No matter how hard they try, the UCLA basketball program just can’t seem to please their most famous alumni.
The most recent vocal critic of the team is none other than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and the man that was an All-American for John Wooden and the Bruins back when he was still Lew Alcindor. He went on SiriusXM’s NBA Today show and lobbed a couple of grenades at the current UCLA head coach, Steve Alford.
“It’s real ugly, man. I have to say that,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I watched them in the playoffs. They don’t even know how to run the fast break. You know, I’m not trying to sit on the sidelines and throw stones at Coach Alford. He has a tough job. But people used to learn how to play the game at UCLA. I don’t think that’s happening now, and I think that’s a real disappointment to those of us who are part of the tradition.”
He’s right, Alford does have a tough job, one that is made tougher by one of the legends of the program taking shots at him on a national radio show. The Ben Howland era at UCLA came to a close after the 2013 NCAA tournament, and while Howland had some issues of his own doing during his decade on the job — he ticked off quite a few of the power brokers in southern California, struggling to land elite talent when the Pump-N-Run well dried up — it certainly didn’t help that ESPN commentator Bill Walton spent the better part of two seasons hammering Howland at every opportunity, even after Howland was fired.
And for the record, Howland was fired after winning the Pac-12 when he was returning a roster that included Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams, Norman Powell and the Wear twins while bringing in freshman Zach LaVine. The program wasn’t exactly flailing.
So no, Abdul-Jabbar’s criticism isn’t doing Alford any favors, not when there is already a large and vocal population in the UCLA fan base that does not like Alford.
But here’s the strange part: Abdul-Jabbar’s criticism doesn’t make a ton of sense. From what I can tell, there are two real reasons to criticize Alford. The biggest is ‘Daddyball’, that Alford’s insistence on running offense through his son, Bryce, has not only hurt the quality of the team but that it has cost them recruits. As the theory goes, elite talent in the last two classes didn’t want to go to Westwood to play second-fiddle to a coach’s son, and there’s probably some truth to that. Alford’s been to back-to-back Sweet 16s, but attendance was down almost 2,000 fans since the end of the Howland era despite Pauley Pavilion’s renovation. It’s never a good sign when a coach alienates a fanbase.
The other issue is that Alford is aligning himself and his program too closely with the Compton Magic AAU program. He’s already landed four commitments from the old stomping grounds of current assistant David Grace, and there are many that believe that five-star Class of 2016 forward T.J. Leaf will be the fifth. But what happens if Grace leaves for another gig? What happens in the Magic go through a couple of down years talent-wise? Will Alford still be able to reel in top flight talent from SoCal on a consistent basis?
But those weren’t Abdul-Jabbar’s criticisms. He took shots at Alford’s ability to teach his players how to play the game and Alford’s ability to coach the fast break, which sounds eerily reminiscent of Walton’s critiques of Howland.
I’m not here to match basketball wits with Abdul-Jabbar. There may be some merit to his criticisms, but whether or not he’s correct is besides the point.
If the UCLA basketball program to get back to a place where it is one of the best in the country, the most beloved and public former players need to stop going public with their displeasure with the coaching staff. They need to stop riling up an already-displeased fan base, one that has more than enough to distract themselves with in Los Angeles. There isn’t much to do besides attend college basketball games in Lexington, Kentucky, or Lawrence, Kansas. Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh are all decent enough towns, but have you ever seen the sunset from Hermosa Beach?
And have you ever dealt with the traffic in LA?
In other words, it’s easy for a fan to talk themselves out of the two-hour round-trip drive to go see a UCLA team they have a love-hate relationship with.
That’s what UCLA is up against right now.
That’s why, the way things currently stand, the elite, young coaching prospects would rather be in, say, Austin, Texas, than in Westwood.
And don’t get it twisted: Walton and Abdul-Jabbar certainly play a part in that.