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Ben Howland's suspension of Reeves Nelson has educational value

BILL DWYRE

UCLA coach teaches a lesson to a standout player regardless of how much the team needs the young man on the court, a nice departure from the pampering of big-time college athletes that is prevalent today.

November 16, 2011|Bill Dwyre
  • UCLA Coach Ben Howland speaks to forward Reeves Nelson during a preseason game against Cal State San Bernardino on Nov. 6. Howland isn't one to pamper his star players.
UCLA Coach Ben Howland speaks to forward Reeves Nelson during a preseason… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

If we are going to rant about educational shortcomings in big-time college sports, then we also need to pump up the positives.

Which brings us to Ben Howland.

UCLA's basketball coach is not in a good spot right now. His team, picked to win its Pacific 12 Conference division this season, has started 0-2. Its first loss was to Loyola Marymount, which hadn't beaten the Bruins since 1941. Next came Tuesday night's 20-point loss to Middle Tennessee, a very good team, likely an NCAA tournament team, but with no history of big-time excellence. To the general fan, it's not like the Bruins got blown out by Kentucky or Duke.

Howland's conference titles and Final Four appearances are quickly swallowed up in the 0-2 start and the fans' tendency is to ask: what have you done for us lately? This is further fueled by media opinion that Howland's teams are boring.

Add to this that Howland's teams have no home court this season, and more storm clouds gather. Pauley Pavilion is undergoing renovation and Howland's Bruins are now Howland's Nomads. Most of their "home" games (14) will be played at the Sports Arena, with four more at the Honda Center.

To lend perspective to playing games at the Sports Arena, remember the Bruins played home games there from 1959 to 1965, and then moved into a shiny, new Pauley. Now, Pauley is aging and getting a facelift and the Sports Arena is, well, still the Sports Arena. If you like relics, you'll love the place.

If you are Howland, trying to motivate current players and recruit future ones — teenagers whose interest in, and perspective for, the long-term picture extends to dinner time — you've got to take a deep breath and just get through this season.

Imagine the inspirational opportunities Howland will have this season: "All right, guys. The bus for the Sports Arena leaves at 3:30. We just checked sigalert.com and there was a five-car pileup on the 10 at Robertson. We should be there by 6. Go Bruins."

Then, you throw in the Reeves Nelson situation and you don't so much have a basketball season as you do an episode of "Survivor."

Nelson, a junior, was to be the Bruins' star player this season. He is a 6-foot-8 forward with the kind of skills that should put him in the NBA mix someday. He has already appeared on the regional cover of a national magazine and was the major reason the Bruins were rated so highly for 2011-12. Last season, he averaged 13.1 points and 9.1 rebounds.

If you are going to build, a player such as Nelson is your cornerstone. That was Howland's intent.

That is, until he suspended Nelson for what turned out to be one game, on Monday. He didn't play against Middle Tennessee State but will make the trip to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational.

Nelson has been in hot water before. His high school coach suspended him several times for bad behavior. He had many moments in games where he played inspirational basketball and was in total sync with the team concept. Other times, it was just the opposite.

There are respect issues, anger issues, off-court treatment of others. All were the sorts of poisonous things that go unseen away from the games and show up in detrimental ways during them.

Still, Nelson was the star, and we have seen this movie before many times in big-time college sports. The quarterback gets in the bar fight and is punished by sitting out the first series of the next game. The high-scoring forward gets caught with cocaine and plays as the school "investigates."

These are educational moments, both for the player involved and for the other players watching. Sometimes, merely doing the right thing is the best lesson.

Howland suspended his star player. He did the right thing.

An example of how this should work: Tuesday night, Mike Krzyzewski of Duke won a record 903rd game and one of his former players, this year's top NBA draft pick, Kyrie Irving, was interviewed by ESPN about the moment and Coach K.

"He made me a better man," Irving said.

Howland took Nelson back because he thinks Nelson can become a better man, not because he needs a better basketball player. The sarcastic will doubt that. The optimistic, blindsided recently by the likes of Penn State, will embrace it.

The educational value of the action has traction. Doing the right thing always does.

In Maui next week, the Bruins will be in a tournament with the likes of Duke, Georgetown, Memphis, Michigan, Kansas, Tennessee and host Chaminade. Lots of powerhouse basketball there. Lots of opportunity for that 0-2 to get even worse.

The record won't show it, the fans won't appreciate it, the commentators will dismiss it. But no matter what happens with the rest of the Bruins basketball season, UCLA's players will have been part of a teachable moment by Howland.

Which is another kind of victory.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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