Note: I've only been a Bruin fan for all of 5.5 years, so this is going to be a pretty limited look at the most illustrious collegiate basketball program of all-time. I'm sure those of you with more knowledge of Bruin history will have other names to chime with, but I'm going to work with what I know and have witnessed firsthand here. I hope you'll indulge me...
This has undoubtedly been the toughest season of my UCLA career. I've (we've) been spoiled silly over the past half-decade. If you'd have told me before I started my Bruin career that we would make just one Final Four in my time at UCLA, I'd be stoked. That's not to say that I'm complacent with what has been accomplished during my tenure at UCLA; I want that 12th banner more than anyone. But as I embark on my 17th and final quarter as a UCLA student (undergrad and grad -- no, I'm not lazy enough to take 17 quarters to finish undergrad), I'm also grateful for those incredible memories and more wins than I ever could have imagined.
I guess you can say I was destined to watch a lot of UCLA basketball. Of my 10 acceptance letters, UCLA was not the highest ranked. It might not have even been in the top 5. It is a great school, no doubt, but there are other fantastic schools out there. But what those schools didn't have, and what sold me on the beloved blue and gold, was walking into Pauley Pavilion and looking at an entire circumference of championship banners. We're not talking one or two here; the banners are EVERYWHERE. I visited 20 colleges, and that was the only moment that made me say: WOW. To the slight chagrin of my parents (for the reasoning, not the choice itself), I chose UCLA. Best decision? Eh, maybe so, maybe not. But I'd like to think I got my money's worth -- if I chose a school because of its sports program, well then hell, I definitely bled enough blue to make it worth it.
Like many of you, I've watched a ton of Bruin basketball over the past 5.5 years. Seen a lot of players. A lot of good, future-NBA players. A lot of half-decent, useful role players. A few not-so-good, "boy he's lucky he's 7-feet tall because he has paddles for hands and is slow as molasses" types of players. Incidentally, if you can't figure out who the last example is, you'll find out in the next paragraph.
That's what's great about sports. I may appreciate Kevin Love's talent or Russell Westbrook's athleticism, but that doesn't mean he has to be my favorite player. I can like who I want, for whatever reason I want. You're entitled to your opinion, and I'm entitled to mine. And the best part is that I can't be wrong for whom I choose (unless his last name rhymes with Stagovic or he is jokingly known as Michael "The Big Play" Fey).
For me, in basketball, there are two types of players that standout. There are the ones that make you say WOW, where via sheer athleticism they pull something off that you just didn't think they could do (Baron, Russ, Vince, LeBron would be good examples). Then there are the ones who aren't the most athletically gifted, but get the most out of their talent and play great team basketball (Brent Barry, Brad Miller, a few guys listed below, and half the current Houston Rockets).
Anyway, enough waxing poetic. Without further ado, my three favorite Bruin basketballers:
3. Alfred Aboya
I have but one good reason for this selection as number 3. He's not here for those sweet yellow goggles, his misguided belief that he could shoot 18-footers with consistency, his burgeoning righty jump hook as a senior, his sheer intellectual aptitude to balance graduate school and basketball, or even his superhuman ability to take more charges than anyone in UCLA history (I don't actually know if that's true, but I suspect it is).
No, he's here for his ability to hedge on a screen 35-feet away from the hoop and push that frightened little point guard into an ineffective spot on the floor. You can almost feel the point guard's growing fear as this 6'8 240 chiseled specimen speedily shuffles his feet laterally, with bulging eyes and a primal roar. And it worked. Sure, he picked up a "few" fouls, but it was also a rarity to see the ball-handler turn the corner. We've seen a lot of great defenders over the past few years, but NO ONE has hedged as well as Aboya.
2. Michael Roll
Okay, so this post may have been instigated by last night's heroics. But trust me, this appreciation has been brewing for a long-time.
I like guys who play the game the right way. They may not be the greatest athletes, but they understand the game of basketball and what they need to do to give their team the best chance of winning. And Mike Roll is the epitome of these characteristics.
Can Mike Roll carry a team? No. Is he a go-to scorer? Probably not. Is he a great team player? Hell yes. He really has been blessed with only one truly great talent (which I'm sure he's honed incessantly) -- shooting, and one pretty above-average trait -- passing. But he's not really bad at anything. He's a solid on-ball defender; he's a great help defender. He takes good angles. He spaces the floor well, he positions himself defensively well. He may currently be our best passer.
I don't really know why I like Mike Roll so much. I can't pinpoint any singular reason. But I love watching him play. He plays basketball the way it was meant to be played.
I have two decorations in my office: a UCLA mini-basketball hoop, and a "Road to the Alamodome" Final Four towel signed Mike Roll #20. That's pretty much all I need.
1. Arron Afflalo
I don't know how it's possible to not put Arron Afflalo in your top three from the past 5.5 years.
He's not the most athletic guy. I mean, I was starting to suspect he couldn't dunk because he would never do it in-game (fast break!... layup.). His go-to move off the bounce was drive right, get cutoff, pass the ball out, run off a screen, and knock down a jumper. He's kind of short for a 2-guard. He doesn't handle the ball very well for a guard.
But does that guy bust his tail. Effort, effort, effort. Effort defensively, effort offensively. No single player has embodied Ben Howland as well as Arron Afflalo has. He wins games. He wins fans. He gives a damn.
Not that our players nor most college athletes are bad people, but I feel like they are held to a different standard. Understandable -- it's all relative, right? But when everyone who interacts with Afflalo, from Howland to Dohn, proclaims him to be their favorite? Well, that counts for something.
Let me put it this way. As a steady NBA fan, I went about 12 years between "favorite players." My last one infamously choked a coach as but one hiccup in the magnificent recent history of the Golden State Warriors. So pardon me for being a little jaded. But it took me until this year, when I watched Afflalo bottle up Kobe in Denver and take only 4-5 shots on a trigger-happy Nuggets team, that I realized what I'd known all along: Arron Afflalo is the man.
Honorable Mentions: Kevin Love's prodigious backside and sealing ability, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute's near-instant double team, and (sure, hate me for it) Jrue Holiday's passing ability.