My hero, Zero. Such a funny little hero. - Schoolhouse Rock
There was a funny, embarrassing, and unintentionally profound article at the USA Today website ForTheWin a couple of days ago. Shabazz Muhammad is having troubles with zeroes. Not the ones he missed out on when he slid from the top player in the country coming from high school to a #14 pick and draft-day trade. It's a jersey thing this time.
While this Shabazz's lack of awareness of the #0 in the NBA may or may not be that surprising, I think it actually explains a lot of why Ben Howland couldn't keep his job and why U.C.L.A. is having trouble holding onto its basketball legacy.
It began with this quote from Muhammad in an ESPN article where Shabazz talks about why he selected the number zero to begin his NBA career (bold text mine)
Muhammad originally requested jersey No. 15 with the Wolves, but when he found out Mickael Gelabale already owned the number, he opted for a more obscure option.
"Nobody wears zero in the league, so I might as well wear zero," he explained.
The is wear the USA Today jumped in. It couldn't have taken a lot of research for them to find that there are in fact some players in the NBA who do wear the number zero. In fact, there are 14 of them. Given there are 30 teams in the NBA, nearly half of the teams in the league have a zero on their roster.
One of those teams is the Los Angeles Lakers. Guard Andrew Goudelock wears #0. He plays on a team that Muhammad might have heard about during his short time in L.A., as the Lakers tend to make some headlines around town. But Goudelock isn't as well advertised as Kobe or Dwight or the Lakers' coaching mess, so maybe you can see how Shabazz missed that one.
Another #0 in the league is Portland Trailblazer guard Damian Liliard. I realize Portland is sort of far away from Los Angeles, so maybe that one flew under Shabazz's radar, too. But then Liliard was, after all, last season's Rookie of the Year. As a guard. Hmm.
The article goes through all the other zeroes in the NBA, including #0 for the Milwaukee Bucks, Drew Gooden, who had a legendary career at Kansas and just finished his 12th year in the NBA; and #0 for Dallas, Shawn Marion, who starred at UNLV, a school Shabazz might know, and has been an All-Star and one of the league's top defensive stars during his 14 years, and #0 for the Phoenix Suns, Michael Beasley, the #2 overall pick in 2008. Some of the other #0's are less heralded, but I'm sure that all of these guys showed up on PlayStation's NBA 2012.
But there is one #0 that I would actually expect a guy like Shabazz, who was focused on the NBA before, during, and since his required one and done collegiate year, and who chose to go to U.C.L.A. to play guard, to know. It's the guy who wears #0 for Oklahoma City. He's a perennial All-Star, a 2012 gold medal winner, and a phenom who played the same guard position at U.C.L.A. just 5 years ago. His name is Russell Westbrook.
Really? No zeroes in the NBA? Not even Westbrook?
My goal is writing this is not to make Muhammad look silly. But if he really thought there were no zeroes in the NBA, and honestly had no idea what number Russell Westbrook is wearing, then it really explains a ton about the failures in our basketball program. We pinned our 2012 hopes on a player with apparently no recognition of an enormous star, arguably our biggest in the last 10+ years, who played the same position at the same school for the same coach.
I don't wish ill on Shabazz or any youngster who is forced by a stupid system to play a year of college ball that clearly is not in his heart. That's David Stern's fault. But we don't have to sign those kinds of guys up to play for us. Shabazz is much of what's been wrong with our basketball program the last several years, and why Ben Howland went from 3 Final Fours to the unemployment line.
And none of that is inherently Shabazz's fault. He doesn't have to know NBA jersey numbers or about our most recent Bruin greats. But if he didn't know Westbrook wears a zero, then Shabazz shouldn't have been a Bruin. Whether it was obliviousness or apathy or egotism, that's not the kind of guy who will make our team better. Is it any wonder that Shabazz didn't achieve much in his short time? Is it any wonder that the team as a whole didn't live up to what it could and should have? Is it any wonder that the head coach who was so desperately grasping at straws to restore his stature that he went all-in with a guy who was essentially a hired mercenary for a year is no longer there?
Yes, of course, bringing talent into the program is vitally important. But so is heart and so is an emotional buy-in. And that trio has been too often lacking in our basketball program lately. I can see signs of it in our current roster of returning players. But it doesn't take much to wreck chemistry, and bringing in a highly talented player who doesn't want to be there and who has no real passion for our school is a recipe for failure. I wrote about this in 2009, and Howland never learned. I hope this is a lesson that Coach Alford recognizes and applies going forward.
I guarantee Arron Afflalo knows that Russ wears a 0. Kevin Love, a true exception to the one-and-done rule and who embraced the U.C.L.A. tradition, knows. Lorenzo Mata-Real knows. Michael Roll knows. Darren Collison knows. Luc and Aboya know. Heck, I'm sure both Travis and David Wear know. Find talented guys with that level of passion for the null digit, and Alcindor's records and Walton's character and Coach and the four letters, and we'll get somewhere. Dispassionate hired guns won't get the job done. Ask the British about Trenton. U.C.L.A. must have players who know and embrace what it means to be a Bruin. Muhammad didn't, and that's fine. It is Howland's fault for trying to win with him, and many Bruins' fault for being surprised when we didn't.
You cannot put a price on heart. Not with all the zeroes in the world.
And nobody really knows how wonderful you are.
Why we could never reach a star without you, Zero, my hero. How wonderful you are!