Does Steve Alford always support his players?
Not if you ask Sherika Brown.
Brown is the mom of NBA star Tony Snell, a first round pick, and the twentieth overall, by the Chicago Bulls in the last NBA draft. Snell was a three year player at the University of New Mexico under Steve Alford before he passed on his senior season to take a shot at the pros, so she has first-hand knowledge of how Alford "supported" her son, and she has some pretty harsh words for Alford as a result.
"I called him a motherfucker at the time," says Brown.
The story of Snell's decision to jump to the NBA, and the opposition he faced from Alford, is laid out in a telling article from Chicago-based writer Daniel Libit on ChicagoSide.com. The article covers Snell's journey from South Central Los Angeles to college at New Mexico to a starting role for the Chicago Bulls this season, and chronicles his mom's support along the way.
Snell stepped into the MVP shoes of Bulls star Derrick Rose when went down with a season-ending knee injury this year. As Snell's playing time and responsibility have increased, so have his numbers and his praise.
Snell's numbers seem to suggest that despite sleep deprivation, he is actually getting better. He is averaging 5.9 points per game, though that number is 9.6 for his most recent five, including a 13-point performance Saturday.
"We just have to keep getting better defensively, because when we get stops then we can go out there and run with the shooting we have on the court right now," center Joakim Noah said. "The rookie Tony Snell, he's been playing really big for us stretching the court. He's definitely the X factor."
But if Alford had his way, Snell - unlike Alford - would still be in New Mexico.
After a coming out performance in the Mountain West Conference tournament for the highly ranked Lobos, Snell faced a decision that lots of up and coming college underclassmen face - when is the right time to jump to the NBA? But unlike the support from his current NBA teammates, his decision to go pro in the first place was not supported and was apparently violently opposed by his college coach. Snell's mother recalls the story (bold text is mine).
Still, prior to his junior year, he told his mother and former AAU coaches that he planned to declare for the NBA after the season, despite the fact he had attracted very little buzz as a league prospect up to that point.
His performance in Las Vegas cemented it, but he would have to clear one final hurdle, an aggressive push by then-Lobo coach Steve Alford to keep his best shooter on the team for another season. According to Brown, when Alford heard Snell was leaning to the NBA, he angrily called a meeting with player and mother.
"Alford, of course, is a control freak and he is mad as hell and he wants a meeting with me to know what I am doing with Tony," Brown says.
"We were having a screaming match, him literally telling me he is not going anywhere, saying ‘What if he doesn't make it?' First of all, I have a positive attitude. I am a woman of God. I believe in prayer. I have had (Snell's) back since day one.... I don't care if he goes first or second round, or if he goes overseas, we are going to take that chance."
Brown inferred selfish motives in Alford's efforts.
Brown's question of "selfish motives" found more support shortly after that conversation when Alford left New Mexico just days after agreeing to an extension to take a new job at U.C.L.A. Snell's former teammates were left behind in Albuquerque.
So here we have a young and talented athlete who had already spent three seasons in college and who felt his game was good enough to get to the NBA and fulfill a life long dream, and we have his coach apparently doing everything he could to dissuade the young man from taking that step. It seems that a first round pick and $1.4 million/year contract would suggest that Snell and Brown had it right and that his coach did not.
The real irony of this is that so many Bruin fans have a major problem with Alford specifically for his blind support of one of his players facing a hugely important criminal charge at Iowa. It seems ridiculous then that he would be so completely unsupportive of a player who was making an hugely important career decision for his and his family's future, especially when hindsight shows that player was totally right. That still didn't keep Alford from trying to claim some credit for Snell's success with the Bulls.
Of course, maybe it was never really about the support Alford gave or didn't give his players that we're talking about. Maybe it's really all about Alford supporting his own interests. That worries me a lot, because he now sits in a position of authority with respect to some of our Bruin student-athletes, and I want them to have every bit of support that they can get.
We identified and spelled out plenty of errors by Ben Howland in his later years at U.C.L.A. which led to an inordinate number of players leaving college early, even when their prospects for reaching the next levels were borderline. But not once with all those early departures did we ever catch wind of Howland browbeating his layers into staying or doing anything other than being supportive of them in their endeavors.
B wrote a beautiful post a few days ago spelling out the frustration that many die hard Bruin fans have with this coach. I am still really conflicted over our basketball program, and maybe some of you have noticed I haven't written anything about basketball this year. I'm one of those that is still trying to figure out how to balance support for the players with a sincere antipathy for the coach and the Athletic Director who hired him. I can't figure out how to support the kids without also supporting Dan and Alford, but I can't ignore the adults without ignoring the kids. I don't really know where to go with things right now.
I do know that it is just sad that this is the state where we find ourselves. Then, reading articles like this one from Libit just deepens my sadness for our student-athletes and our once proud basketball program. Those kids, and U.C.L.A., deserve so much better than this.