The Bruins’ bench on Friday night had a sight that stuck out from the rest. Nestled between an array of suits, yellow warmup jerseys and UCLA’s iconic home whites was Shabazz Muhammad, the only person wearing blue sweats from head to toe.
On this night, that outfit could have passed as an NCAA-mandated jumpsuit. Muhammad was thrown into the NCAA’s doghouse earlier in the day after he and his family were found to have violated amateurism rules.
UCLA announced the decision as fans were filing in to Pauley Pavilion for the first time in two years, 90 minutes before the tip of what turned out to be a relatively stress-free win over Indiana State.
While Muhammad sat out, seemingly everyone at the unveiling of the $136 million renovation took a chance to voice their feelings over the perceived injustice.
A “Free Sha-bazz” chant late in the second half might have been the loudest of the night from the record Pauley Pavilion crowd of 13,513. Shirts with Muhammad’s face were scattered throughout the crowd as well as signs reading ‘#freeshabazz,’ a movement obviously inspired by the words in this column earlier Friday morning.
Flea, the bassist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, played a stirring national anthem on electric bass before proudly showing off a “Free Shabazz Muhammad” shirt, an act of public demonstration that only lit a fire under the movement. This is the same Flea that took classes at USC, proving that we can get past partisan bickering to unite on a common hatred for the NCAA and their ever-changing rules.
There was clearly some ire in the statement of UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero before the game, who used a tone of voice you won’t find in a “Word From Westwood.” He chose to use words like “finally”, “extremely disappointed”, “incorrect” and “unjust” and vowed to challenge the NCAA ruling.
The NCAA shot back with a statement of its own, one that did little to resolve the matter of when or if Muhammad can suit up for the Bruins. All it did was point the finger at Muhammad and UCLA for the length of the investigation, saying that specific documents weren’t received in a timely manner.
Muhammad was ruled to have received impermissible benefits in the form of “travel and lodging during three unofficial visits to two NCAA member schools,” according to the NCAA, which also cited “other pending issues” as needing investigation.
So, Muhammad is ineligible, indefinitely. There is no timetable for the conclusion of his investigation, so he is basically serving a suspension that has no end in sight.
It cast a dark cloud over the otherwise festive atmosphere of UCLA’s season-opening win. Fellow freshman guard Jordan Adams, who was overshadowed in his own recruiting class by Muhammad and two others, made sure the gloom didn’t last much longer. Adams put up 21 points on just 12 shots, showing off some shooting and rebounding skills that UCLA has sorely lacked from guards in the recent past and, in the process, making people forget about Muhammad’s absence.
Afterward, Muhammad’s coach and teammates took turns lamenting the circumstances. Coach Ben Howland was “very disappointed.” Redshirt junior forward Travis Wear described the elephant-in-the-room situation, saying the team doesn’t talk about Muhammad’s investigation. Freshman point guard Kyle Anderson, who pressed Muhammad hard to come to UCLA, said Muhammad stayed upbeat.
“He was a great teammate and a great cheerleader on the bench,” Anderson said. “That’s something that comes with good character.”
UCLA firmly believes Muhammad did no wrong, and will challenge the ruling and go from there.
Will we ever see Muhammad in a UCLA uniform? It’s unclear. At least for now, the lasting sight of Muhammad is him as the Hester Prynne of college basketball, a giant blue letter “I” to mark his ineligibility.
If you’re organizing a #freeshabazz protest, e-mail Menezes at email@example.com or tweet at @ryanvmenezes.