want to make it seem like I think everyone on this UCLA team is a lazy bum. I’m sure the majority of them are hard workers that do all the right things, but the fact remains: they’re just not very good.
In a town like Los Angeles, one team’s struggles should be no reason for despair. We have so many teams out here that when you jump off one program’s bandwagon there are tons of others waiting to give you a ride. But when I look around, for the first time that I can remember, I don’t really feel like taking a ride from any of L.A.’s sports teams.
In 2007-08 the city of Boston saw championships from the Red Sox and Celtics, while the Patriots had an 18-0 run before losing to the Giants in the Super Bowl. It couldn’t have been a better time to be a Boston sports fan. What’s going on in L.A. right now is pretty much the opposite of that.
L.A. has no NFL team, and I’m going to immediately throw out UCLA football and USC basketball as reasonable options. Anyone who has an argument with that is clearly suffering from psychotic episodes. So that leaves the other major L.A. sports teams, which I’ll catalog one by one.
Everyone is familiar with the financial struggles of the Dodgers, who are attempting to win back the fans by signing such needle-moving free agents as Adam Kennedy, Chris Capuano, and Aaron Harang. As a friend of mine said, they’re putting together a solid roster for 2005.
Even with one of the game’s most exciting players, MVP runner-up Matt Kemp, and the game’s best young pitcher, Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw, the prospect of being a Dodger fan in the foreseeable future remains bleak.
The Angels continue to overachieve with a dead-end roster, but the likelihood of them outplaying the Texas Rangers and winning the AL West any time soon is slim. Despite being mentioned in connection with names like Carl Crawford, the biggest fish the Angels have been able to land has been the underwhelming Vernon Wells—not exactly forcing folks to make the drive from L.A. to Anaheim.
The team that Angelenos have been able to rely upon most consistently, the Lakers, even seem to have lost their luster. After an embarrassing loss to the Dallas Mavericks in last year’s playoffs the Lakers’ defensive problems and lack of intensity, issues that used to be “cute”, now appear to be insurmountable with their current roster. The only answer seems to be a drastic trade to get Dwight Howard or Chris Paul, but the Lakers lack the necessary pieces to pull off such a deal. As Kobe gets older, it’s becoming clear that he needs help soon before his window closes for good.
Coming off of a lockout, new head coach Mike Brown will have limited time to implement his system, so the adjustment period will likely be considerable. Many people think that the short season will help the aging Lakers, but it’s still hard to consider them a favorite.
Oh yes, I can already hear the complaints from people who live in cities like Charlotte: “Do you know how lucky you are to have a team that’s competitive every year and actually wins championships? Try being a Bobcats fan!”
It’s a valid point, but having lived in Toronto last year I can honestly say that watching a young team play with heart and desire, even if the product is so-so, beats watching a group of supremely talented, highly paid superstars go through the motions and play below their potential.
So that takes out the Dodgers and the Lakers but, hey, what about those young, exciting Clippers?
Don’t get me wrong, I love watching Griffin, Eric Gordon, and De’Andre Jordan run up and down the court and fill it up, but they have a long way to go before they become a playoff staple, let alone compete for a championship. For the Clippers to succeed they need veteran talent, and that would require them to a) sign a marquee free agent, or b) continue to re-sign their own young talent until they become veterans.
Here in L.A. we tend to delude ourselves, but we all know neither of those things is going to happen. At least not while Donald Sterling owns the team. Experts always mention the Clippers as an attractive destination for free agents, but how many have actually ended up signing with the team? So we’ll continue to watch the Clippers’ homegrown talent play out their contracts then leave for greener pastures while they continue to sign free agent role players like Ryan Gomes and Jamario Moon.
But there is one saving grace. There is one team in town whose dominance this year has been undisputed: USC football.
The Trojans are 10-2, ranked fifth in the AP Poll, and boast one of the best offenses (some say the best offense) in the entire country. So what’s the problem?
The problem is that the Trojans were excluded from the Pac-12 Championship Game (where they watched a UCLA team that they beat 50-0 just a week earlier get drubbed by Oregon), the BCS rankings, and any possible bowl games because of recruiting infractions committed by players and coaches who are no longer affiliated with the school.
While Matt Barkley, Robert Woods, and the USC players watch bowl games in which they should be participating on the couch with their families this holiday season, Pete Carroll and Reggie Bush will be counting their millions in the NFL. Seems fair.
I’m not going to pretend to know anything about hockey, but the Ducks are in last place and while the Kings are doing well at the moment, I don’t hear anyone picking them to win the Stanley Cup.
And yes, I’m aware that the Galaxy won the MLS Cup. Unfortunately, nobody else in L.A. is. Until pro soccer is relevant in the U.S., you can’t consider the Galaxy as a major L.A. sports team.
By my count that leaves us with approximately zero successful sports teams at the moment. I know things will get better, but right now they’re downright depressing.
Hopefully for Christmas this year the city of Los Angeles will receive the biggest gift of all: a sports team to be proud of.