For someone so far behind schedule, Ryan Bailey is way ahead of schedule.
He's a 21-year-old sophomore on the UCLA basketball team, but a 21-year-old sophomore who has become an occasional starter when even he didn't expect to be playing big minutes. He's a key reason the Bruins are 5-2 and ranked 12th, the only losses having come against top-five teams Maryland and Kentucky.
But his has never been the normal path. Bailey was born with a birth defect that left his right foot practically turned backward by age 1. He had to wear a brace, from waist to special shoe, for about a year. As a senior at Loyola High, he had painful shin splints in both legs. Those came as he was growing about three inches, turning into a major prospect at the same time.
And then there's the course his schooling has taken. Bailey signed with Portland--and assistant coach Michael Holton, now a Bruin assistant--but got his release after realizing, as the height chart and his senior year progressed, he could play at a higher level. He spent the next season at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia, a prep school with a prominent basketball program, if also 5 a.m. wake-ups and marching.
Bailey returned to Los Angeles for Christmas break. Hopeful of eventually coming home for good, to his close family that included older brother Toby at UCLA, he gave a verbal commitment to USC. But when Ryan returned to Hargrave to finish that school year, Henry Bibby replaced Charlie Parker as Trojan coach and told the Baileys he wanted to rely more on junior-college players. So Ryan continued to look.
After narrowing the choices to Penn State, Miami and Wisconsin, he chose Penn State. It was a wonderful college atmosphere, which he loved, but it was also 2,500 miles away, which he didn't. Bailey said he would have stayed, if not for one option.
It was not an ideal option. He would have to redshirt in 1997-98 as a transfer, getting to practice with Toby and the Bruins but never suiting up. Even more daunting, he would have to walk away from a full scholarship and a starting role at Penn State--he averaged 34 minutes as a freshman while leading the Nittany Lions in assists and steals--without the guarantee of anything in Westwood.
There was no promised scholarship, because Coach Steve Lavin had already signed Baron Davis and Earl Watson and didn't want to invest another on someone to play the same position.
There was not even a hint that he would be part of the rotation.
"He came here understanding that he may never get a scholarship," Lavin said. "He was in a situation where he was starting and had a full ride to Penn State for his entire career. I did everything short of telling him that he can't come to UCLA. I was almost trying to discourage him because I wanted him to be aware of kind of the harsh reality of the situation.
"It says a lot about Ryan that he wanted to come to UCLA and accept a very difficult challenge. He knew, and he still knows, that he had a very difficult mountain to climb. But I think he probably is pretty excited about how much progress he's made climbing that mountain, and he's only a year and so many months into the experience."
So far, so better than expected.
Sitting out last season was difficult, but at least he was home and in a fastbreak system and able to room with Toby and experience his brother's senior year, as opposed to hearing about it from afar. When Ryan's chance finally came, he didn't waste the opportunity.
"When you have to practice an entire year and don't reap any rewards, there are some lessons to be learned, in the sense of learning patience and perseverance," said John Bailey, his father. "I think that lesson right there will stay with him the rest of his life. I think he and Toby have played basketball since they were 4 and didn't miss a year. This was a heck of a learning experience. I was proud of him, real proud of him, the way he kept his head up."
At first thrilled simply to get on the court and commit a foul, he played 17 minutes in the season opener against Santa Clara. That increased to 21 the next game, then 20 in the blowout loss to Maryland.
An even bigger jump followed.
In the fourth game of a season in which he wasn't sure how much he would play, especially once Davis returned from a knee injury, Bailey became a starter.
He started three games before returning to a reserve role the last outing. In all, he is averaging 18.6 minutes in seven games.
"Coming in, I figured Baron would be here [after the injury], so I didn't think I'd get to play that much behind Baron and Earl," Bailey said. "Come in and play a little bit this year, and then my junior and senior years make a big contribution. But I'm making a contribution now, and I'm excited about it."