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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT

No More Mr. Nice Guy

UCLA: When Bailey got mad (well, at least by his standards), the Bruins became a happier bunch.

March 19, 1998|TIM KAWAKAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Toby Bailey's long and productive UCLA career, summed up in a final irony:

Here's someone who got overloaded with attention before he was a complete basketball player--and now that he's a complete, dominating basketball player, he's not getting all the attention.

Bailey's long and pristine Bruin career, encapsulated in one strange contradiction:

The Bruin who had never been in trouble, never skipped a practice drill, never complained, never been witnessed doing anything but pouring his heart out on the floor . . . had to jump-start the backstretch of his senior season by grumbling at the coach and being tossed out of practice last month.

All that did was trigger the respect of his teammates, get Coach Steve Lavin and Bailey communicating again and set loose Bailey for an amazing run that has led UCLA to the semifinals of the NCAA South Regional against Kentucky in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Friday.

"I'm not saying that other people should do this," Bailey says with a light laugh, "but I think no matter what I had done, I'd been looked at kind of as a goody-goody on the team by the rest of the players.

"And it's hard to be a leader when your team doesn't really feel like you're down with them because you're the one who's the goody-goody, and they call me the coach's son, this and that. . . .

"I think when that happened, they kind of saw that I wasn't perfect. I have the same problems as them. And it just made the team get a lot closer."

In mid-February, a lot of big and little things had been compounding inside Bailey's head, he acknowledges.

As he eyed his NBA future as an off-guard, he was playing forward by necessity for UCLA, having to defer perimeter responsibility to two freshman guards, Baron Davis and Earl Watson.

Bailey also was brooding over his end-of-game turnover against Stanford on Feb. 12, which sealed the Cardinal's Pauley Pavilion victory, and the flat, seven-point, eight-turnover performance against California two days later.

"During the beginning of this season, it was really on my mind--did I make a mistake by waiting another year?" Bailey said, referring to considerations of leaving for the NBA early. "I have to perform this year. Everything has to go smooth this year. We have to go far in the tournament in order for me to get drafted. So many different things were in my mind. . . .

"Once I put that out of my mind, I've just had fun, letting whatever happens happen. But that's a hard thing not to think of. . . . I've been playing since I was 5 or 6 years old to get to this point. And it's all come down to this."

Finally, in an admittedly rather bland incident by UCLA standards (no yelling, no gesturing, only a few bad drills, a murmur at the coach, and walk to the locker room), Bailey snapped.

And maybe that was the shock that has recharged and rerouted this Bruin season, with Bailey at all times leading the way.

"It just showed that I was down for this team," Bailey said. "And after that, everybody followed my lead.

"I didn't do anything bad to get kicked out of practice. It was the most low-key kicked out of practice ever. . . . It was just something out of my character, and I'm glad it happened and ever since then everything has been smooth."

Since UCLA was destroyed by Duke on Feb. 22, in the four regular-season and two NCAA games that have constituted the Bruin resurgence, Bailey has been one of the best players in the nation.

Over the span, he has averaged 22.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, four assists, one blocked shot and 2.2 steals, and made 56.4% of his field-goal tries and 58.8% from three-point distance.

Beyond the statistics, though, Bailey has brought a sense of purpose to the proceedings, an energy from the tipoff that seems to have been translated at last to his teammates.

In UCLA's struggling first-round game against Miami, it was Bailey who made the two key plays in the final minute, who shook his fist in the air after drawing a crucial foul.

And in the Bruins' upset of Michigan last Sunday, it was Bailey who attacked the bigger Wolverines from the start, chopped at the ball, dived for it, practically ripped it from a few Michigan players' hands, and poured in 14 first-half points to get the tide rolling.

There's a new equation to deal with when you're playing with the Bruins: Find an answer for Bailey's intensity, or lose.

"Certain teams you can tell they're afraid of you in the beginning, they don't know exactly what to expect in a tournament game," Bailey said. "I think that's kind of how Michigan was.

"Even though they were good, they had never won a national championship; they hadn't won many tournament games--that team, personally. I think they were still kind of green and not very experienced. And when we stuck it to them early, I think it was key for us."

After 128 scrambling, often-beautiful, sometimes haphazard, always eventful games, Bailey's career, coming to a proud close, isn't that hard to figure out.

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