IT ISN'T PARKER-WIGGINS, BUT IT'S QUALITY ENTERTAINMENT—AND LEGITIMATE—THIS BUDDING, INCREASINGLY PERSONAL RIVALRY BETWEEN THE NEW TOP DOGS AT USC AND UCLA
This is an article from the Nov. 25, 2013 issue
Be true to yourself. Be true to those you lead.
—JOHN WOODEN'S PYRAMID OF SUCCESS
If you want to play slow, go to UCLA.
—ANDY ENFIELD, DURING A RECENT USC PRACTICE
We've won 11 national titles, and they haven't won any. A lot has to change before the comparison can be made between us and them as basketball schools.
—UCLA COACH STEVE ALFORD, RESPONDING TO ENFIELD'S SNARK
HOW DO YOU build a program from scratch? Andy Enfield is doing it one doorstep at a time, down West 28th Street, known around USC as the Row for the preponderance of fraternity and sorority houses. A few days before Halloween, Enfield went door-to-door to introduce himself to students and drum up support for a team that went 6--26 two seasons ago and 14--18 last year. At ŒëŒ§O, his audience was a dozen backward-hatted bros and two dogs. At Sig Ep, Enfield worked a room crowded with bales of hay. And at Tau Kappa Epsilon the frat boys were decorating pumpkins under framed portraits of their icons of masculinity: Ronald Reagan, Terry Bradshaw, Elvis. At these and a handful of other stops, Enfield offered the same stump speech: "We don't expect you to come to games and be bored. We're going to put a product on the floor that you're going to enjoy, and we're going to win. We want your support now so in a couple of years when we're in the Final Four you can say you were there from the beginning." At each house he was greeted with rowdy enthusiasm, though to be honest, most of the guys seemed more riled up by the presence of his wife, Amanda, a former Maxim cover girl who was turned out in skintight jeans and a form-fitting USC T-shirt. (The young women of Pi Phi, picking at their dinner salads under glittering chandeliers, cheered heartily for Amanda too.)
Enfield perfected his grass-roots campaigning at his previous job, at Florida Gulf Coast; he used to drive around Fort Myers planting lawn signs that advertised that evening's game. Last season, only his second as a head coach, the Eagles used his up-tempo Dunk City offense to become the first No. 15 seed to reach the Sweet 16. Suddenly Enfield, 44, was among the hottest coaching candidates in the country, and it was a coup for USC to sign him to a six-year contract reportedly worth $1.5 million annually. For Enfield it was the perfect job: a big-time conference, great facilities, the bright lights of L.A. to attract recruits, and minimal pressure to win right away. (Pages 10 and 11 of the USC media guide are devoted to the team's victory at the ... wait for it ... 2009 Pac-10 tournament.)
Enfield's crack about UCLA's style of play—reported by the San Jose Mercury News—made public the simmering discontent around the 'SC program at being a perennial afterthought to UCLA. Lounging in his office, Enfield tries valiantly to express politically correct remorse for his remark ("my natural personality in practice is I'm a little sarcastic, and it was just a spur-of-the-moment, tongue-in-cheek thing"), but a mischievous, gap-toothed grin reveals a certain self-satisfaction. His sauciness plays well in a hoops-mad metropolis in which the NBA story line is of a scrappy underdog trying to finally supersede a more glamorous, tradition-rich team that has always owned the town.
Still, this year's Trojans have been picked to finish near the bottom of the Pac-12 for a reason, and closing the gap on the Bruins, the defending conference champions, will require an infusion of talent. Hauling in more of Southern California's blue-chippers is a good place to start. "This is the No. 1 talent pool in the country," Enfield says. "I believe we could win a national championship with nothing but Southern California players." Enfield's cagiest move since arriving in Troy—even more than working the Row—was hiring Tony Bland and Jason Hart as assistant coaches. Both are L.A. natives with close ties to the area prep scene; Etop Udo-Ema, who controls many of the Southland's best players as founder and director of AAU powerhouse Compton Magic, calls Bland, "my guy." Last season two of the Pac-12's top three scorers were Compton Magic products (Cal's Allen Crabbe and Arizona State's Jahii Carson), but, tellingly, neither was toiling in Southern California. Bland's and Hart's job is to keep this kind of player at home.
