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Sports

Steve Alford is unbeaten, untested and an unexpected delight

BasketballUCLA BruinsNCAAKyle Anderson

It's another eerie night in Pauley's Ghost Town, the shiny seats half-filled, the sparkling concourses mostly empty. There are moments during this UCLA basketball game when the place is so quiet, you can almost hear the banners flap.

Then, suddenly, a brief commotion on Nell & John Wooden Court causes the crowd to stand, cheer, and break into the evening's most rousing eight-clap.

Yeah, the football team just showed up.

"When you're in a situation like this, two things are paramount," Steve Alford says with a smile. ''Winning and entertaining.''

So that's what they do, on this evening and in every game so far this season, the Bruins fighting apathy by sprinting and soaring and bouncing around at a pace that would make Brett Hundley proud, nets rippling, kids smiling.

Barely a month into his first season as the UCLA basketball coach, Alford is dealing with bad starting times, a weak schedule, an infamous nearby freeway construction project that has made fan attendance a chore, and the growing perception that Wooden's monument is becoming a football school.

Yet earlier this week during an 89-76 victory over UC Santa Barbara, he followed a formula that has given the 8-0 Bruins their best start in seven years.

He stands back and lets them fly.

"I'm not going to take away our personality," he says. "I want them to run, jump and play."

Many will get their first look Saturday when the 18th-ranked Bruins travel to play at unbeaten Missouri in a nationally televised track meet.

Many of these UCLA kids are former coach Ben Howland's players, but they look nothing like the last 10 years of Howland's teams. They sprint constantly, pass quickly, shoot furiously. They played defense only occasionally, but it's a blast to watch them swoop, particularly revelation Zach LaVine, the best freshman in these parts since Kevin Love. They have scored at least 80 points in their last seven wins, the first such streak since the national championship team in 1995.

Says guard Kyle Anderson: "We have more freedom, you're not so tense with the ball, we're not being robots."

Adds guard Norman Powell: "It's a joy to play, and Coach is a joy to be around."

Steve Alford is a joy to be around? For those who know him only from his sour and defensive arrival here last spring, that is the biggest surprise of all.

His hiring was ripped because he came from a place — New Mexico — that had just lost an NCAA tournament game to Harvard, and because he had just signed a 10-year deal to stay there.

His background check was ripped because UCLA officials never spoke directly to him about his egregious statement in 2002 while he was coaching Iowa, when he publicly defended star guard Pierre Pierce from accusations of sexual assault just days before the player pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault in the case.

Alford was asked a pointed question about the statement during his opening UCLA news conference, offered a dismissive answer that was met with much public criticism, and later apologized for his original comments on the issue, calling them "inappropriate, insensitive and hurtful."

Today Alford hopes that fans will eventually judge him from the product he directs and the image he projects, saying, "Transitions are hard for everyone. Hopefully people will get to know me as a person, get to know my players, and realize that we're really fun to watch."

The Bruins really are fun. So too, it turns out, is their coach, a plain-talking Hoosier who pronounces that piece of road near his office as "Will-SHYRE."' During a recent interview in an office that is decorated like a young sports fan's bedroom, he comes off mostly as a guy who is still just honored to be here.

There is a Tom Lasorda autographed baseball on his shelf. There is a Pittsburgh Steelers helmet — his favorite team — on another shelf. There are memories hanging everywhere, but the most noticeable souvenir, sitting on the front of his desk, is a glittering glass pyramid of success.

"I'm not exaggerating, it happens every day; there's a moment in time when I pinch myself that I'm actually at this great and historic place," Alford says. '"It is humbling, and it is surreal."

Before every home game, he stops and greets Nan Meuhlhausen, Wooden's daughter who still sits next to her late father's reserved seat behind the Bruins' bench. After every home game, he alters his usual route to walk past the Wooden statue — "I have to acknowledge him," he says.

Then, after driving to his home in the west San Fernando Valley, Alford acknowledges Wooden in another way. He walks outside to his backyard goal, turns on the light, and shoots.

Yeah, not only does the UCLA coach have a backyard basket, but he uses it.

"It's a release for me," says Alford, 49, the former national champion point guard. "I don't hunt or fish, and during the season I don't golf, so I shoot."

Sometimes shooting with him will be his two sons, Kory and Bryce, who both play for the Bruins and will visit their parents on Sundays for church and lunch. Alford and Tanya, his wife of 26 years, also have a daughter, Kayla. If there was any question that Alford is still a Hoosier, it was answered when he recently visited Kayla's high school on parents' night. Even though she doesn't play sports, he took a detour from her classrooms to visit the gym.

"Man, I had to see the gym, right? And it was a great gym, old and small, a real shooter's gym," he recalls. "I was so excited to tell Kayla and she was like, 'Dad!'"

Although he gives his players freedom on the court, when they are representing the team in public off the court, he insists on conformity. They wear the same sweatsuits, carry the same backpacks, take caps off inside, and lose the earrings.

"He wants to act like one family, everyone together; that's cool," Powell says.

Alford is so intent that his players remain humble and appreciative, he even arranged for 11 new full-length championship banners to be hung from the Pauley Pavilion hallway leading from the locker room to the court.

"I want our players knowing about the aura of this program," Alford says. "I want them to know that when they take the floor, they know what this place is all about."

So far, it's a vastly different place. So far, it seems, Norman Dale would approve.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter: @billplaschke

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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