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Tapping Into His Potential

UCLA's Mata is still learning what it takes to be a basketball player, but he has attracted a legion of fans

January 27, 2005|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

He can rouse a crowd in a moment, as he did during a big win against Washington when he leaped high for an offensive rebound and followed with a resounding dunk.

He can frustrate his coach, so inept on defense against Stanford in a loss last week that Ben Howland might have dragged him off the floor with a theatrical hook had a cane been available.

Indeed, Lorenzo Mata sometimes very much looks like a young man who has been playing basketball seriously for only four years.

On Saturday, when UCLA meets USC at the Sports Arena trying to end a three-game Pacific 10 Conference losing streak, Mata will find himself moved down the depth chart. He's now No. 3 -- behind starter Michael Fey and inconsistent junior Ryan Hollins.

"I think part of it is that he just needs the practice time and he needs the experience," Howland said. "The thing about Lorenzo, we'll play against each other and he's such a nice kid. If you ask, 'Who's your favorite guy on the team?' how many guys would say Lorenzo? It would be a bunch of them. And it's like, 'Lorenzo, it's OK to beat on Mike. He does it to you every day.' "

Or, as assistant Donny Daniels said: "Lorenzo needs to stop being the whackee."

Still, Mata, 6 feet 8 with calves as sturdy as telephone poles, has the makings of a Bruin folk hero. The chanting of his name during pre-game warmups -- a traditional student activity where each player is serenaded until he acknowledges the crowd -- is the noisiest.

And already there is the Lorenzo Mata Super Fan Club, organized by a fellow UCLA student.

Mata, the first Latino basketball player in UCLA history, has done interviews here and in Arizona for Spanish-language radio stations even though he is averaging only 2.4 points and 3.4 rebounds a game.

One reason for Mata's popularity is his enthusiasm. He dashes onto the floor when Howland points his way, his 231-pound frame flanked by long arms that seem to flap when he runs, a fuzzy mustache neither big nor thick enough to hide his grin.

There was a five-game span -- beginning with the Michigan State game Dec. 21 -- when Mata averaged 4.8 rebounds and 14.4 minutes a game. He was active and aggressive, and, for a moment, when he soared high above the rim to grab an offensive rebound and stick it in to give UCLA a five-point lead with 27 seconds to go against Washington, Mata's head almost exploded with the stomping, howling appreciation of the crowd.

"That made me so excited," Mata said. "That made me smile."

After all, it was Mata's fascination with And1 tapes -- a compilation of highlight plays from playground teams around the country -- tapes mostly filled with dunks, that brought him to a basketball court.

"I wanted to do the dunks too," he said.

Before that, it had been soccer that drew Mata to the dusty, untended playing fields in East Los Angeles while he was growing up.

"It was me and my cousins and uncle, always going out to play soccer," Mata recalled. "I was maybe in the eighth grade before I tried to play basketball."

South Gate High Coach Sal Serrano said his eyes grew wide the day the freshman Mata came to an open tryout.

"You have to understand that I am at a school that is 98% Latino," Serrano said. "Lorenzo was probably about 6 foot 6, and he was out there getting above the rim on layup drills. We don't see that too often here. He was unpolished, but he was making the team."

Texas Tech's Bob Knight was the first big-name coach to come to South Gate personally recruiting Mata. Knight filled up the small campus as if he were John Wayne entering a tavern, and Serrano and his coaches, nervous and ecstatic, fought the urge to ask for autographs.

Mata, the kid who learned basketball from hip-hop videotapes, didn't even know who Knight was. "Really," Serrano said, "it didn't matter once Lorenzo heard UCLA was interested in him."

Daniels, who coaches UCLA's big men, became a regular at South Gate. As well as appreciating the player's untapped physical skills, Daniels grew to see how Mata's warm personality and innocence was making him a community role model.

"Lorenzo didn't come up in that system where everybody was fawning over him from the time he was 8 or 9," Daniels said.

"He appreciates everything. By the time he left South Gate, he was a folk hero. There was a proclamation making his signing day 'Lorenzo Mata Day.' The biggest factor in his development is his mom."

Mata's mother, Reyna Real, who works for a company that makes cheerleading outfits, is at every UCLA home game. As soon as Howland's postgame address to the team is finished, Mata hurries from the locker room and gives her a hug.

Not confident speaking English, Real is shy when asked about her son.

"I am so proud," she said. "What else to say? Every day Lorenzo makes me proud."

Brien Taylor, who coached Mata and fellow UCLA freshman Jordan Farmar on a summer team, and whose son Bryce is a freshman guard at Oregon, said that everyone likes and roots for Mata. "The kid doesn't have a spoiled bone in his body," Taylor said.

Daniels, who said the coaching staff has nicknamed Mata's trunk-like ankles and calves "cankles," said that the adjustment that Mata must make to be successful in college is greater than it is for UCLA's three other freshmen.

"Lorenzo is still learning about this schedule," Daniels said. "It's class, training table, teaching table, practice, homework, weight room. I don't think he's ever been in a weight room before. He needs to learn that you can't skip breakfast or just eat junk food. He needs to get more of an attitude."

Serrano said that just by getting a UCLA basketball scholarship, Mata has become a sign of hope not only at South Gate but in all of East Los Angeles.

"It's incredible," Serrano said. "He's living the dream of a lot of players. He represents all of us, not just our school, but for all of us in the community."

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