As the days dwindle down to a precious few, there being only a handful of basketball games left now in his remarkable college career, Don MacLean walks the UCLA campus wondering how four years could pass so quickly...Bye, Bye...and where all those points and whines and rebounds and sneers and glamour and controversy went...Miss American Pie...and wondering just precisely how, in his edge-of-Hollywood fairy-tale world, people will judge him: as a benevolent, record-setting elf or as a snide, tradition-bashing troll.
"Always looking ahead," MacLean says, "you make the mistake of not stopping once in a while and saying, 'Hey, wait, this is college. This is my life here.' " MacLean is strolling the promenade, nodding hello to still another gorgeous gawking starlet/student, and sounding more sweet and nostalgic than the high-strung, yowling potentate he appears to be on the hardwood. "It's kind of sad," he says. "It's gone so fast. I wish I had slowed down and enjoyed it more."
The thing is, during MacLean's tenure in Westwood—has it honestly been only four seasons, or did this guy really come in with Gene Bartow?—he has been both unrepentant jerk and joyful romantic. In other words, your average college kid. ("That's the beauty of this job," UCLA coach Jim Harrick says. "Watching young people grow and change.") But even though he always knew what he wanted, he couldn't figure out the best way to go about getting it. The resulting dilemma is that history may make him only a footnote; he blew away the Babe, and all anybody relates him to is Roger Maris.
First off, there is the 6'10", 225-pound MacLean's on-court personality, a nasty haughtiness that he describes as a "McEnroe thing," a sort of rage for perfection ("Don doesn't think he should ever miss a shot," says Harrick). MacLean's fairly obnoxious on-court facial expressions have always obscured his shooting skills and his work ethic. It didn't help that he has gone after referees at practically every whistle.
February 17, 1992
That image was reinforced by questions about the ethics of his recruitment by Harrick, which were raised and investigated—and which continue to be discussed a full career later.
Moreover, MacLean's glitzless game has been overshadowed in megagloss Los Angeles—UCLA hoops having only recently reemerged above bimbo jello-wrestling in the L.A. sports pantheon—by the spectacular Harold (Baby Jordan) Miner downtown at USC, and even by MacLean's teammate Tracy Murray, who embellishes distant bombs with a prolonged, Reggie Jackson-inspired gaze and pose.
As a close friend of MacLean's says, "Don's different, but he's consistent. He's arrogant, but it's a good arrogance. He's always known all this would happen if he worked hard. This is the year he's looked forward to all his life."
Sure enough, after daring and dreaming and hoping for a magical moment that would have seemed impossible in UCLA's recent wasteland, MacLean has now surpassed the point totals of all the celebrity guards and forwards and centers who were instrumental in UCLA's historical success—Goodrich and Hazzard, Wicks and Rowe, Walton and Wilkes. Washington and Johnson, Vandeweghe and Miller—and is about to nail the scoring mark set by the big kahuna himself, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor, and no relation to Paula Abdul). At week's end MacLean needed only 19 points to break the legend's UCLA career record of 2,325 points. So what if it took MacLean four seasons to accomplish the feat while his predecessor played only three? Paint the asterisk Bruin blue and gold and remember this: MacLean, under the newly appointed Harrick, wasn't playing on one of those Bruin powerhouses of old; he had to pick up a nearly dead horse and virtually carry it to the finish line.
With two victories last week, the Bruins continue to revel in their glorious resurrection. Ranked No. 3 with a 17-1 record and perhaps looking at their first championship in the Pac-10 in five seasons, they also are counting down to a game against No. I Duke at home on March I that will awaken the spirits in Pauley Pavilion just as surely as old coach Wooden will be sitting at courtside to hear them.
