Eight pairs of eyes stare straight at UCLA yell crew captain
Danny King an hour before the final men’s basketball home game tipoff on March 2.
It’s much less than what he’s used to whenever he leads UCLA crowds in a cheer. But just like when he’s at work, it’s easy to distinguish his voice amid the background din while he addresses the yell crew before his final basketball game.
“Take a minute to think about your best moment at a UCLA game,” the captain says.
The yell crew members are almost unanimous with their answer. It was only a few days since redshirt senior forward David Wear fired in a 3-point buzzer beater to bring the Bruins level with the Oregon Ducks – the crowd exploded with cheers.
It was the loudest King recalls the fans ever being in Pauley Pavilion in recent memory. It was also the kind of atmosphere he reminded the yell crew to recreate – this time, for Senior Night.
As tradition dictates, the graduating members of the men’s basketball team line up with their families before the game as they receive flowers and the crowd’s adulation for their years of dedication to the program.
It’s also King’s senior night. He has been arguably the most recognizable figure of the yell crew for the past five years, and King’s final appearance comes without the fanfare and grandeur.
Despite a lack of ostensible festivities commemorating the last time the captain leads a full squad, King’s imminent departure hasn’t escaped the radar of those who’ve grown together with him through the years.
As King’s speech ends, a yell crew member steps forward to give King a hug. But just like he’s done for the past five years, King once again decides to put cheering for the Bruins before himself.
“Don’t be sad,” he says. “Let’s be excited.”
The yell crew steps out of the locker room in their rugbies – the blue and yellow collared shirts that are an ever-present element of any UCLA sporting event.
There’s still time before the game against Oregon State begins, but the fans have already started pouring on the premises. King follows a well-known member of the yell crew, Joe Bruin, to greet them. At the main entrance of Pauley, King is halted by UCLA alumnus Andre Miller. For fans like Miller, King has not only become a recognizable face, but also an integral part of cheering for their team.
“He epitomizes the school and the spirit you should have in your team,” Miller said. “I lived on the East Coast, and would fly out here for games. And my daughter would always say, ‘Dad, there’s Danny.’ And I was like, ‘Yup, he’s doing his thing.’”
Later, another fan approaches King. It’s a girl surrounded by her family and she’s no more than 4 feet tall. Dressed in her yellow UCLA shirt, Courtney walks up to the yell crew member she sees at every game.
Courtney has become a familiar face to King. She sits with her parents at the same spot behind the students’ section at every game, and the enthusiasm that she channels through her mimicry of the yell crew has caught King’s eye.
At the end of the interaction, King tells her she’s going to lead a cheer. He’s made her a promise.
It’s easy to take the chants of “Let’s go, Bruins!” or “UC – LA!” for granted. It might even seem like leading the fans in cheering is redundant since they do it naturally.
But there’s no comparing the feeling of hearing a collective voice cheering for you in unison – that’s something King knows from personal experience.
“Man, I would get goose bumps when my friends would come watch me play hockey in high school. I was always excited. ‘Oh, they’re here, I’m going to play extra hard today,’” King said. “I think that we can help to make a difference, help to at least create a special experience.”
He brought that energy and passion to Bruin sporting events when he first came to the school as an undergraduate. There wasn’t an 8-clap he didn’t want to be a part of.
However, not many of his friends shared the same enthusiasm that drove him to attend each game. Even if they did, student tickets also came at a limited number.
It was a coincidence that King would find the answer to his woes at a UCLA basketball game. That answer came in paper form.
A stray flier for yell crew auditions caught the then-Bruin undergraduate’s eye. He had never been a part of school spirit, but his response was a simple, “Why not?”
An audition process later, it was time for King to put his vocal chords to the test.
King, now a mixture of excited energy and nervous tension, had another audition to attend. This time it was at a UCLA home football game, in front of thousands of judges.
“I remember my first performance was at the Rose Bowl,” King said. “There was a giant sea of people in front of me. … It was nerve-wracking just having the pressure of not screwing up.”
Five years later, that blend of eagerness and anxiety matured into confidence. Leading cheers is now “second nature” to him.
The long-term yell crew veteran became an emotional leader for the yell crew, one who has proved his worth in the volatile world of college sports – where a simple unfavorable call by the referee can encourage some spectators to launch a vitriolic verbal assault on the other team’s loudest fans.
“I feel like Danny’s been a wonderful example for the last five seasons, not only for yell crew, but for cheer and dance,” said spirit squad director Mollie Vehling. “Everybody kind of looks up to Danny to kinda guide how they’ll react and set the tone.”
The basketball game between the Bruins and the Beavers is underway. King makes his way around the upper deck of Pauley Pavilion creating pockets of noise among the fans.
He’s greeted with a hug by usher Wanda Lawson, another person who knows that this will be his last home basketball game. She’s seen King roam the arena for years and the dedication he’s brought to the school.
“He’s really gonna be missed; I’m especially gonna miss him,” Lawson said. “I remember a couple of seasons ago, he had a cut in his hand and he really couldn’t clap, but he came out here and he clapped anyway. He had stitches and everything.”
After a final farewell, King steps away from the friend he made in Pauley Pavilion. He spots another one – Courtney – in the distance. He points her out, four rows behind the students’ section in the same yellow UCLA shirt. He makes a remark about heading over later.
King stops by several sections, each time asking a young Bruin fan if he or she would like to help him lead a cheer. He finally reaches Courtney’s section. She knows the drill. They stand side-by-side, facing the crowd as they move their hands in synchronicity for an 8-clap.
After completing one final lap in the upper decks of Pauley, King makes his way to courtside to give the fans in the students’ section one last hurrah.
He leads his last cheer at a home basketball game with a 74-69 win.
King doesn’t know what the next chapter will be after he graduates with a doctorate in chemistry at the end of spring. It might be leaving an impression on students as a professor.
But there’s one thing King knows for certain. When it’s time for UCLA to play for its next NCAA championship, he will be in the stands doing an 8-clap.