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THE INSIDE TRACK | SUNDAY SCENE / BILL PLASCHKE

Bruins Won't Let Romar Recruit Givens This Time

April 21, 1996|BILL PLASCHKE

Those gritty Bruins. You can run that back-door play on them only once.

Barely a month after a skinny Princeton kid snuck behind UCLA's world-class basketball team to knock it out of the NCAA tournament, another devious soul is trying to embarrass their world-class university.

Those gritty Bruins. This time, they're going to make somebody pay.

His name is omm'A Givens. He's 20 years old. He attends UCLA on a basketball scholarship, although we're not sure why.

He rarely leaves the bench. He rarely scores. His 6-foot-10 frame wages a constant battle between awkward and confused.

After observing 15 minutes of practice earlier this year, a local gym rat noted, "He'll never play here."

In two seasons, he has averaged no more than 3.6 points or 2.3 rebounds a game.

Standing between him and a starting job is younger Jelani McCoy, perhaps the most promising center in the game.

The rat was right. Givens will never play there.

But all has not been lost. In two seasons at UCLA, Givens has found a father figure. And talk about a kid in need of one.

Givens' real father died of AIDS complications when he was in high school.

That is, after stealing Givens and his brother away from their mother for a 2 1/2-year trip.

While growing up, Givens slept in chicken coops and convertibles and with strangers in the small town of Aberdeen, Wash., where he graduated from high school and met Lorenzo Romar.

Romar was an assistant coach at UCLA. He recruited Givens. He filled a void.

Despite being pursued by much of the nation, Givens signed with UCLA after visiting only one other school.

"omm'A and Lorenzo are very close. Lorenzo is the reason he went to UCLA," said Brad Fuhrer, Givens' Aberdeen High coach who once housed the kid. "There are things that omm'A carries with him that Lorenzo understands."

With 3 1/2 weeks left in this college season, Romar accepted the head coaching job at Pepperdine.

It took about six seconds for Givens to tell school officials he wanted to transfer to Pepperdine, to be allowed to renege on his Bruin basketball scholarship and accept one there.

To which UCLA had a simple response.

How dare you.

Yes, this school that excludes qualified applications suddenly won't let one leave.

At least without sacrificing a $27,000 annual scholarship for a year, which is what Givens must do if he attends Pepperdine after being denied a transfer.

It's not you, Givens was told. It's the coach. It's Romar.

Peter Dalis, UCLA athletic director, said he is upset because he thinks Romar recruited Givens while Romar was finishing the season as a UCLA assistant.

He told Givens he could go anywhere he wanted . . . except Pepperdine.

But of course. In big-game college athletics, it's never about the kid. It's always about the coach.

"We're looking at a unique situation," said Marc Dellins, UCLA's sports information director, who was talking for Dalis and Coach Jim Harrick late this week. "We had somebody on our staff who was the head coach at another institution for 3 1/2 weeks.

"Pete felt he had asked him not to take any of our players."

Their fear is understandable.

Through the goodwill of UCLA, in those final weeks, Romar was allowed the sort of access to a big-time program that opposing coaches only dream about.

Who knows how many angry players filled with youthful impulses walked up to Romar after practice and asked to join him in

Malibu?

Romar and Givens wouldn't speak for this story, either, so perhaps we'll never know.

If stars such as McCoy or J.R. Henderson had recently announced that they wanted to join Romar, the university would have the right to throw those requests back in their face.

In fact, California recently did just that, stopping two other young talents who tried to join Romar--forward Tremaine Fowlkes and center Michael Stewart.

But at the same time, Cal allowed another sophomore, Jelani Gardner, to go to Pepperdine because he was unhappy and had little future at Berkeley.

A special case. A little like this one.

Because the story of omm'A Givens is not about basketball. It is about a lost kid. It is about a comfortable place.

More important, it is about a university fulfilling its mission of helping a student navigate the difficult waters between adolescence and adulthood.

Harrick sat in Brad Fuhrer's living room three years ago while recruiting Givens and made that exact promise. Fuhrer remembers.

"Jim Harrick knows omm'A, he knows all the things he carries with him," Fuhrer said. "Because of this, I cannot believe he or the athletic director would deny this transfer. I'm so disappointed in Harrick."

Sure, Romar could call Givens and order him to stay away. Tell him that he will simply not give him a uniform. This would save Romar's reputation at UCLA, if not his chance of replacing Harrick one day.

But that makes this story about a coach again.

When it's supposed to be about a kid.

UCLA will hopefully remember this in time to help Givens, who has formally appealed their ruling.

If not, hopefully future UCLA recruits will not forget, particularly the next time Harrick walks into their living room, his mouth in a smile, his eyes on the back door.

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