UCLA will open its basketball season tonight, and as usual, there will be a lot of attention focused on the center position, where an unusual battle of styles is shaping up.
When the Bruins tip off against Santa Clara at 7:30 at Pauley Pavilion, incumbent center Jack Haley will begin defense of his job, battling against a takeover challenge by freshman Greg Foster.
It looks like a classic duel between two unevenly matched personalities.
"May the best man win," UCLA Coach Walt Hazzard said.
As it normally goes in these bouts, the winner will probably be decided on points. And rebounds.
In one corner is Haley, son of the 1959 U.S. surfing champion. Haley, now a senior, is something of a late-bloomer, since he did not play high school basketball.
Some of Haley's detractors, and there are many, say he has not yet played college basketball, either.
Last season, for instance, he averaged only 4.3 points a game. Haley fouled out in 10 of the 29 games he played and had four fouls in 12 others.
But, in Haley's defense, he was basically going it alone inside because he was UCLA's only big man. Haley did lead the Bruins in rebounding last season with a 6.3-a-game average.
Haley promises he can do a lot better this season.
"I'm 10 times the player I've exhibited," he said.
He may have to be. But first, Haley may have to learn to calm himself down a bit because right now, he's a little excitable.
"I'd sure like to see Jack calm down in games," Hazzard said. "I think he will. He plays so much better in practice, then gets all excited, and I think it hurts his game."
Meanwhile, in the other corner sits Foster. Without a doubt, Foster belongs in the opposite corner from Haley.
If the 6-foot 10-inch Haley is wired together by a jangled set of nerves, then Foster looks as though he needs a jump start to get his emotions going.
Hazzard said Foster is so relaxed, he just doesn't show the level of anxiety normally associated with freshmen.
"From what I've seen of him so far, nothing scares him," Hazzard said.
You want fear? Foster knows fear. He felt it when his mom found out about the tattoo on a biceps. The one that reads, 'Bowie.'
Bowie? Sam Bowie, the former University of Kentucky star who is Foster's look-alike, or so his friends in Oakland convinced him.
"She didn't like it at all," Foster said of his mother's reaction to the tattoo. "I took a lot of heat for it."
Foster just turned 18. He also just turned 6-11, which is nice for a center, although Foster would just as soon be a power forward, which is probably not going to happen unless he gets a shot at the NBA.
In the meantime, the heat is being turned up at UCLA in the most pivotal of positions. The center spot, once the uncontested realm of Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton, is once again a battleground.
Foster, in fact, will wear jersey No. 32, Walton's old number. He said he plans to wear it while playing, not sitting.
"One reason I came here is that I saw opportunity knocking," Foster said.
And what did opportunity look like?
"The first words that come to mind when you think about being a center at UCLA: Kareem, Walton," he said. "It's hard to fill those shoes. But it's a dream of mine to try. We're really competing all-out now, me and Jack. There's a lot of people who are always going to be looking at who the UCLA center is, and I know how much grief Jack took last year."
Haley believes his vindication is due shortly.
"Being a role player, I'm the kind of guy who doesn't do the glamorous stuff," he said. "I would be just as happy to come out of a game not scoring a point and have the team win.
"This year, I'm going to get a chance to show how far I've come," Haley said. "No doubt I'm a lot more capable than I've shown."
Hazzard plans to continue starting Haley at center, then see what happens if he stays with him. Hazzard also wants to deflect any criticism of Haley that lingers from last season.
"Jack Haley is no longer the Tin Man or the hole in the middle," Hazzard said.
"He keeps reading and hearing things in the media about him, and some of them are statements of ridicule. He gets upset about it.
"But I tell him, 'Don't worry about it, Jack. I have it covered, son.' "
KMPC (710) will broadcast all UCLA basketball games this season, both home and away, with Joel Meyers doing the play-by-play. . . . Coach Walt Hazzard said he will start Pooh Richardson and Montel Hatcher at guards, Reggie Miller and Craig Jackson at forwards and Jack Haley at center. . . . Santa Clara, which played UC Santa Barbara Friday night, was 12-16 last season and 7-7 in the West Coast Athletic Conference. . . . The Bruins will play North Carolina at Pauley Monday night. Last year, the Tar Heels defeated UCLA, 107-70. . . . The Bruins have moved their game at Pauley against Cal State Fullerton to Dec. 29 so it won't conflict with the Freedom Bowl Dec. 30.