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Shabazz Muhammad's Las Vegas homecoming has a lot on the line

The Pac-12 freshman of the year, who played basketball at Vegas' Bishop Gorman High, is excited about seeing family and friends. But helping the UCLA Bruins win Thursday's quarterfinal against Arizona State is Job No. 1.

March 13, 2013|By Chris Foster

LAS VEGAS — Coach Ben Howland has said UCLA is here on a "business trip" this week.

For Bruins swingman Shabazz Muhammad, business is also pleasure.

Muhammad, like every other Pac-12 player encamped at the MGM Grand Hotel this week, is here to win the conference tournament. UCLA's fortunes depend a great deal on him.

Yet Muhammad is also home.

This is where he made his bones as a high school player. "Midway through his freshmen season he was outplaying seniors who were getting college scholarships," Las Vegas Bishop Gorman Coach Grant Rice said.

This is where he would bowl with friends: "He's really horrible at it," said Ron Holmes, Muhammad's father. "I think he dribbles a bowling ball better than he dribbles a basketball."

This is where the memories are: "I'm going to take everyone to my favorite restaurant," Muhammad said. "It has the best chicken fingers. I have been hyping it up to the guys."

And this is where the line is, the one dividing a wide-eyed kid and a more savvy adult.

In many ways Muhammad is like any college freshman returning home. Faye Muhammad, his mother, can probably expect a bag of dirty laundry.

In other ways, Muhammad is unlike any other 19-year-old. His life was picked over and eyeballed before arriving in Westwood, and there is no indication the attention will wane.

"Every little thing has been watched," Howland said. "It's been incredible. Yet he keeps on truckin'. He keeps on performing. He keeps on delivering. That's what has been amazing."

The curtain goes up on the next act Thursday in Muhammad's hometown.

"I'm excited to see high school coach, my parents, my family and all my friends," Muhammad said.

But "we have work to do."

The Bruins face Arizona State in a quarterfinal Thursday. UCLA enters the tournament as regular-season champions, with a good deal of credit going to the nation's No. 2-rated recruiting class.

Muhammad was the centerpiece of the group, and he's lived up to expectations. He was Pac-12 freshman of the year and first-team all-conference, all while receiving paparazzi-like attention.

Howland has brought top recruits such as Kevin Love and Jrue Holiday to UCLA before, but their one-and-done years didn't come close to causing the stir Muhammad has this season.

"It's because everything is instant now with Twitter and blogging," Howland said.

Howland experienced a strong dose of both after UCLA's last game at Pauley Pavilion. His announcement that Muhammad would be leaving for the NBA — though it was a bit premature — went viral.

Holmes said, "We haven't discussed that yet. We have a very methodical approach, and always it's focused on the right now. Shabazz and my wife will have that discussion. If it was up to me, he'd stay at UCLA. I think he needs another year."

But another year like this?

"It's been a roller-coaster ride," Muhammad said. "It's going to take some time to put it all in perspective."

Against Washington in a February, Muhammad called for the ball with time running out, but Larry Drew II sank a game-winning jumper at the buzzer. While teammates piled on Drew, Muhammad walked off the court.

"That became a federal case," Howland said. Muhammad's explanation: He feared Drew could be injured in the dog pile.

These unwanted spotlight moments were something to grind through. Same with the flu he had before the first USC game, and the pinkeye he contracted before the rematch with USC, and the sprained ankle he suffered before the Arizona game. Muhammad played in all those games.

"Going through so much would make anyone more reserved," Rice said. "Shabazz is still signing autographs after games, but I think he's more careful."

Some of his experiences bordered on bizarre. In January, a reporter for an online media outlet noticed Muhammad's Gucci backpack. He never asked about it but wrote that it cost about $1,000.

UCLA's compliance office got involved, but Muhammad's parents explained that it was a gift from his mother and sister and provided a receipt.

"Basically, Shabazz is always on a stage," Holmes said. "He knows the things he does will always be magnified. You either deal with it, do a good job, or you screw up. The jury is still out on how it will all work out for him. He understands that he has to grow up quickly."

Muhammad was prepared for the attention but "some things were ridiculous," he said. "Like the backpack. I had no idea something like that would be a big deal."

The suspicions and assumptions are rooted in a much more serious matter. The NCAA began investigating Muhammad while he was a high school senior. There were questions about his amateur status because of financial assistance he received from two nonfamily members.

That investigation ended in embarrassment for the NCAA. In November, The Times reported that a friend of an NCAA employee involved in the investigation had been overheard on an airplane saying the NCAA would find Muhammad ineligible. Since the conversation was overheard in August, only eight days after the NCAA first requested information for Muhammad's family and long before any was received, suspicions then shifted to the NCAA and whether its investigators had prejudged Muhammad.

The day after The Times' report, Muhammad was cleared to play, having missed three games.

"I think the season has made me better as a person," Muhammad said. "I know I have to be careful with everything I do. People are watching."

People are watching again this week. This time he doesn't mind.

Said Muhammad: "I am definitely looking forward to putting on a show in Las Vegas."

chris.foster@latimes.com

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes

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