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CROWE'S NEST

Ex-Bruin Cameron Dollar: From 'coach on the floor' to just coach

The former point guard, who subbed for an injured Tyus Edney and orchestrated UCLA's victory in the 1995 NCAA title game, is in his first season as head coach at Seattle University.

December 14, 2009|Jerry Crowe

For Cameron Dollar, there was no time to blink.

He and his UCLA teammates, guided by the steady, veteran hand of senior point guard Tyus Edney, had reached the championship game of the 1995 NCAA tournament.

Edney's last-second, length-of-the-court dash against Missouri in the second round two weeks earlier had saved the Bruins' season.

But less than three minutes into the Monday finale against Arkansas, Edney was headed toward the bench because of a wrist injury suffered in the semifinals.

He was finished for the night.

Dollar, his sophomore backup, would have to take his place in the biggest, most important game of the season.

Panic time?

Not for Dollar.

By the time the enormousness of the task had fully dawned on him, Dollar says, "I was checking into the game."

"It was," he notes, laughing, "too late to think about it."

Perhaps that's why Dollar was unwavering in helping deliver an 89-78 Bruins victory at the Seattle Kingdome, bringing UCLA its only NCAA championship of the post-John Wooden era.

Does UCLA win it without him?

"Absolutely not," says former coach Jim Harrick.

Not that Dollar was the star of the game. But while Ed O'Bannon poured in a game-high 30 points and freshman Toby Bailey scored 26 against the Razorbacks, Dollar kept his cool in the face of Arkansas' ferocious "40 Minutes of Hell" defense, committing only three turnovers in a season-high 36 minutes while racking up six points, eight assists and four steals against the defending national champions.

"When opportunity knocks," the levelheaded understudy later told reporters, "you'd better be able to answer."

Fourteen years later, having turned 34 last Wednesday, Dollar finds himself in yet another challenging position.

After seven years as an assistant to Washington Coach Lorenzo Romar, an assistant on Harrick's UCLA staff in '95, Dollar was hired last spring as head coach at Seattle University, which is in the second year of a transition back to the top level of intercollegiate athletics after dropping from Division I nearly three decades ago.

It's a unique situation because Seattle was once a West Coast power, reaching the NCAA tournament 11 times in a 16-year span. In 1958, led by Elgin Baylor, the Redhawks made it to the championship game before losing to Kentucky and in 1965-66 they handed national champion Texas Western its only loss.

The Redhawks, ineligible for the NCAA tournament until 2013, are 5-5 this season going into Tuesday night's game against UC Irvine at KeyArena, former home of the Seattle SuperSonics, where last month the court was renamed in Baylor's honor.

"I like that they had that tradition," Dollar says, "so they kind of knew what they were getting into. It wasn't just totally new to them. You could kind of see the potential of what it could become."

Nobody who knows Dollar is surprised that the father of three young children has followed this particular career path. Dollar was only 22 when he was first hired as a head coach -- at Southern California College, an NAIA school now known as Vanguard.

"He really knew how to play; he understood everything," Harrick says. "Coaching is a feel -- you've got a hunch, you bet a bunch. The No. 1 thing is being able to communicate your thoughts and ideas to others, and Cameron could always do that.

"He's a great communicator, full of energy."

Dollar says he knew from a young age that he would coach.

His father, Donald, was a longtime high school basketball coach in Georgia who, in addition to winning three state championships and more than 600 games, reared two sons by himself after their mother was slain in Atlanta when Cameron was 4 years old.

Dollar, who has hired his father as an assistant, landed at UCLA in the fall of 1993 after being spotted by then-Bruins assistant Mark Gottfried while playing at a prep school in Maryland.

Dollar was far from a great player -- during four seasons in Westwood, he averaged 5.0 points, 3.7 assists and 2.3 rebounds -- but "his leadership qualities were off the charts," Harrick says. "He was always an extension of the coach on the floor."

A starter in his last two UCLA seasons, Dollar helped the Bruins win three Pacific 10 Conference championships.

And on the April night in Seattle when Edney was incapacitated, Harrick wasn't surprised to see Dollar fill the void.

"He was a very good player with immense confidence in his ability to play," the former coach says. "He was just a tenacious guy. I mean, he was a fierce competitor."

In the 48 hours after their semifinal victory over Oklahoma State, the Bruins were unsure of Edney's availability.

But Dollar says it didn't occur to him until the pregame warmups that his teammate might not be ready to go.

Then, "He couldn't catch the ball, nor could he dribble," Dollar says. "He just couldn't do anything with it."

Still, Edney gave it a try.

Early on, though, the senior took a seat and his backup jumped off the bench, eager to take his place.

"I'd been playing basketball a long time," Dollar says, "so there wasn't a lot of nervousness. I was more bummed for him, like, 'Dang, you get to the championship game and you can't go?'

"But then it was time to go play."

Destiny had called.

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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