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BILL PLASCHKE

They Can Leave With Heads High

March 08, 1998|BILL PLASCHKE

They left, but they didn't.

Bits of Toby Bailey's elbows will forever grace the Pauley Pavilion baseline.

J.R. Henderson's handprints will remain on its backboards.

Scuff marks from Kris Johnson's shoes are imbedded in the lanes.

In their final home game together Saturday, UCLA's three starting seniors lost, but they didn't, not if you believe colleges are still places that teach character.

The scoreboard showed Arizona winning, 91-87. The postgame scene consisted of dazed and exhausted Bruins trudging off the floor while taunting Wildcat Miles Simon danced around it.

But the bigger picture was filled with this town's three memorable gym rats, all grown up and making certain their final days here will not be forgotten.

Toby, J.R. and Kris.

They've been around so long, we know them by their first names. Four seasons they have spent together at UCLA, perhaps longer than any three stars will play together for any college basketball team again.

Toby, J.R. and Kris.

Together they have won a national championship, lost in the NCAA's first round to Princeton, watched their head coach fired amid scandal, watch another teammate quit amid scandal, and still they played on.

All of them have been thrown out of practice, one was suspended for four games, they have won big and lost big, been tearfully triumphant and shamefully embarrassed, and still they played on.

Any one of them could have bolted for the NBA, but didn't. Any one of them could have quit school after tiffs with the coaching staff, but they didn't.

Every time one of them messed up, another one stood up, and together they grew up.

And now this, Saturday afternoon, blowing a 15-point lead in their home finale to the defending national champions. This, despite combining for 61 of 91 points and 22 of 37 rebounds.

Afterward, the pain evident in their young faces, they nonethless remained in the locker room until every critic had taken their best shot, asked their dumbest question.

For four seasons they have done this, shouldering the blame even when it didn't belong, standing out front when nobody else would.

You may not see that anymore, either.

"It was scripted perfectly," said Johnson, creative as always. "But then they threw a wrench into it."

Henderson, as always, just sighed.

"It's very hard to take this loss," he said.

Bailey looked at the locker room floor, ran his hands through his wet hair.

"I'm tired," he said, softer than usual. "I'm real tired."

Outside the locker room, many fans were still grumbling, but for the wrong reasons.

Forget the charging call, OK? The one against Baron Davis with 49 seconds remaining that negated what would have been a go-ahead basket?

A.J. Bramlett was solidly in position. It was a good call. When you play a one-on-one offense like the Bruins, you are fortunate that every basket is not accompanied by a charging call.

You want to grumble about something, grumble that in several ways, the UCLA senior trio deserved better.

They deserved to have a more tested bench, so that bench could have been used, so the trio wouldn't have been forced to chase Michael Dickerson in the final minutes on fumes.

"They were tired," Dickerson said.

Four Bruins played 34 or more minutes. Not one Wildcat was on the court that long. Predictions that Coach Steve Lavin's substitution pattern will hurt them in the postseason came true one game early.

The trio also deserved Jelani McCoy. When he recently resigned, it was written everywhere that this effectively ended UCLA's national championship hopes.

Those words took life Saturday when Dickerson and Mike Bibby scored 11 of the Wildcats' final 14 points on close shots that the 6-foot-10 McCoy might have stopped or altered.

"Jelani would have played a major part," Dickerson said. "If he's there, I take one dribble and have to pull up."

The trio also deserved a better game plan.

The Bruin playground attack will work against another team that tries to counter with a playground attack, as Arizona did early Saturday.

But if that team has inside muscle and decent defense and actually starts running real plays with real picks, that team probably will come back and beat UCLA.

It happened Saturday. It happened earlier this year at Pauley Pavilion against Stanford.

Don't be surprised if it happens in the NCAA tournament.

Not that any of the trio will ever say anything about this. They say they want to finish their career carrying the team, not dividing it.

Said Henderson: "This is our team."

Said Johnson: "Put the weight on our shoulders. We're trying to take it."

This will not be forgotten. To understand, the trio needed only to look in the direction of the impromptu Pauley standing ovation at the beginning of the second half.

It was for Bruin leaders Charles O'Bannon and Cameron Dollar, who showed up to discover that their legacy has not been lost.

Toby, J.R. and Kris. Three players, four seasons, 126 games, 100 wins.

And, oh yes, one more thing.

Three degrees.

"By the end of the summer, we'll all be graduated," Johnson said, smiling.

Those who heard him were instantly smiling back. Those three, for four seasons, they've always done that to us.

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