A pair of dog tags hang from a chain around Larry Drew II’s neck as he sits in the press room at UCLA’s J.D. Morgan Center.
“I bought this a couple weeks ago at H&M,” says Drew, pondering the matte black rectangles while cupping them in his hand. “But I rarely wear any type of jewelry or anything like that. I’m not the flashy type of person.”
It’s an easy proclamation to believe. The redshirt senior point guard hasn’t worn one of his most coveted accessories – his national championship ring from 2009 – in years.
The ring doesn’t even reside with Drew in his apartment. It’s back home in Encino, Calif., encased in glass in his mother Sharon’s room.
“It’s for her,” Drew says. “She likes to look at it like, ‘Oh, my baby won a national championship.’ I’ll go in there and look at it every now and then just to remind me of everything that I’ve been through.”
It’s been almost four years since Drew cut down the nets at Ford Field in Detroit as a freshman at North Carolina. Before he moved back to the West Coast, he was part of a Tar Heel team that lost just four games and ran its way through the NCAA Tournament. Its smallest margin of victory in six tournament games was 12 points.
Drew was a wide-eyed 19-year-old then, on a team that had six now-NBA players with a wealth of postseason experience. He averaged 9.6 minutes and 1.4 points per game as the understudy to then-ACC Player of the Year Ty Lawson.
“I was the little guy back then,” Drew said. “I was learning.”
Somewhere along the way in his North Carolina career, Drew’s time to learn ran out.
Fans’ relationships with the point guard’s game soured as nicknames like “turnover jesus” began to crop up via social media. The Tar Heels missed the tournament for the first time in six years with Drew running the show as a sophomore. The pressure continued to mount during his junior season in which he was benched in favor of freshman Kendall Marshall, another current pro.
Drew transferred to UCLA midseason. North Carolina went to the Elite Eight.
Per NCAA rules, he was forced to sit out for a season upon his arrival in Westwood. Drew watched from the sidelines while the Bruins moseyed through a mediocre 19-14 season, missing the tournament for the second time in three seasons.
This season saw a turn of fate for both Drew and UCLA. He feels comfortable playing more half-court basketball at a slower pace for coach Ben Howland, who, according to Drew, “let’s me play my game.”
He recently broke the school’s single-season assist record and is the only player to have started every game. He is among the NCAA’s top five in assists per game (7.4) and assist-to-turnover ratio (3.12), all while playing the most minutes per game of any Bruin since Russell Westbrook in 2008.
As the team’s lone senior, he serves as a captain on a team whose scholarship roster is composed of about 50 percent freshmen.
“He really knows the game and has a knowledge for it so we do look to him for advice,” said sophomore guard Norman Powell. “He really keeps the team together in tough games when things can go either way.”
Kyle Anderson – a freshman who takes over at point guard when Drew needs to catch his breath – called him an “older brother.”
Drew will lead the No. 24 and sixth-seeded Bruins back to the NCAA tournament as the only player on the roster to have ever played in a tournament game. Redshirt junior twins Travis and David Wear, Drew’s former teammates at North Carolina, were merely spectators to UCLA’s 2010 tournament team per the same transfer rule that held Drew out.
Drew’s uniform may have been a different shade of blue but he has been through the tournament grinder once before. He will get another chance on Friday, when UCLA will face No. 11 seed Minnesota in Austin, Texas to open tournament play.
“A lot of responsibility is going to be placed on me, which is fine,” Drew said. “I knew that coming into the season and I accepted it. It’s natural to me to be a leader and be the extension of coach Howland on the floor to lead my guys. That’s how I view myself, as a natural leader. It’s nothing new for me.”
Back in the press room, Drew is asked if he ever imagined he would bookend his collegiate basketball career in such a way.
“Yeah, man,” he says. “It makes for a great story. I just have to go out there and finish the rest on a positive note. I’m just looking forward to getting out there with the opportunity to do so.”