Part of the narrative of UCLA's firing of Ben Howland, Alford's predecessor, is that his imperial manner alienated so many AAU and high school coaches that he could no longer effectively recruit in his backyard; between 2011 and '13, Howland landed only one Southern California player, San Diego's Norman Powell (6.1 points per game last season). UCLA is starved for a true point guard, but consensus top 50 recruit Jordan McLaughlin, a floor general at Etiwanda High, will be making the easy drive up Interstate 10 to play for the Trojans next fall. "The coach wants to throw lob passes and get an up-tempo attack," McLaughlin told the Los Angeles Times in explaining his decision. "USC was the perfect fit."
Enfield has brought a tireless energy and boyish charisma to the recruiting trail, but even more important is his Dunk City calling card, basketball's best bit of self-branding since, well, Showtime lit up L.A. The sales pitch USC is making to recruits is not subtle: "It's basically organized pickup ball," says Kevin Norris, the lone Florida Gulf Coast assistant Enfield brought to USC. "We want to score in the first eight seconds of the shot clock. Everybody's an option in this system. I'm not being arrogant, but it's not hard to recruit."
Alford takes visible delight in dismissing USC as a rival—"there's still a big difference in the programs, and nothing's been done to change the landscape"—but others in Westwood are more concerned about the gathering storm. "They've created some buzz, for sure," says Tyus Edney, the former Bruins point guard who is now the program's director of operations. Edney was instrumental in UCLA's last national championship, way back in 1995. He says some of his favorite memories from his playing days are the games against USC. "That's the fun of college basketball, having that rivalry and going to war on the court," says Edney. "The games we had with 'SC were intense. The whole city got into it. I look forward to seeing that again." With a laugh Edney adds, "I hope Coach Alford does too."
Strive to build a team filled with camaraderie and respect: comrades-in-arms.
—JOHN WOODEN'S PYRAMID OF SUCCESS
ALFORD WAS hired by UCLA on March 30 and immediately began the fraught task of trying to keep together a team that had been through seemingly endless tumult in the preceding year: A $136 million remodeling of Pauley Pavilion left the Bruins displaced until the week before the season began; uncertainty about the eligibility of prized freshman Shabazz Muhammad put a dark cloud over the program; a blowout loss in the round of 64 to Minnesota capped a five-year study in futility during which UCLA won only two games in the NCAA tournament, twice missing it altogether; and, finally, Howland was fired after 10 seasons. Howland went 233--107 and reached three consecutive Final Fours from 2006 to '08, but he was a polarizing presence whose aloof manner often left him estranged from his own players (SI, March 5, 2012), though sophomore swingman Jordan Adams says, "I was always real cool with Coach, and I was sorry to see him go.
Alford spent his first two months on the job re-recruiting the Bruins, interviewing them individually. Some of the little things that came out of these conversations—like getting longer mattresses in their student housing—meant the most to the players. "I liked the way Coach came in very humbly and asked what we should do to improve the program," says Powell, now a junior shooting guard. "It gave us a sense of ownership." In the end no Bruin who played significant minutes transferred and the incoming freshmen Howland had signed honored their commitments.
Among Alford's first hires was Ed Schilling as an assistant coach. Schilling, who is perennially sunny, specializes in skill development, and as soon as he got the team in the gym last spring, he could feel how much they needed nurturing. "After all they'd gone through, they were looking for a personal relationship as much as looking for someone to make them better at basketball," Schilling says.
Alford has installed more diverse defensive schemes and a new up-tempo offense that stresses opportunistic fast breaks—as opposed to Enfield's can't-stop, won't-stop philosophy—but much of his focus has been on furthering the team building. Over Labor Day weekend he hosted a barbecue. He split the players into three groups to participate in what he calls a "mock Olympics," featuring a three-legged race, a water-balloon toss and other forms of silliness. Last month the Bruins took a two-night retreat to Lake Arrowhead, allowing the players and coaches to have heartfelt talks about everything but basketball. The highlight of the weekend was a cutthroat softball game between players and coaches, a 20--19 thriller won by the kids. "Coach was at shortstop throwing everybody out and talking trash the whole time," says Adams. "It was fun to see that side of him."
