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Nikki Caldwell heats up UCLA women's basketball

The Bruins' coach has UCLA off to its best women's basketball start in 30 years.

December 11, 2010|Bill Plaschke

I am scanning the office shelves of the hottest college basketball coach in Los Angeles.

Nikki Caldwell's UCLA women are off to their best start in 30 years, and I tell her I'm trying to find things that are indicative of her personality.

I am check out the autographed basketballs, the team photos, the inspirational books, then she notices me staring for the longest time at an unusual pair of shoes.

"So I guess you think those leopard pumps are pretty indicative, huh?" she says with a laugh.

Busted. OK, look, I'm trying very hard to make this strictly a basketball story — Caldwell is hot because her team has won 18 of its last 20 games dating to last season — but it's impossible to ignore the Hollywood story.

Caldwell is more than a coach, she's a personality, owning the cameras while stalking the sidelines with a swagger not been seen in women's college hoops around here since Cheryl Miller.

"She has this kind of roar demeanor," says senior guard Doreena Campbell. "It's like, you know she's there."

Imported here three years ago from that women's college basketball temple known as Tennessee, Caldwell has taken a moribund operation and goaded it into a top 10 national ranking with a 7-0 record entering Sunday afternoon's game at St. Mary's.

Last season, the Bruins lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament. This season, they seem destined for at least the Sweet 16, which is more than her team's male counterparts can claim. In a town where women's college hoops have been mostly snoozing for 20-plus years, her basketball coaching alone would be a great story.

But there's more. There's at least five inches more, that being the height of the heels on the 30-odd pair of pumps that compose what Caldwell calls "my coaching shoes."

"You've got to have great pumps," she says. "That's just what you do as a woman."

If her Bruins aren't playing her trademark defense, those pumps pound.

"We see her stomping the floor with those shoes and we're thinking, how does that not hurt?" Campbell says.

The heels complement game-day clothes that are sometimes picked by a former player who serves as her stylist, with Caldwell surely being one of the few coaches in any sport who is approached after games not only by autograph seekers but modeling agencies.

Yeah, she pounds that floor, and glares at her team, and pushes the Bruins into believing they can one day give UCLA its second national women's title and first since 1978, Caldwell being the nice Los Angeles complement of gumption and glitz.

You know what they say — if the five-inch pump fits, wear it.

"The young ladies see that I can be this tough, intense coach," she says. "But first and foremost, I'm a woman."

On one of her shelves is a book by the late coach John Wooden, whose sayings are reprinted daily on Caldwell's practice schedule. But on another shelf is a biker Barbie.

"A limited-edition biker Barbie," she clarifies with a laugh.

The doll is symbolic of her love for the Harley she rides across America every summer for her Champions for a Cause charity, which raises money to fight breast cancer. Reciting the wisdom of coach, riding a hog, it's all part of the dichotomy that defines that a rare big-time coach unafraid to be herself.

One moment Caldwell is standing stiff-legged at practice, screaming in a hard Southern accent: "Your way doesn't work, so we're going to do it my way, OK? Your way doesn't work!"

The next moment, practice ends and she's hugging, like, everybody.

This is a woman who drives her players so hard, even the male students who practice with her team are ordered to run sprints if they slack. Yet before every practice, everyone stands motionless in a midcourt circle with their feet touching to remind them that they are all one family.

"I want to show them strength," she says. "I want to make them feel they can do the impossible."

Impossible, it seems, is building a modern women's hoops powerhouse out here in the land where their crowds are small and their buzz is nonexistent. It starts with convincing the great Southern California women's prep players to stay home, slowing an exodus typified by the departure of Chino's Diana Taurasi for the University of Connecticut.

Caldwell is on it. Next season's incoming freshmen will include four local stars, with Caldwell's recruiting effort ranking in the top five nationally. On her current team, four of the top five scorers are local players, including star Jasmine Dixon, a former Long Beach Poly star who transferred back here from Rutgers.

"I would not be here if I didn't think we could win," says Caldwell, who has three national championship rings as a player and assistant coach at Tennessee.

She's winning with honesty — on her shelf is a Casey Blake bobblehead doll about which she admits, "I have no idea who that is, I don't know how it got here, I'm really more of an Angel fan."

She's winning with charity — her players do so much community service, on the cover of their playbook is a photo of the team cleaning up the beach.

She's winning with winning, which, come to think of it, looks better on Nikki Caldwell than anything else.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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