Nonetheless, petty jealousies still surround MacLean like fruit flies. Senior point guard Darrick Martin was heckled by some UCLA fans in a game earlier this year when he failed to pass to MacLean on a fast break. Murray, a junior who plays virtually the same "perimeter forward" position as MacLean, and who is neck and neck with him this season as team scoring leader (through Sunday, they had identical 21.2 averages), says, Ali-like, "I don't have no quarrel with MacLean anymore." All of this followed the Jade West Jaw-In, the now famous preseason team meeting at a Chinese restaurant in Century City at which the Bruins dealt with the question of selfishness; i.e., where exactly did his teammates fit into MacLean's plans this season?
"Don assured us we weren't secondary to his goals," says senior guard Gerald Madkins. "It's just that the guy is so intense and confident, he felt big enough to carry us on his back, and we had to let him know that's not where we wanted to be. We wanted to share the burden. That seemed to be a revelation to him."
In UCLA's crushing 74-69 upset by Penn State in the first round of the 1991 NCAA tournament, MacLean made his first seven shots, then didn't score another basket before fouling out, after which he tearfully criticized the officiating. The game seemed to be a microcosm of the Bruins' disappointing season. They started 13-1 but wound up losing eight of their last 18 games. "It's like we were destined to fall apart," says MacLean, whose self-confidence and motivational focus seemed shattered after an incident in the Bruins' 105-94 overtime loss to Arizona in Pauley on Feb. 10: After a UCLA basket gave UCLA a 77-75 lead, MacLean was assessed a technical foul for tossing the ball into the crotch of Wildcat center Brian Williams. "Cheap shot!" cried ABC's Dick Vitale, both then and repeatedly in succeeding weeks.
"I had been making a concerted effort to behave myself," says MacLean. "Then that happened. It was stupid, but I don't think I should have been vilified the rest of the year." Nevertheless, after the season MacLean resolved to clean up his act. Also, presumably, to clean up on Arizona.
Having lost six of seven career games to the Wildcats, MacLean exploded at Tucson on Jan. 11, scoring 16 of UCLA's final 21 points in a stunning 89-87 upset. Quick-releasing his uncanny on-the-way-up jumper, MacLean finished with 38 points and nine rebounds as the Bruins broke Arizona's 71-game home court winning streak.
"MacLean took himself to another level that day," says an interested observer, Bill Walton. "He went and got the ball and kept shooting it. He absolutely would not let UCLA lose."
That performance alone may have silenced some NBA experts who have questioned MacLean's "heart." Those doubters "must be living in the ozone," says Harrick, "especially with all the dogs I see playing in the NBA." Marty Blake, the guru of scouting gurus, rates MacLean (with career averages of 20.6 points and 7.8 rebounds) this way: "He's better than people think. And he can score from anywhere off anybody. Defense? Playing defense is like shoveling snow. It's hard work. But if you're an athlete and quick enough, it's just a matter of adjusting. Learning to switch, cover, adapt."
"Don has the quickest release of any college player in a long time," says Pete Newell, the Cleveland Cavalier scout at whose Big Man camp MacLean has studied. "Unfortunately, the NBA guys give a player labels that stick for a long time. Brad Daugherty was 'soft.' Michael Jordan was 'finesse.' They're not doing too badly. This kid jaws a lot and gives lip to the refs, so he's 'hard to coach.' But at camp he was a joy to work with."
"You can't instill the fire he has, says Newell's son, Tom, an assistant coach with the New Jersey Nets. "MacLean's in your face, like Rick Barry was, telling you he'll kick your ass if you're not ready. Plus, you got to love a white kid from L.A. who never has a tan."
Though MacLean grew up in white-bread Simi Valley, his basketball heritage is from summer ball and all-star games in the playgrounds of Los Angeles. It was there that he developed the strangely flat jump shot that he releases instantly after leaving the floor. Not that he gets much higher at the pinnacle of his, uh, leap. "I had to find some way to get my shot off against bigger, quicker guys," says MacLean, who also learned to sell his characteristic woof tickets in this milieu.
