On the Yeah-Sure-You-Did-Buddy Scale, a walk-on player on the UCLA basketball team ranks just a notch below a walk-on member of General Motors' Board of Directors. Things just don't work that way.
An unrecruited and unknown person strolling into Pauley Pavilion without an appointment and telling Bruins' Coach Walt Hazzard that he would like to play a little basketball isn't much more far-fetched than a guy dressed in a band uniform marching past the security guards at NASA and informing the head of engineering that he'd like to try his hand at designing a rocket or two.
In both cases the reaction is generally unmuffled laughter, followed by a rapid trip out of the building courtesy of two men with shiny badges and arms the size of prize-winning Iowa hogs.
But Keith Owens might accomplish both missions in his life. He's already done the stroll-onto-UCLA-campus thing and he came away with a berth on the UCLA team. And the freshman only like s basketball. He loves academics, specifically math and science. A walk-on at NASA?
"He's excited about basketball, but he's more excited about just being at UCLA and getting a good education," said Keith's father, Andrew, an attorney in Century City. "Keith never lived and breathed basketball. We spent our summers going on vacation, not at basketball camps."
Owens' affinity for schoolwork was clear throughout his stay at Birmingham High in Van Nuys. His somewhat casual approach to basketball was just as clear to Coach Jeff Halpern.
"Physically and talent-wise, I always told people that Keith was a Division I college ballplayer," Halpern said. "But he was never really motivated. It just wasn't important to him. He just never went at it like it was his life's ambition. He never had an attitude problem. He was always a great kid to be around and a great kid to coach. He was never lackadaisical. It's just that the game wasn't a big thing to him."
This is not at all a description of the average UCLA basketball player. Most of them showed up at the school with an impression of the word VOIT on the sides of their faces from sleeping with a basketball for so long. These are guys who sustained their first basketball injury by the age of 2, when a behind-the-back pass dislodged the safety pin on their diaper.
A guy who didn't touch a basketball until the sixth grade, and then proceeded to make sure everyone understood that the game was only slightly more important to him than flossing regularly, doesn't play basketball at UCLA. If he plays at all beyond high school, it's at places like the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh or at the Yucca River extension campus of Arizona State.
But there are always a few guys like Keith Owens around to botch up a perfectly good athletic stereotype.
"Keith making the UCLA team comes as no surprise at all to me," Halpern said. "I knew if he put the tools he had to work that he could do it. I'm sure everyone down there knows now that he has the talent. And if he really gets himself motivated, he'll be one helluva find for that team."
Find, of course, is the wrong word. UCLA did not find Owens. He was accepted at UCLA because of his academic success in high school, the same reason he also was accepted at Berkeley and Stanford. But once he was safely enrolled at UCLA, Owens decided that spending a few hours a day inside Pauley Pavilion playing basketball might be a nice break from his studies.
"Wherever I went to school, I had decided that I would definitely try to make the basketball team," said Owens, a 6-7 forward. "My intentions were to work hard and make the team, just to be able to wear the UCLA uniform.
"I realized when I was young that you can't look too far ahead. I always wanted to have something like a career plan. If by some chance a pro basketball career became available, I could always do that. But I knew that the chances are so slim of making it that I had better have another plan to fall back on. Playing at UCLA is the same thing. It sure is nice, but it's not the end of the road for me."
He approached Hazzard during the summer and told the coach of his desire to play for the school. And while Hazzard didn't laugh and didn't exactly try to talk Owens out of it, he painted such a bleak picture of what lay ahead for Owens that the 18-year-old could have been excused for bailing out. He didn't.
"Coach Hazzard gave the impression it would be very tough," Owens recalled. "He told me that if I was going to play at UCLA I'd have to make a certain commitment to it. After talking to him, I thought of the worst possible scenario. I was prepared to cope with the worst. By doing that, anything less would seem like, 'Oh, this isn't so bad.' And that's just how it worked. It was hard, but not nearly as hard as I had convinced myself it was going to be."
And so Owens showed up for practice the first day. And he found out that he belonged.