Eight years ago, immediately following its third straight Final Four appearance, the UCLA Basketball program took the shocking and unprecedented step of folding its men’s team, ceasing operations despite holding the most national championship titles of any university in NCAA Division I. What follows are the reflections of some of those involved in this decision and/or affected in its aftermath.*
*It should go without saying – but for legal reasons, it can’t – that what follows is entirely satire. None of the statements attributed to the various personae were actually made, and no one mentioned below had any knowledge of or gave any consent to this exercise. Also, despite no-showing in several games this season, the men’s basketball team has not actually shut down…I’m pretty sure.
In other words, this is a work of fiction.
Memphis 78-63 UCLA
DARREN COLLISON (UCLA Bruin, 2005-2008): That was a tough one. Texas A&M, Western Kentucky, and Xavier had all been physical teams, so maybe we were still reeling from them, but Memphis played with a speed and physicality that we just couldn’t seem to match. It was the same story as ’06 and ’07, only this time it wasn’t Florida, it was someone new. That part was really disheartening…to come up short in the same way against a different opponent.
BEN HOWLAND (UCLA Head Coach, 2003-2008): You have to remind yourself not to obsess over these things after the fact, but I should have shifted Russ [Westbrook] over to [Derrick] Rose sooner and put Luc [Richard Mbah a Moute] on [Chris] Douglas-Roberts instead of hanging Josh [Shipp] out to dry. And we had no answer for [Joey] Dorsey; Kevin [Love] was getting pushed around all night. It was — well, it wasn’t how I envisioned the night going.
DERRICK ROSE (Memphis Tiger, 2007-2008): Yeah, I had this one move that Collison couldn’t stop, like this, where I — [Stands to demonstrate move; tears ligament in knee; falls and is knocked unconscious.]
RUSSELL WESTBROOK (UCLA Bruin, 2006-2008): Coach looked different in the locker room after the game. He looked hollower, more defeated than I’d ever seen him before. I knew something was off, but I had no idea what was coming.
BILL WALTON (UCLA Bruin, 1971-1974): The journey to that point reminded me of the train journey to Lhasa. In Chongqing, you’ve left the coastal lowlands of southern China, that fertile bosom of eastern civilization, your heart set on the secrets of Tibet. As you climb through Chengdu, the intoxicating aromas of Sichuan spices filling your mind with visions of ancient, exotic truths…
NANCY ANNE MUEHLHAUSEN (Daughter of John Wooden, UCLA Head Coach, 1948-1975): Dad, knowing the importance of this game, wanted to go to San Antonio, but with his health it was impossible. So he watched from home, and I’ve never seen him as deflated and disappointed as when they lost that game. He said to me, ‘Nan, this certainly isn’t how we drew it up, is it?’ No, it wasn’t. It wasn’t how this was supposed to go.
HOWLAND: It honestly never occurred to me that we’d lose. I was genuinely convinced that the only reason we didn’t win back-to-back titles in ’06 and ’07 was Florida. Those guys were finally gone, and our team simply improved. Yeah, we lost Arron [Afflalo] to the draft, but – and this is no disrespect to Arron, who it was a privilege to coach – adding Kevin and Russ, on the balance, made us a better team. The assumption that we would finally win the championship had underlay so much of what had been set in motion. So I was stunned. So stunned that I felt I had to get my bearings before doing what we’d agreed.
DAN GUERRERO (UCLA Athletic Director, 2002-present): Ben pulled me aside before addressing the team. ‘We’re still going through with this, right?’ he asked. I told him that as long as he was still firm on his plans to retire after the season, that we were committed to shutting down the program. I also told him if he needed a day to sleep on it and confirm where he stood, that we could do that. We’d originally planned on making the announcement that Tuesday, the day after the title game. There was still time. But he shook me off, set his jaw and marched in to address the assembled team.
WESTBROOK: I couldn’t tell you his exact words. The realization of what he was telling us made my head swim, and the words started to run together. He told us how much he loved us and this program. He said that UCLA – UCLA, man! The greatest basketball program ever! – would be discontinuing the men’s team. He started to talk about a committee or something, but that’s really all I remember. I kind of still can’t really believe it.