Fifth-year forward David Wear uses the word fragmented to describe last year's Bruins. "There's a very different feeling now," he says. "There's a strong sense that we're a family." This makes sense given that two of Alford's sons are on the team. Kory is a redshirt sophomore who sees his future in coaching, but his kid brother, Bryce, a 6'3" freshman combo guard, figures to get significant minutes this season. As a senior at La Cueva High in Albuquerque, Bryce averaged 37.7 points a game and was named a Parade All-America. He is a gifted shooter, though his old man—one of the premier college spot-up shooters of his generation—woofs, "I'm not sure he's ever beaten me at H-O-R-S-E." But, the old man says, "he's a much better athlete than I ever was. Bryce has bounce; he has lateral quickness; he has the ability to push the ball very quickly." When the Bruins went through Basic Athletic Measurement testing, Bryce had the second-best numbers on the team behind rim-rattling freshman Zach LaVine, a 6'5" wingman who will be part of UCLA's core rotation. Bryce also brings valuable institutional knowledge, having observed (and often participated in) his dad's practices since he was knee-high. "He knows the offense so good he's like a little assistant coach," says LaVine. "If I have a question in practice, I ask Bryce instead of the coaches, and he puts me in the right spot real quick."
It's no surprise Alford finds a sanctuary in the gym with his sons and their teammates because outside of this controlled environment he has been under siege since before he arrived in Westwood. Last March, after six successful seasons at New Mexico, Alford agreed to a 10-year contract extension. He had signed a letter of agreement but not the official contract when, he says, "out of the blue UCLA calls. I wasn't looking for another job—I really thought I was going to retire [at New Mexico]. I loved the people there, and we had one of the best fan bases in the country. But the call from UCLA, it's hard to explain, it just hits you inside. Back in Indiana my dad coached at Martinsville High, home of John Wooden. I learned to play basketball as a kindergartner in Glenn Curtis Memorial Gym—I'm trying to heave a ball up to the same hoop where John Wooden learned the game. I mean, you don't know if this kind of opportunity will ever come around again. At 48, with 22 years in the business, it was a leap of faith."
But not a soft landing. New Mexico, feeling spurned, demanded the $1 million buyout spelled out in Alford's unsigned contract while he insisted he owed only the $200,000 specified in his old deal. Lawyers got involved, and eventually both sides settled on $300,000, but this messy departure was red meat for the L.A. media, which were already channeling UCLA's embarrassment at having been spurned by Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart. That Stevens wound up coaching the Celtics softens the blow, but for Smart to decide he'd rather be at Virginia Commonwealth than UCLA was an affront to a proud institution.
Alford's bona fides to return the Bruins to glory were also questioned, given his glaring postseason failures: Dating back to his days at Iowa, he is the only coach to twice lose to a No. 14 seed in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and his hiring at UCLA came just days after New Mexico's mortifying round of 64 loss to Harvard. All of this was the backdrop to Alford's introductory press conference, at which the second question stirred some old ghosts: "You've talked a lot about John Wooden and how you've embraced his values—do you think he would have handled the Pierre Pierce case the way you did?"
In 2002, at Iowa, Pierce was accused of sexual assault and Alford stridently defended his leading scorer in the media. Pierce accepted a plea bargain and rejoined the Hawkeyes, but Alford was forced to boot him off the team in 2005 after Pierce was arrested again and ultimately pleaded guilty to assault with an attempt to commit sexual abuse and other charges in an incident involving a former girlfriend.
Back at Alford's opening press conference on the floor of Pauley Pavilion, his answer to the unexpected gotcha question was stiff and lawyerly and lacking penitence, and it touched off a fresh round of criticism. A week later he issued a sweeping apology, saying his actions had been "inappropriate, insensitive and hurtful, especially to the young female victim involved," but the Pierce imbroglio remains an obsession with certain segments of the Southern California media—on Oct. 30, The Orange County Register dropped a 2,300-word story under the headline INSIDE THE BACKLASH TO STEVE ALFORD'S HIRING.