"Hey, our summer-league team one year was me and Don, Shawn Kemp, Chris Mills, Scan Higgins—some serious talkers, says Martin. (Kemp and Higgins are in the NBA; Mills, a junior at Arizona, is a sure bet to join them.) "Like we were supposed to go to college ball and turn into quiet guys?"
"I coached Don in an all-star summer game after the sixth grade," says Harrick. "He was thin and frail, but they couldn't intimidate him. He'd fight back. He'd lip off to players and refs. As he developed that shot, though, no coach asked him to pass. I wouldn't have either."
There is talk and there is attitude. MacLean's perpetual on-court insolence stemmed from more than mere frustration at officials' calls. When he was in the seventh grade, his parents' stormy marriage fell apart and his father, James, a 6'8" telecommunications worker who dabbled in tennis officiating—he has worked the lines at the U.S. Open—walked out, never to return. Devastated, Don remains angry and bitter.
"Sure, that's had its effects on my attitude," he says. "We don't talk. But in a way it's worked out for the best. I had to grow up alone, make some decisions by myself. I became a rough kid sometimes. Bitched a lot, on and off the court. Maybe if a dad was around, he would have slapped me into shape. But the fact it was just my mom helping me...O.K.... I'm kind of proud that I'm standing here read) to graduate this summer."
Had the rough-edged Walt Hazzard not been fired as coach by UCLA in March 1988, MacLean, who maintains a 3.0 GPA as a psychology major, would probably be graduating from Georgia Tech. In the book Raw Recruits, by Armen Keteyian and SI's Alexander Wolff, one former UCLA assistant under Hazzard is quoted as calling MacLean "an 18-year-old punk dictating the [recruiting process]." MacLean, in turn, had publicly stated that Hazzard couldn't coach.
Much more damning was an assertion in the book that Harrick had visited MacLean's home during the so-called "dead" period when such recruiting visits are not allowed under NCAA regulations. The book asserts that MacLean's mother, Pat, confirmed the visit. If this had been found to be true, the NCAA could have declared MacLean ineligible and forced UCLA to pay back three years of tournament receipts. But last summer the NCAA quietly absolved Harrick of any wrongdoing; last month Harrick. MacLean and his mother all denied to SI that there had been any such visit. "Coach Harrick's been to our house only once," says Pat. "But that was four months earlier, when he was still the coach at Pepperdine. I think somebody got mixed up."
MacLean eschews the bustle of city life and retains as best friends a couple of former high school classmates; often he steals away from UCLA to drive back to Simi Valley over Highway 118, where he stops his car on a hill just above the valley. "I just sit there, hanging out, relaxing, gathering thoughts," he says. "It's peaceful, serene. I need that to regroup."
Or to come down from practicing karate, which MacLean took up last summer, he says, "as a mental aid more than anything." But then he adds, "It never hurts to be able to hurt somebody yourself."
Say what? Rod McKuen goes ballistic? It's a little late for MacLean to turn into a fighter, inasmuch as it was two summers ago at the Goodwill Games tryouts that Colorado's Shawn Vandiver, whom he had elbowed in a scrimmage, dropped MacLean with a sucker punch in the locker room, fracturing his cheekbone.
But it's obviously not too late for MacLean to lead UCLA all the way back to the Final Four. California coach Lou Campanelli, a past critic, calls MacLean "far more stable" this year. USC coach George Raveling says, "UCLA's on a mission to get to the Metrodome [in Minneapolis, site of the Final Four] and prove they're not just a bunch of spoiled stars. That begins and ends with MacLean."
Most significantly, after all those points and all those records, MacLean still knows that his legacy is yet to be determined. "I've said all along that to be remembered as a player at UCLA, you have to make it as a team; you have to do something as a team in the NCAA tournament," he says. "O.K., that's fair. If I'm such a great player, I should be able to lead this team to the Final Four."
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry....
While he's regrouping in his car gazing out from that hill, is there any doubt that MacLean can see past the levee and past Simi Valley, all the way to Minnesota?