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Kareem's Criticism of Steve Alford's Coaching Hit the Mark

Six months ago, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar criticized Steve Alford's basketball program. Six months later, the wisdom of his remarks is clear.

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Six months ago, Jeff Eisenberg wrote an article entitled "Scathing criticism from prominent ex-players is hurting UCLA." It was the kind of commentary that one might expect from a Morgan Center toady. It referenced the "notoriously hard-to-please fan base" (aka the irrational fan base), and repeated the frequently-used claim that any criticism of the program damages recruiting efforts.

For the record, here's the criticism from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar that Eisenberg felt was so inappropriate (emphasis added):

"It's real ugly, man. I have to say that," Abdul-Jabbar said. "I watched them in the playoffs. They don't even know how to run the fast break. You know, I'm not trying to sit on the sidelines and throw stones at Coach Alford. He has a tough job. But people used to learn how to play the game at UCLA. I don't think that's happening now, and I think that's a real disappointment to those of us who are part of the tradition."

Eisenberg was quick to dismiss the content of Kareem's criticism by chalking it up to "sour grapes" (emphasis added):

Where Alford has fallen short of expectations is in his ability to connect with the UCLA fan base, generate interest in the program and fill Pauley Pavilion...

None of that was among Abdul-Jabbar's concerns, which suggests he probably hasn't been paying close attention to his alma mater. In fact, his criticism smacked of sour grapes from a man who publicly expressed interest in the UCLA job after Howland's firing but never became a serious candidate.

In hindsight, it's clear that Kareem's prescient warning shouldn't have been so readily dismissed by those impressed by Alford's Lavinesque results in his first two seasons. Like other Alford admirers, Eisenberg's defense of Alford started with "back-to-back Sweet 16s." In fact, Eisenberg's defense of Alford in the fall of 2015 could easily have been written on behalf of Steve Lavin back in the fall of 2002.

For those who have tried their best to forget the Lavin era, let me remind you briefly of the state of UCLA basketball prior to the start of the 2002-03 season. In 2000-01, Lavin guided the Bruins to a third place finish in the Pac-10 with a 14-4 conference mark and a 23-9 record overall. The Bruins advanced to the Sweet 16 before losing to #1 Duke in the East Regional Semifinal.

A year later, Lavin had the Bruins back in the Sweet 16, though they were eliminated from the competition at that point by Missouri. Despite another trip to the Sweet 16, the Bruins had undeniably regressed from the previous season. In 2001-02, the Bruins finished sixth in the Pac-10 with an 11-7 record and a 21-12 overall mark.

For those not dazzled by another Sweet 16 appearance, the warning signs were clear. In 2002-2003, Lavin's Bruins were horrible. They finished with a 6-12 conference record, which earned them sixth place in the Pac-10. Overall, Lavin's Bruins ended up with a losing record and, needless to say, did not receive an invitation to play in the NCAA Tournament.

Sound familiar?

Of course, when Eisenberg slammed Kareem in September 2015, he had no idea that the Bruins would fail miserably this season. In fact, he apparently expected success on the court for the Bruins because he lauded Alford's coaching (emphasis added):

[T]he strangest part of Abdul-Jabbar's comments is that he chose to attack the third-year coach's teaching ability.

UCLA has improved steadily from November to March in both Alford's two seasons and Norman Powell, Tony Parker and Kyle Anderson are among the many players who developed rapidly under his tutelage. Those are signs that Alford and his staff are doing an excellent job in skill development and in putting their players in a position to succeed.

I've previously debunked Eisenberg's claim that "UCLA has improved steadily from November to March." As you can see from the construction of his argument, Eisenberg's conclusion that Alford and his coaching staff must be doing "an excellent job in skill development and putting their players in a position to succeed" wasn't based on anything more than Eisenberg's unfounded assertion that the Bruins had "improved steadily" in both of Alford's first two seasons.

That raises an interesting question. In light of the dreadful performance of Steve Alford's Bruins this season, particularly in February and March, would Eisenberg use the same logic to conclude that Alford and his staff are doing a lousy job in skill development and in putting their players in position to succeed? Even without watching a game, or in fact, knowing anything about basketball, doesn't Eisenberg's reasoning require him to conclude that Alford's teaching ability is poor?

Of course Kareem based his comments on his own observations and his knowledge of the game. I assume he voiced his opinion because of his genuine concern for the best interest of UCLA's basketball program. After all, as he said in his comment, he's part of the tradition. He clearly wants today's student-athletes to "learn how to play the game" while they are at UCLA. He clearly wants the program to carry on the tradition established by Coach Wooden. Was he wrong to emphasize substance over the appearance of success? Was he wrong to be focused on the long term goals of the program rather than its short term concerns?

Five months of inconsistent, undisciplined, fundamentally poor basketball have proven Kareem right in his criticism. Those same five months have also demonstrated the folly of judging the success of a basketball program on a handful of games in March. And most importantly, those five months have shown the short-sightedness of trying to shield Steve Alford from criticism of his coaching.

The best interests of UCLA Men's Basketball are not served by ignoring signs of trouble, and every attempt to put off acknowledging and addressing the problem ultimately contributes to the problem.

The lesson of the Lavin era is don't base judgments of coaching ability on the results of a few games in March. Why is that such a hard lesson to learn?