Alford will survive this criticism, but the controversy, as well as a seven-year, $18.2 million deal, has done nothing to diminish the pressure to win right away. Adams, a pure scorer who has recovered from the broken foot that prematurely ended his 2012--13 season, and versatile point forward Kyle Anderson are big-time talents, but Alford inherited only six scholarship players. UCLA's lack of depth became more problematic when starting power forward Travis Wear underwent an appendectomy on Oct. 28; he will be out of action until late November. On Halloween, freshman guard Isaac Hamilton, a McDonald's All-American, was ruled ineligible for this season because he had signed a letter of intent with UTEP and the school refused to release him. (Hamilton, an L.A. native, says he wanted to stay close to home because his grandmother had become ill.) UCLA, and Alford's rep as a recruiter, got a much-needed boost with the recent verbal commitment of Kevon Looney, a 6'9" guard-forward out of Milwaukee who is a consensus top 15 recruit. But Alford doesn't have the luxury of time like the other new coach across town. "At UCLA," he says, "there's no such thing as a transition year."
Perform at your best when your best is required. Your best is required each day.
—JOHN WOODEN'S PYRAMID OF SUCCESS
USC USUALLY practices at 8 a.m., while the Bruins generally go in the afternoon, making it possible to observe both teams on a recent Tuesday. Enfield was a high-energy presence in the gym, his language sometimes salty, his tone often plaintive: "Way too slow, guys." "Shoot the ball." "Throw the damn lob." Alford still has a rolling jock swagger, and his primary teaching tool is sarcasm. When a player traveled he said, "That must be the Euro-step." When another followed a slam with a halfhearted jog back up the court: "What, you too busy admiring your dunk to run hard?" He never once cursed or even raised his voice.
USC's practice was a two-hour wind sprint—almost everything done full-court, with a 20-second shot clock and no time set aside for individual workouts. Enfield's favorite word is quick; he used it 17 times in two hours. UCLA devoted significant chunks of time to ballhandling and shooting drills, and methodically ran through a variety of half-court sets both offensively and defensively. Enfield is coaching a system, while Alford is coaching his players. Each approach has its merits.
What was striking at both practices was how much fun the players appeared to be having. "This is a lot less stressful way to play," says USC senior guard J.T. Terrell, a jump-out-of-the-gym athlete with unlimited shooting range who may be one of the Pac-12's breakout players. "The coaches are not as uptight, and in practice we're allowed to play freely and not have to be some kind of robot."
Both coaches had similar traits as players. At Indiana, Alford was so celebrated for his shooting stroke, the student section used to chant his free throw routine: "Socks, shorts, 1-2-3 swish." Yet Enfield, at D-III Johns Hopkins, was actually the better shooter, making an NCAA-record 92.5% of his free throws. Now they preside over two programs in transition, having arrived at exactly the right moment. "Both of these guys are sitting on gold mines," says Udo-Ema. "The 2015 and '16 classes are crazy loaded. It's the most talent to come out of L.A. in at least 20 years. Both teams are gonna be really good by default."
Of course, really good may not cut it. After all, Howland was fired following a 25--10 season. "We've won 30-something conference championships," Alford says, "but the only banners we hang here are for national championships." Enfield's mission is equally clear: be as good as UCLA. He's so motivated to do so he typically arrives at his office by 6:30 a.m. "Every morning when I drive to work there's a part of the freeway where the 105 intersects the 110," Enfield says, and by the use of an article in front of a freeway name it's clear he's become a true Angeleno. "It's elevated, and I get a view of the whole skyline of downtown Los Angeles with the early morning sun on it, and the hills are behind that with the famous HOLLYWOOD sign. It hits me every time: This is it. This is the big time."
It is indeed a new day in L.A. The town has always demanded one great basketball program. Pretty soon, it may have two.
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