SALT LAKE CITY “”mdash; Arron Afflalo sits in the seat nearest to the door in the visitors’ locker room at Energy Solutions Arena ““ he’s been here for nearly an hour.
A horde of media members pops his personal space bubble. None are afraid to get too close even though he has just been ejected from the Denver Nuggets’ loss to the Utah Jazz for doing just that, throwing an elbow at Utah’s Gordon Hayward.
It was an uncharacteristic move, “a bad play on my part,” according to the fourth-year NBA guard. This is the guy whose team-first attitude continues to be lauded by his peers ““ the workhorse of two Final Four teams at UCLA in 2006 and 2007 and coach Ben Howland’s first recruit. For two minutes, he’s peppered with questions about the controversial play, and he holds himself accountable in each response. When the beating is over, Afflalo gladly takes five more minutes to reflect on the sorry state of his former program to a columnist from his alma mater’s student newspaper.
Guys like Afflalo don’t exist at UCLA anymore, at least not right now.
“You have to look into the character of a kid and check his background a little bit to make sure that you’re not just chasing a basketball player’s talent but you’re chasing a hardworking, smart individual,” Afflalo said.
“I know it’s hard to find all of the above in one kid all the time as you try to compete to stay at a high level, but it’s (Howland’s) job to try to find a good balance.”
He straddles the fence when asked to play the blame game for where UCLA went wrong. He sticks up for his coach, but he knows that things have changed. It’s easy to see. The Bruins have missed out on the NCAA Tournament twice in three years; they finished sixth in the dismal Pac-12 during a season that Howland called “the most challenging” in his 31 years as a coach; and Sports Illustrated commissioned an investigative report in February to show the world how far UCLA basketball has fallen. Afflalo hasn’t read it, he just knows. All former Bruins do.
“The coach is the coach, and he’s supposed to guide his guys and almost be a parental figure,” Afflalo said. “At the same time, kids have to be responsible young adults when you step on campus for the first time. You have to make good decisions about how you carry yourself and how you represent your school.”
“It’s his job to be a basketball coach, a teacher and a motivator. It’s not his job to stop you from doing things that you do off the court.”
Howland shouldn’t have to be a babysitter but part of Afflalo’s three-pronged description of a coach is missing at UCLA. Howland has the basketball coach part down, but it’s not all about X’s and O’s. These are Afflalo’s T’s and A’s, as he throws out words such as “team” and “attitude.” That’s where Howland has struggled. Five players decided they didn’t fit with Howland’s team; their attitudes didn’t jive with his demanding coaching style. They opted to transfer, and most have flourished elsewhere.
Howland is the same coach who took Afflalo and others to three straight Final Fours ““ it’s the personnel that has changed. The steady stream of pros exiting Westwood has dried up ““ the two departures from last year’s roster are averaging four combined points per game as rookies ““ and not one player from this season’s roster is expected to be drafted.
Afflalo can’t figure out how or why Howland allowed a few rotten eggs to stink up the nation’s most storied program. They certainly weren’t playing the team-ball Afflalo was raised on and UCLA fans were spoiled by.
“You would like to give players freedom in college, but you have to understand that college isn’t always for individual basketball players,” he said. “A coach has to create a situation where he can put the team in the best light possible.”
It worked for Afflalo. Recent alumni boast about being at parties that Afflalo cut out of early on the eve of a game. Howland talks often about how proud he is of Afflalo for netting a five-year, $43-million contract and how much he deserves that paycheck after growing up in Compton.
Similarly, Afflalo praises Howland for getting him to this point but stresses that it’s a two-way relationship. He says Howland’s players have to put in the work and can’t make excuses.
Afflalo definitely didn’t pick up his selfless attitude in the league. Something in his demeanor says we could have been having the same conversation at Fat Sal’s five years ago. (Only Afflalo’s pockets would have been much more shallow, and Fat Sal’s didn’t exist then.) That mind-set was ingrained in Afflalo when he arrived. Whether Howland can drill some “Afflalo” into a player who didn’t have it upon arrival remains to be seen.
All hope isn’t lost. Howland has the second-best high school player in the country, Kyle Anderson, in his back pocket. Anderson ““ a McDonald’s All-American ““ hasn’t lost a game in 65 tries at St. Anthony in New Jersey and appears to possess all of the qualities that Afflalo outlines. Before Howland closed the book on this season, he said he and his staff have put a greater emphasis on evaluating character in recruiting. Athletic Director Dan Guerrero made the same point before giving Howland a vote of confidence for next season.
Afflalo has given elaborate explanations to the columnist’s questions to this point. He’s been careful not to sell the man who helped him make millions down the river while acknowledging that something’s up. He’s direct with this one. Can it be done again?
“Yeah, he’s done it before on three separate occasions,” Afflalo said. “That’s nothing I would doubt. Sometimes it may take time, but it’s definitely possible.”