On an early afternoon in mid-December of last year, the wheels that had so shakily kept the UCLA basketball team going fell off completely. Sure, there were the two ugly losses to open the season and the dreadful showing at the Maui Invitational, but fans still held out hope … until that 69-59 loss to Texas.
Hope that the Wear twins would miraculously rescue the team; they wouldn’t. Hope that Joshua Smith would wake up from his summer slumber; he wouldn’t. Hope that Reeves Nelson would get his act together; during a loss, he was pointing and laughing at fans who were clamoring for him to get in the game.
The pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that is UCLA basketball were dumped out of the box and nobody had any clue how to assemble them. It sure wasn’t going to be coach Ben Howland, as he struggled to get his team to play together just three weeks into the season, and it wouldn’t get much better.
By far the most bizarre, out-of-place aspect of last season was the setting. The Bruins were playing in the 54-year-old Los Angeles Sports Arena, nowhere near campus. Even the Sports Arena’s lighting system decided it had seen enough against the Longhorns and stopped working altogether. No matter how many times The Den chanted “take off that red upholstery,” a large portion of the seats remained red.
Now, a month removed from that disastrous season, the pieces have begun to fall into place. Howland’s leash ““ perhaps a piece in itself ““ has been shortened, so he is hoping they come together sooner rather than later. His recruiting class, headlined by Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson and Tony Parker, was a corner piece that led ESPN’s Andy Katz to call the Bruins “the most fascinating team of 2012-13.”
One of the biggest pieces of them all is that $136 million construction project you walk by every day on your way to class: legendary Pauley Pavilion.
It has been nearly two years since the renovation broke ground and according to UCLA Athletics officials, it’s on-time and on-budget. Consider the frame in place.
Does a renovated arena and the service of an 18-year-old put you in the Final Four? Not quite, but having a like-new, on-campus arena will go a long way to restoring normalcy to the program, and Howland knows it. His job depends on it.
“One of the huge draws for these kids coming in was the new Pauley. … Kids love brand-new facilities,” Howland said. “When we move back in there, we are definitely again one of the top facilities in the country.”
The athletic department is six months away from completing the 33-month project. Its target date is Oct. 15, with the first events coming in early November. Athletic department officials felt that the building was presentable enough to take various media members on tours that began last week.
It’s hard to make declarative statements about a building that still looks very much like a construction project, but that aside ““ be excited. It doesn’t appear to have the flash or pizazz present at Oregon and USC. In fact, most of the interior will look the same by design. Both the Pauley and Wooden families requested that the original building be renovated rather than demolished and built anew.
The biggest aesthetic difference will be the 35-foot-high concourse encased in glass that lines the arena. Old Pauley felt a little cavernous, but the concourse gives New Pauley more of an open feel. The east side of the concourse will be known as “Wooden Way” and will house John Wooden’s statue ““ which may be up on opening day ““ as well as a tribute to his career accomplishments. The south side will have a bevy of concessions options and a significantly greater number of restrooms.
The lower levels will feature a club for donors (the only place in the arena where alcohol will be served) and spacious team locker rooms with player lounges. The bad acoustics are fixed to amplify crowd noise. There’s no more awkward, 35-foot gap between the first row and the hoop, and the pavilion’s capacity was increased by 1,000.
The renovation team had to strike the delicate balance of keeping Pauley’s classic feel while making it feel like a new building at the same time.
Howland’s job is to make his team look worthy of a championship in his first year back in a building that only hangs banners, the last of which went up almost 20 years ago.
Its opening couldn’t come at a better time as everyone, from the fans to the players to Howland, views this season a fresh start in a fresh building. Yes, the planets are aligning for UCLA to do something special in the new pavilion’s first year.
When Wooden moved into Pauley, it gave his program a much-needed boost and was huge for recruiting, luring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Westwood Village. When discussing Parker’s signing, Howland was already making the comparisons, but he didn’t want UCLA fans to get carried away.
“I’m not predicting any Wooden-esque results,” Howland said.
It’s astounding that comparisons to Wooden have cropped up considering that the last time we saw UCLA on the floor, the Bruins looked lost at the Sports Arena, remember?
The new Pauley Pavilion will do its best to help you forget.
Email Strong at email@example.com.