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UCLA BASKETBALL

Nikola Dragovic, accused of felony assault, is reinstated by the Bruins

The UCLA forward is expected to come off the bench Thursday against Portland. It's not the first time UCLA has reinstated Dragovic while he faces prosecution.

November 26, 2009|By David Wharton

Most people around the UCLA basketball program know Nikola Dragovic as soft-spoken, not the type to lose his temper on-court.

Outside that circle, he's known as a college athlete who got into a fight at a Hollywood concert last month and has been charged with felony assault.

An athlete who missed the start of last season after being arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor battery.

Which left UCLA with a tough call this week.

The team ended Dragovic's suspension Wednesday, clearing him to return for tonight's opening-round game against Portland in the 76 Classic at the Anaheim Convention Center. He sat out UCLA's last two games.

"Based on what we know right now, we thought it was the right decision," Coach Ben Howland said.

The sort of decision that college teams face all too often.

Coaches and athletic directors know it looks bad when an athlete facing criminal prosecution is allowed to play. But they must also consider the presumption of innocence and the legal system's often sluggish pace -- a suspended player's season could end while he awaits trial.

Last fall, USC cornerback Shareece Wright played in one game while facing a felony charge of resisting a police officer. He was then injured in practice and did not play the rest of the season. The following July he pleaded no contest to a lesser count of misdemeanor disturbing the peace.

In Dragovic's case, Howland met with Athletic Director Dan Guerrero to discuss the options.

"While Nikola has been charged, nothing has yet been proven," Guerrero said in an e-mail to The Times. "We will continue to monitor the legal proceedings closely and, of course, reserve the right to impose additional sanctions should the situation merit them."

The reinstatement is likely to be controversial if only because of Dragovic's troubled history since arriving in Westwood from his native Belgrade.

As a freshman, the 6-foot-9 forward served a 10-game suspension when the NCAA found he had played on a club team with professionals back home. Then came the allegation, in his junior season, that he pushed a former girlfriend to the ground during an argument.

UCLA reinstated him after a one-game suspension and the case stretched into December before the city attorney decided not to file charges, leaving open the chance of revisiting the incident for up to a year.

"That event was mostly an argument," said attorney Jon Artz, who represented Dragovic then and now. "They were breaking up and there were some heated words."

The more-recent incident occurred at the Henry Fonda Theater on Oct. 24 when Dragovic's roommate, Aleksandar Stanisic, began arguing with a man and his girlfriend, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office said.

After the show, Dragovic allegedly pushed the man into a glass display that shattered, lacerating the alleged victim's Achilles tendon.

Prosecutors said that while the two men were on the ground, Stanisic began punching the alleged victim until security and bystanders intervened.

Artz offered a different account. He said the alleged victim was the aggressor, following Dragovic through the theater. The attorney said the man also claimed he had a knife.

"He was drinking heavily," Artz said. "He slapped Dragovic's roommate."

Dragovic reported the incident to campus police and team officials, expecting nothing to come of it, Artz said.

But after several weeks, the district attorney filed charges against Dragovic and Stanisic last Friday. An arraignment is scheduled for Dec. 21.

Dragovic will plead not guilty, and it might take three months to a year for the case to reach trial, if it goes that far, Artz said.

In the meantime, Dragovic returns as a player who averaged 9.4 points and 4.3 rebounds last season, one of the few veterans on a young team that needs experience.

Dragovic has been at practice and a game but has remained in street clothes.

"I think he's been doing some running, conditioning, shooting if he can," Howland said. "But James Keefe will start at power forward and he'll have to come in off the bench."

While the coach spoke in pure basketball terms, Artz was mindful of what people might be saying about Dragovic off the court.

"I would suggest to UCLA and anybody else, let the evidence play out," Artz said, adding: "He should be allowed to play."

david.wharton@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesWharton

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