Published Jan 1, 2009 8:00 AM
Men's Basketball Head Coach Ben Howland has done it again. His 2008 crop of freshman players — named the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation by both ESPN.com and Scout.com — includes elite guards, an explosive power forward and a standout center. The good times figure to keep on rolling with these freshman phenoms, who bring personality to spare, along with talent, to Westwood.
The kids at the Corinne A. Seeds University Elementary School (UES) waited patiently, sitting cross-legged on the blacktop, clutching pens and pieces of paper. For an entire hour they watched, enraptured, as the objects of their attention — Jerime Anderson, Drew Gordon, Jrue Holiday, Malcolm Lee and J'mison "Bobo" Morgan, members of the UCLA men's basketball team's much-heralded 2008 recruiting class — participated in a photo shoot on the school's tree-lined playground.
The big guys didn't realize there would be spectators, but once they saw the kids, they tried hard to put on a good show. And the youngsters — ages 7 to 12 — were a most appreciative audience, "ooohing" and "aaahing" after every dunk. When the shoot was over, the players immediately walked over to their small fans and rewarded their enthusiasm with high fives, hugs, autographs and photos.
"The kids were very excited to tell their parents about the photo shoot and their autographs," says Marie Parks '86, director of UES' afterschool program. "We made a little photo display with pictures we took from the day, and we still talk about it."
A dedicated Bruin basketball fan herself, Parks says she was very impressed with the players' warm personalities. "They were so nice to the kids and very generous with their time," she says. "They were just a great bunch of guys. I think UCLA is lucky to have them."
The Nation's Top Recruiting Class
This group of freshmen, already ranked the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation in November 2007 with the signing of forward Gordon and guards Anderson, Holiday and Lee, became even more elite with the May 2008 signing of Morgan, a true center.
The five join a UCLA team led by seniors Darren Collison, Josh Shipp and Alfred Aboya, and juniors James Keefe, Michael Roll and Nikola Dragovic. Another teammate also has a uniquely UCLA distinction: walk-on freshman Tyler Trapani from Simi Valley is the great-grandson of John Wooden.
This year's Bruins — at press time ranked No. 4 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll and a near-unanimous choice to win the Pac-10 — will try to reach the Final Four for the fourth straight year without the contributions of center Kevin Love, guard Russell Westbrook and forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, all of whom are now in the NBA, and center Lorenzo Mata-Real, who graduated.
Still, the coaching staff doesn't believe the specter of living up to those great players will bother the freshmen much.
"We have high expectations here at UCLA; that's how it's been, and that's how it'll always be," Head Coach Ben Howland says. "And these freshmen all thrive on pressure. They thrive on expectation. That's why they are where they are in terms of being great players and great kids, and the reason they're here."
Adds Assistant Coach Donny Daniels, "This is probably one of the better classes that I've been involved with. We have five guys at five different positions. So we are expecting big things from them, and they're expecting big things from themselves."
Boys Just Want To Have Fun
There's something else that makes this freshman class special, and it has nothing to do with basketball: It's their extremely close bond. Four of the five — Anderson, Gordon, Holiday and Lee — hail from California and played together in the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and on all-star and national teams. Morgan, a native of Dallas, Texas, played with Lee on a Reebok junior team that traveled to Italy. So they were friends even before they became teammates.
That playfulness was on full display during October's Media Day in a spontaneous "press conference" in the middle of Nell and John Wooden Court in Pauley Pavilion. Members of the press gathered around and enjoyed the show as the freshmen borrowed a microphone and proceeded to "interview" each other.
"Jerime, you're a point guard," said Morgan, thrusting the microphone in Anderson's face. "How do you feel you can help this team with the turnovers and the assist rate?" Without missing a beat, Anderson replied, "Well, 'Carl,' I feel that if I don't turn the ball over, and I get my teammates the ball, then I'm doing my job, you know what I'm saying?"
Gordon took the mike and quipped, "Can I say one more thing? Can I have your autograph?" Everyone laughed. Anderson mock-sniffed, "I don't do autographs."
Fun and games aside, the newest Bruins know that when it comes to actual game experience, no one knows better than the upperclassmen. And on the basketball court, the juniors and seniors have been generous with their tips and advice.
"The guards as a whole, I try to talk to them as much as possible," says Michael Roll. "I let them know the little things, the ins and outs of our offense and our defense." The camaraderie, he adds, definitely helps. "When they're on the court, they'll be in sync together."
"Darren and I are two of the biggest jokers on the team, so they definitely fit in," says Josh Shipp about the new kids on the court. "As long as the team works hard, we're OK with it."
Alfred Aboya remembers receiving advice from Ryan Hollins, Michael Fey and Lorenzo Mata-Real. "Now it's my job to do the same thing, to pass the message along," he says. "I tell them, just do your best every time you step onto the court. ... These guys are part of a big program, and decision-making is a thing they'll need to focus on, because one wrong decision can change your path. In other words, stay out of trouble."
The Guys On ... The Guys
So, enough said by other folks. How do the Fantastic Frosh feel about themselves and about each other?
Surprisingly enough, Jrue Holiday, while perhaps the most highly touted of the freshman class, is also one of the quietest. As the other four describe him, he's a homebody. He even says so himself.
UCLA's close proximity to home no doubt factored into Holiday's decision to come here. But with a mother who is a dean, an athletic director and a teacher at his alma mater, Campbell Hall High School, academics was a big pull, too. "This is a really prestigious school, so that definitely caught my eye," says Holiday.
Drew Gordon is a business economics major, but he also likes math and science. "I knew this was a strong academic school all around, so I was generally interested in the whole subject matter. I was going to pick and choose as I went along," he says.
Gordon has the reputation for being the "enforcer" of the group. As Morgan points out, Gordon takes care of everybody, making sure that they stay out of trouble. "But he likes to have fun, too, just like all of us," Anderson adds.
Like the other freshmen, Malcolm Lee had his pick of several top schools but chose UCLA for reasons that included academics, location and the tradition of the basketball program. He's been called a "gym rat" by his fellow freshmen for his propensity to shoot hoops at all hours of the day or night. "Every time he can get into the gym, he tries to get into the gym, just to put shots up," Anderson says.
An excellent high school student, Jerime Anderson has expressed an interest in communication studies. "My mom was always the type to say that you have to have a back-up plan," he says. Gordon calls Anderson a hard worker, but, as evidenced by the descriptions provided by some of the other freshmen — outgoing, pretty boy, ladies' man — he also likes to have fun. "He likes the girls," Morgan says with a smile.
Everyone agrees that J'mison Morgan is the clown of the group. Even his nickname, "Bobo," was derived from "Bozo the Clown."
"When I was a baby, I had hair around the edges and down the middle, like Bozo the Clown, so my mom called me Bozo," he explains. "And my brother, who's a year and a half older than me, couldn't say 'Bozo' at the time, so he called me 'Bobo.' It kind of stuck." Obviously, Morgan doesn't mind the nickname — "BO" is tattooed on each of his calves.
When asked a serious question about team goals, however, all five freshmen adamantly agree: Nothing short of a Pac-10 championship, followed by an NCAA national championship, will do.
"That's the goal here at UCLA, period, for any sport to win the national championship, you know? It's not just us," Anderson says. "I want to see that happen for the seniors, who've been there three times in a row. Definitely, that's what I want to see."
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