As illustrious as the history of UCLA basketball is, most of the pennants in Pauley Pavilion are a distant memory, hung over a generation before the stars of this year’s team were even born.
The Bruins are reminded every day, though, of the program’s most recent championship back in 1995, when current director of operations Tyus Edney was a senior point guard.
Edney talks to this year’s team more, he said, than any of the previous six teams since he returned to UCLA in 2010. It’s for good reason.
“We know we have the potential to be right there to win a title,” Edney said of the current team.
With the No. 8 Bruins heading into March Madness with a legitimate chance to capture the championship, Edney’s story is trending as much as ever.
He appeared on ESPN on Wednesday morning, one day after UCLA parodied the network’s “This is SportsCenter” commercials with a short video featuring Edney. In the clip, Edney completes paperwork for coach Steve Alford in just 4.8 seconds, the same time it took him to scamper the length of the court for a game-winning buzzer-beater against Missouri in the second round of the 1995 tournament.
The 5-foot-10 former point guard, who played four seasons in the NBA, said he gets stopped about once a week by fans who want to reminisce about Edney’s shot.
“There’s so many different stories, people saying where they were,” Edney said. “People breaking things, putting holes in their ceilings or walls, people dropping their kids.”
As the current Bruins try to inspire the same type of March excitement, Edney will be right in their ears.
So far, there are plenty of similarities between this year’s team and the 1995 edition.
Both squads ran off perfect records in nonconference play before opening conference action with a road loss at Oregon, then rebounding to win six straight games before slipping up once again in late January.
For Edney’s 1995 team, the late-January loss came in the form of a 100-93 upset by California at Pauley Pavilion.
“That was the year Jason Kidd wasn’t there anymore and we probably thought we were just going to win with our talent,” Edney said. “That was kind of a turning point for our team. We had to refocus.”
When this year’s Bruins suffered a similar late-January setback, this time in the form of a two-game losing streak against Arizona and USC, Edney tried to ensure it was a turning point for them, too.
The Bruins had already held a players-only meeting in the moments after the USC loss, but Edney spoke to them as well, reminding them that UCLA’s last title team dealt with the same mid-season malaise.
“I give them our story so they can take it and see this is what’s happening,” Edney said. “That it’s happened before and you can come out successful.”
After the loss to Cal, the 1995 team wouldn’t drop another game the rest of the year. The current team lost to Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals Friday, but that won’t stop Edney from believing in these Bruins.
As eerily similar as the arcs of their seasons had been, in Edney’s eyes that was never the most important resemblance between this team and the 1995 team.
To Edney, the biggest parallel is the camaraderie. He said the 1995 squad was the closest of any during his four years at UCLA. Earlier this month, current senior guard Bryce Alford said the same of this year’s Bruins.
“All that stuff comes into play when you’re hit with adversity and situations where it’s going to be tough to get a win,” Edney said.
The most special aspect of this team’s chemistry, Edney said, is the relationship between UCLA’s current seniors and its talented freshmen, point guard Lonzo Ball and forwards T.J. Leaf and Ike Anigbogu. It reminds Edney of 1995 when the Bruins also integrated three energetic first-years.
“It’s rare – you have to have special individuals that are able to do that,” Edney said. “With guys like Lonzo and T.J., who play basketball the right way, play unselfishly, it just kind of helps breed that type of atmosphere.”
Leaning back against the wall of a hallway a few feet from the Pauley Pavilion court, Edney smiled when asked what it was like to see the program back in the national title picture.
“When I was a player coming to UCLA, it was to win championships,” Edney said. “That’s what it’s about here.”