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Bill Plaschke / 2003-04 COLLEGE BASKETBALL PREVIEW

The DNP Zone

Hoffart is a senior walk-on who lost his scholarship, but he still loves being a Bruin

November 26, 2003|Bill Plaschke

Every night, he falls to his knees in the tiny space between his bed and his desk, under the tiny silver UCLA locker placard bearing his name, and loves a sport that does not love him back.

One hundred push-ups. Two hundred fifty sit-ups. Staying in shape for a time he will not be needed. Readying himself for a moment that will never come.

"I owe it to the team," John Hoffart says.

Every day he walks into Pauley Pavilion, looks up at the banners, marvels at the greats whose shoes squeaked while his remain silent.

His scholarship is gone. His playing time is zilch. His truck has 111,000 miles. His new part-time job is delivering office supplies. His pride is unwavering.

"I look up at the ceiling and think, 'I am so lucky,' " John Hoffart says.

Oh, but when the UCLA basketball team takes to that floor against Vermont on Saturday in the season opener, it is his teammates who will be lucky.

On a mismatched club with a new coach, their most experienced eligible senior is a 6-foot-10 reminder that one can still play Bruin basketball for the chill of it.

That's John Hoffart, and if younger teammates want to better understand the dignity of this program, they should turn their heads to the right.

Yeah, down at the end of the bench. That pale figure with the Kiki Vandeweghe eyes and Bill Walton grin.

The one who has been here four years and played a total of 23 minutes.

The one who has scored two baskets and taken no rebounds.

The one who arrived four years ago as a walk-on, worked two years for a scholarship, then lost it last spring.

The one who refused to quit.

"It's bigger than me," Hoffart says. "It's bigger than all of us. It's about those four letters. I still sit there during games and go, 'Wow!' "

On those few occasions when Hoffart gets into games, the Bruin fans have that reaction.

They chant for him. They rise and cheer like the dickens for him. They understand him. For the old-timers, they are he.

"We call it, 'Hoffart hysteria,' " teammate Josiah Johnson said. "It's amazing. The place goes nuts."

Everyone wants him to score, but even for that one garbage minute that Hoffart plays, he insists on team play.

"I know what the fans want, but I have to play the game right, and if that means passing up a shot for a pass, that's what I have to do," he says.

After all, John Hoffart knows where he will be sitting again.

One of the worst seats on the bench. One of the best seats in basketball.

"Hey," he says with a smile. "Coach Wooden sits behind me."

*

First basket, two seasons ago, at Oregon.

"Got the ball on the block, made a good move, up and under, pump fake, put it in. My teammates went wild," Hoffart recalls

Second basket, last season, against Portland.

"A dunk," Hoffart says. That was kind of nice."

He remembers other things too, his ritual chest bumping with Johnson before the game, running onto the court accompanied by the fight song, surrounded by children afterward asking for his autograph.

As a vision-impaired person may have a heightened sense of hearing, so too does the benched Hoffart have a keen sense of his legendary surroundings.

"You hear that song and, even though you know you're going to be sitting all night, you feel the adrenaline," he says. "I don't play, but I still take a shower afterward."

Yet of his 13 collegiate appearances, only four have actually been long enough -- more than one minute -- to make him sweat.

Hoffart has a heightened sense of this too.

"Yeah, you're at the scorer's table and you start wondering," he says. "Is there ever going to be a foul called? Are they ever going to throw the ball out of bounds? Are they going to stop the game long enough for you to get in before it ends?"

This is the hard part. Five hours a day, for six months a year, enduring a concussion and cuts and black eyes, all whittled down to a prayer for two junky minutes.

"Playing at the end of a blowout puts you in a no-win position," Hoffart says. "If you do great, everybody says it doesn't matter because it's garbage time. If you do bad, everybody says that's the reason you don't play more."

Yeah, sometimes it's hard.

He was a high school star, you know, the big man on the Davis High campus in Northern California.

After an unpleasant freshman season at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, he joined two other players in deciding to transfer.

He could have gone to several mid-major schools. But his father, Mark, a farmer and former football player at Fresno State, stepped in with some plain-spoken advice.

"I told him, if he could walk on at a place like UCLA, it would mean something the rest of his life," Mark recalls. "Better to be on the bench there than starting at other Division I schools. UCLA has the sort of reputation that could work for him."

Hoffart sent a tape. He was offered a chance to walk on. He sat out the 2000-01 season as a redshirt. After one season of active duty , Steve Lavin gave him a one-year scholarship for last season.

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