With NBA Connections All Over, UC Irvine Is No Ordinary Cinderella

UC Irvine models its defense after the Golden State Warriors, where its coach was an assistant, and its roster is full of NBA legacies. But after the Anteaters' first-round win over Kansas State, they're looking to create something entirely their own.
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UC Irvine coach Russ Turner looked down at his iPhone. Less than thirty minutes had passed since the 13th-seeded Anteaters knocked off fourth-seeded Kansas State, 70-64, on Friday. Already, he had 205 text messages. “Hold that––now 206,” he said, voice raspy from exhorting and berating and, finally, celebrating.

In a previous life, Turner was an assistant coach with the Warriors, and he says he’s modeled elements of his swarming, shifting defenses on tactics gleaned during his NBA time. “You can do it if you have smart players,” he explains. “We do.”

In some respects, the Anteaters fit the Cinderella profile––unheralded players, smaller program, slightly weird nickname. At the buzzer today, they leapt and roared and punched the air, as Cinderellas do. But the players also say they expected to be here. Turner’s preseason goals: to win the league, win the conference tournament, and not just get to the tourney, but advance. And, as guard Max Hazzard points out, “That doesn’t mean one game.”

The confidence is earned. The team is deep and experenced. The Anteaters start two grad students and three juniors. They won thirty games this season. And perhaps no program in the tournament––and certainly no seed this low––bears more NBA connections. There, on one side of the locker room, is Collin Welp, a freshman who hit a huge running lefty hook Friday. He’s the son of former Sixers center Christian, who passed away in 2015. “He always told me to trust my shot,” says Collin, who usually stutters but not today, after this win. “I feel like I would have made him proud.”

A few lockers away is JC Butler, son of Caron. He says he’s headed out to see his dad, who came to the game. Standing nearby is senior Spencer Rivers––son of Doc, brother of Austin. Doc has a game Friday night but Spencer’s already heard from him. “I shouldn’t say what he said,” Spencer says with a laugh, reading off his phone, “Let’s just say it said, ‘Let’s freaking go’ with a lot of exclamation points.” Spencer says the NBA vibe gives them an edge. “I’ve been doing this since middle school,” he says. “We’re used to this.”

Moments later, assistant coach Ryan Badrtalei comes through, red-faced, forehead beaded with sweat. He describes the “aura” the team’s taken on, uncowed by higher-ranked teams, or giant arenas, or much else. He tells of how a rehabbing Kobe Bryant was always in their gym. “He lives down the street, so we’re like his home college team,” says Badrtalei. The players got to be around him, and he still keeps in touch with the team. “He texted me right after the game,” says Badrtalei. “He wrote, ‘On to the next one. That’s how he thinks.’”

And then there’s Hazzard, who bears the loftiest pedigree. His grandfather, Walt, starred at UCLA under Wooden, then became an NBA All-Star. His brother Jacob played at the University of Arizona. His uncle, Rasheed, is a Lakers scout. He is both accustomed to the glare and accustomed to being on the periphery of it. Max was the soft-spoken one, the short one––at least by basketball standards––the one who didn’t get the recruiting love. But then Badrtalei happened to be at his high school game, there to watch someone else, and noticed Max, scrapping and fighting. “He just had these winning qualities,” Badrtalei says. Irvine made him an offer before anyone else.

His journey was slow: redshirt, struggles. This season, he’s emerged as the team’s heart. Scored 32 points one night against Denver. Plays maniacal on-ball D. To prepare for Kansas State, he had a long conversation with Rasheed the night before. They put together a game plan, as they always do. Stay aggressive. Go out guns blazing. They talked about focusing on his shot mechanics––“some stuff to remember.” This morning, Rasheed sent another long text.  

Whatever the plan was, it worked. Hazzard led the Anteaters with 19 points. How he scored was what resonated. When Kansas State looked like it might pull away early, Hazzard hit a big three at the buzzer to close out the first half. He nailed another one to give the Anteaters their first lead at 38-37. Then, with two minutes left in the game he missed a left-corner three, and badly short-arming it off the back foot––“I thought I hit it,” he tells me, a bit dubiously. It’s the kind of quick fire, early in the shot clock attempt that kills coaches. Moments later, the ball swung to Hazzard again in the same spot. A year ago, it’s maybe not a shot he would have taken, he says afterward, worried what the coach would think, or still mad about the last shot. This time, he didn’t hesitate. As the ball sunk through the net, Hazzard squatted low, arms crossed, holding a pose years in the making.

Max is often asked about his grandfather, just as so many of these players are asked about their famous associations, the relatives and friends who are more renowned and successful than they are but whose light reflects upon them. Most times, Max says the same thing: If I can be half of what my grandfather was, I’ll be happy. Sometimes, Rasheed tells him he’s, “the best Hazzard since Walt.” He appreciates this. He also appreciates his parents’ approach.

Says Hazzard: “They’re trying to let me create my own story.”