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MIKE DOWNEY

Don't Bother Opening Envelope, Winner Is . . . . UCLA, Regardless

March 27, 1995|MIKE DOWNEY

Being nominated should be enough. You shouldn't have to win. You should be able to feel pleasure at being one of the very few best out of hundreds, no matter what happens on that ultimate Monday night when a presenter hands you a shiny award, symbolizing that in a given year, nobody was better than you.

Nevertheless, permit me to be the first to announce that the winner for best basketball team already is . . . UCLA. Because it can be murder being the basketball team from planet Hollywood, being obligated to be not only the best but the coolest, to run like Hanks, shoot like Travolta, be mature as Newman and scary like Landau. Just try it sometime, being a success and as cool as Fonzie at the same time; ain't easy.

One by one, players from the Bruin camp repeated their pledge last weekend that nothing short of a championship would be sufficient. As young and hungry Charles O'Bannon proudly put it: "We didn't come this far to settle for less." As his older, this-is-my-last-chance brother, Ed, agreed: "We haven't won anything yet."

But they have, of course. Memorable teams from Phi Slamma Jamma to the Fab Five have gone back to their hometowns carrying nothing more than the "first runner-up" prize, as useless as one from a beauty pageant. Perhaps it never bothers a Clyde Drexler or a Chris Webber any more to have come so close and--I almost wrote failed here--be disappointed, but then again, perhaps they never give it a second thought.

So, UCLA has already won? Correctamundo. The goal is to get to the Final Four, no matter what disciplined minds say. This alone is a privilege a Shaquille O'Neal or a Scottie Pippen never knew. We understand that in athletics, as opposed to acting, self-confidence demands that one cannot express satisfaction at simply being a finalist. You want your cake and you want to eat it.

I, however, may say what the UCLA Bruins can't. That they already have done plenty. That anything they do hereafter is sheer frosting. Should they be handed that gleaming hood ornament a week from tonight, more the better, because it would be a fitting conclusion to a fantastic season and the final fade-out of our favorite coaching drama, The Harrick Redemption. But it isn't absolutely necessary. Somebody's gotta be Hanks and somebody Travolta.

It was so beautiful Saturday hearing the Bruins take such pride in their accomplishments. For months and months, I could sense their reluctance to exhale, to let it out, finally, after keeping everything bottled up. They were champions--maybe only of their conference and their regional, but heaven help them had they fallen short of being that.

A year ago this month, my everlasting memory was of Tyus Edney slapping a wet towel against an Oklahoma City hardwood floor, exasperated at his team's abject failure against a team from Somewhere, Okla. But to see him Saturday, to see each UCLA player atop a ladder, snipping basket cords like the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. netting seafood, with Ed O'Bannon camcording the whole scene like a second-unit director, this was when I knew for sure that Hollywood's team was already a winner, not merely a nominee.

The gangly freshman with the unorthodox name, omm'A Givens, who won't get to play unless UCLA wins big or loses big, ended up mentioning how things hadn't panned out for him in Westwood exactly as he planned, not getting many playing minutes and all, but he was looking forward to going home to Washington state and there was great sincerity in his voice when he said: "The way our team is performing out there, it just gives me goose bumps."

Around and around the locker room I went, listening to other noteworthy observations, such as the O'Bannon brothers' father expressing the opinion that he had seen the quite seasoned Jim Harrick improve as a coach in every season that his son Ed had been there.

And whatever that was in Harrick's voice--amusement, amazement, I couldn't tell for sure--when someone asked how it felt to go to a Final Four, and his response was something like: "Have you ever been to one?" . . . Was he agreeing that it was something great or astounded at what a foolish question that was, or, as I personally believe, a bit of both? Harrick shook his head and said: "You'll never understand. Never understand."

I can picture him, also, after that Tulsa thing, a little glassy-eyed, a little dazed, but determined to stand erect and maintain a professional's poise, like an Oscar runner-up whose responsibility is to congratulate the winner and hide the disappointment with a mask as tight as Jim Carrey's. For Harrick, who has traveled all the way from Stonewall Jackson High in ol' West Virginny to the dudes and waves of Malibu in his basketball life, being cheered the way he was Saturday by UCLA's fans--him, for a change, not merely the players but him --must have felt as warm as a tanning parlor's hottest lamp.

One of his assistants, Steve Lavin, said something I liked: "That Tulsa loss was a lightning bolt. You get hit with a bolt like that, it either makes you stronger or it devastates you. I think it made this team stronger."

And by a week from tonight, these guys could be positively buff. But were you to ask me whether or not the UCLA Bruins--live! from Hollywood!--will soon be announced as Best Basketball Team for the 12 months just passed, all I can say is that I already have opened the envelope. I am not supposed to tell you what it says. (Yes.)

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