Travis Wear hit a turnaround floater in the paint to give the UCLA men’s basketball team a three-point lead over then-No. 7 Missouri.
Pauley Pavilion’s 12,000 blue-clad fans, along with sophomore guard Nick Kazemi and an energized UCLA bench, rose to their feet in nervous anticipation of what the next 12.1 seconds would bring.
Two missed three-point heaves later, the clock drained to triple zeros. The Bruins had done it, upsetting the Tigers 97-94.
The instant the buzzer sounded on the night of Dec. 28, Kazemi, a bench leader still wearing the navy blue Adidas warm-ups of a player who never checked into the ball game, sprinted to half court and leaped to share an emphatic chest bump with senior guard Larry Drew II.
A walk-on combo guard, Kazemi hasn’t played a game this season, yet he can’t see himself acting as anything but a pillar of motivation and support for his teammates on the floor.
“The Missouri game was probably one of the best times I’ve had being a part of the team atmosphere,” Kazemi said.
“I feel like my job now is to be that hype guy – to rev guys up, be encouraging, always clapping my hands and being positive and telling guys to keep their heads up if things happen.”
While this isn’t Kazemi’s first time in the role of a glue player, the consistent force that maintains the focus and positive morale of the bench, the position is unique this time around in that it allows him to occupy his mind while he remains out with a sprained left MCL.
In a five-on-five practice drill on Oct. 26, Kazemi collided with freshman center/forward Tony Parker, locking his foot in place while the rest of his body absorbed the blow, causing his knee to cave in.
The injury stationed Kazemi on the sidelines, and as individualized conditioning and basic scrimmaging have been replaced by specific plays for upcoming opponents, his return has been delayed.
“Just like any other human being, I had lapses and I got frustrated and I was upset and asking, ‘Why did this have to happen?’ – the normal things,” Kazemi said.
“But throughout the later portion of it, we went on an 11-game win streak … and when you’re winning, you almost forget that you’re injured.”
Long before the young Bruins turned a corner in mid-December, Kazemi showed marked improvements of his own, spending his free time during the spring, summer and fall in the gym, taking jumpers, lifting – doing anything he could to improve.
His after-hours work ethic translated to success on the practice court, and the new Nick Kazemi was offered a scholarship.
“Coaches notice that, they notice when you’re always texting: … ‘Can I get shots up? Can you work me out? Give me the weights, give me the reps,’” Kazemi said.
“That’s also led me to be where I’m at now and receiving a scholarship.”
Kazemi’s father, Joe Kazemi, said he is incredibly proud of his son’s achievement, but was equally elated to learn that his son made the Athletic Director’s Honor Roll this fall.
“Obviously, it was a great accomplishment for Nick, and he has worked literally all of his life to reach his goal of being in this position,” Joe Kazemi said.
“It’s an honor for me as his father for him to be recognized for his hard work and to see that his education is more important than basketball.”
Due to their current financial situation, the Kazemis will accept the scholarship money but plan to donate an equal amount back to the university to fund scholarships for other UCLA students.
On the court, the transformation resembled the leap he took as a player between his junior and senior seasons at Tustin High School.
It was a summer of sacrifice that earned him the title of most improved player at the end of his final season as a Tustin High Tiller.
“He’s a gym rat – the first guy to practice, the last guy to leave,” said Tustin High School basketball coach Richard “Ringo” Bossenmeyer.
“His ball handling improved, as did his toughness and his commitment to the defensive side of the ball.”
By mid-fall, Kazemi was a regular in five-on-five drills in practice and found his niche, often guarding explosive blue chip recruit Shabazz Muhammad.
“Shabazz bangs more in the paint than anyone I’ve ever played against,” Kazemi said
“It’s a real problem trying to box him out. He’s a big kid – 6-6, 220, and also his freak-of-nature athleticism was pretty hard to guard at times.”
Dealing with sky-high expectations and heavy scrutiny after a lackluster 5-3 start in the team’s first eight games, Muhammad and the rest of the team’s three other highly touted freshmen have displayed intangibles that have pleased Kazemi.
‘There’s no question about the talent, but I was most surprised about the leadership too – that’s what I was impressed about,” Kazemi said.
“Even throughout that phase where we were struggling, they were still uplifting; they were encouraging and they understood, even though that was more losses than most of them had ever had in a season.”
While some of his young teammates could be headed to the NBA soon, Kazemi continues to work his way back to playing shape in hopes that he can spend the foreseeable future around the game he loves.
“My goal ultimately is to stay with this game as long as I can, whether it’s coaching, playing,” Kazemi said. “I plan to play as long as I can, whether it’s a summer league, or the NBA, or going overseas or whatever the case is.
“I want to keep playing until they tell me I can’t.”
Email Erickson at [email protected].