A head’s up: This is super, super long, and an abridged version will appear in the Daily News tomorrow, and I’ll link to that. But, well, my thoughts on the kiss. Working on three hours of sleep, so if this turns out a little more like this, forgive me. Oh, and I’m still blushing.
THOUSAND OAKS (thank God) –
I’m as giddy as a school girl right about now, only 200 pounds heavier and much hairier.
But what can I say?
I feel like the belle of the ball, the homecoming queen, Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Does anyone else hear the angels singing?
Ben Howland kissed me on Saturday night, and my forehead will never be the same.
Some background, while I pause as you lose your lunch: A few months back, with the UCLA basketball team about to embark on its Pac-10 Conference schedule, I sat down for a one-on-one interview with the head coach in his plush office, surrounded by all of the icons of his coaching past.
The pictures of Howland with John Wooden, the mammoth awards from his tenures at Northern Arizona, Pittsburgh and UCLA, the mementos from the Bruins’ run of three straight Final Four berths in the mid 2000’s.
The Bruins were 8-4 when we met on Dec. 28, a day before the team opened conference play against Washington State. Coming off an uninspiring 74-73 win over UC Irvine at Pauley Pavilion, the team’s fifth straight win, Howland was a cocktail of emotions. Somewhat pleased by the recent success, somewhat frustrated by the team’s uneven play despite the winning.
A little more background, and hopefully you’re all cleaned up now: I began covering the UCLA basketball team last season, and my relationship with Howland got off to, well, a slow start, a broken-neck pace. Howland’s Bruins slogged through a 14-18 season, my first year as a beat writer since my college days, which mainly consisted of me being yelled at by San Diego State head baseball coach Tony Gwynn and trying to spark some pizzazz into stories about a then-lifeless San Diego State basketball team. As a precocious young beat writer (says this still-precocious young beat writer), I had to dissecteverydetail of the team’s success, or lack thereof. I asked emotional questions because I’m an emotional guy, and they were met sometimes with true reflection, but more often with icy stares. I wasn’t sure if Howland wanted to eat me alive or the entire media contingency.
It was a tough year for Howland professionally, and a short time after, personally.
His idol – and not just as a coach but as a man – John Wooden passed away. Howland has said many times that he considers himself just the steward of the program, the temporary caretaker, as he believes Wooden is the rightful owner. He was greatly affected by Wooden’s passing; it oozed out of his words like sap down a tree, heavy words, words fraught with pain.
When UCLA returned for this season, a season in which the Bruins were predicted to finish third behind heavy Pac-10 favorite Washington and eventual Pac-10 regular season champion Arizona, Howland was still a bit…gruff. Perhaps understandably so, as he was peppered him with question after question about the previous season’s disappointments and defections, as Drew Gordon (New Mexico), J’mison Morgan (Baylor) and Mike Moser (UNLV) were either dismissed from the team or transferred.
I fired many of the bullets, in all honestly. From our perspective, though, what else were we to write about? There was no denying it, the 2009-10 campaign was a stain in UCLA’s illustrious basketball history. Like Quasimodo’s hump or Charlie Sheen’s impending psychotic episode, there was no ignoring it.
But here the Bruins are now, WINNING!, just as I predicted in Howland’s office.
See, the conversation eventually led to a question I had about what he would consider a successful season. Judging by UCLA’s momentary flashes of pure beauty, mixing in their propensity to collapse at precisely the wrong time, and with the knowledge that the Pac-10 was not exactly back to its mid-2000s standards, I asked Howland the following innocuous question, or at least I started to. I had no idea it would lead to the front page of Yahoo! Sports with the headline: Coach’s Awkward Postgame Celebration.
“So if you guys get hot, play well in conference, get a couple tournament wins, finish with 22, 23 wins…” I began to inquire, to be followed by, “maybe still down from the standard you set earlier at UCLA, would last season be erased? Would it be a successful year for you?”
He cut me off at my assumptive win total, breaking into his mile-wide smile, throwing his hands into the air.
“God, I’d kiss you right now. I swear to God. I would come over there and I’d kiss you if we got 22, 23, 24 wins. Are you kidding me? I’d be so happy. Are you kidding? That’s so nice to even project that possibility.”
Maybe I saw in Reeves Nelson an ability to, every so often, overcome his bouts with sagging confidence and soaring frustration. Maybe I saw something in one of Joshua Smith’s infrequent bursts of ferocity, rarer than a supernova early in the season, but now in full effect on a nearly nightly basis. Maybe Howland saw something in his team that worried him to the extent that he could not foresee a 14-5 finish. Quite frankly, I didn’t think it was so bold.
Flash forward to Saturday, and now here I am blushing again.
We sat in a small cramped room in the cold, dark confines of Washington State’s Beasley Coliseum, congregated for the press conference following the Bruins’ 58-54 overtime win over the Cougars. It was a less-than-spectacular UCLA performance, one that included a 32-19 Washington State halftime advantage, a one-time 15-point UCLA deficit and four free throws and two timely steals in the final seconds for the Bruins to eke out the win. The team’s 22nd win.
I started to ask Howland if he thought that the team’s numerous close calls had all culminated in this, a win that locked up second place in conference play for the Bruins, who will face the winner of No. 7 Oregon and No. 10 Arizona State on Thursday night in the second round of the Pac-10 Tournament at the Staples Center.
Again, he cut me off, recalling our conversation, calling me a psychic. A year ago, it would’ve been psycho, I’m sure.
Tongue firmly in cheek, and then foot ultimately in mouth, I wisecracked: “Well you know what you said? ‘Jon if we win 22 games, I’ll give you a kiss.'”
And then, like Natalie Portman in my dreams, but more resembling John Lithgow – can’t you see Howland as the fire-and-brimstone pastor in “Footloose?” I mean, uh, I like beer and steak and trucks. – Howland lunged to kiss me.
Now, the replay will clearly show that I leaned my head to the side, desperately avoiding mouth-to-mouth contact, which then makes you picture Lithgow kissing Jonah Hill, and I am really sorry for writing that. Howland grabs my head and smacks a surprisingly dry one, thank god, on my right forehead, as I grimace and the room full of reporters explodes into laughter, captured by the twin Flipcams of myself and ESPN Los Angeles’ Peter Yoon. Howland leans back, grins that grin and says, “And I mean that kiss. I’m so happy, you have no idea.” Quickly I moved on, firing off another inquisitive, emotional question. Howland almost brushed me off completely. The guy in a nutshell.
It was a hilarious moment captured in time for our embarrassment, yet it is a testament to Howland’s softening over the recent weeks. Just two Saturdays ago, a week before the fateful smooch, Howland broke down several times following UCLA’s 71-49 win over Arizona, after watching Tyler Trapani, Wooden’s great-grandson, score the last two official points in Pauley Pavilion men’s basketball history (Nicki Caldwell’s women’s squad also wrapped up second-place in the Pac-10 with a 66-48 win over the Cougars on Saturday, the last official game at the venerated arena before renovations, moving to 26-3 on the year).
Howland was moved to tears at the mere mention of his mentor’s name, by the significance of the astonishing moment. And it was: Jack Haley hoisting a 3-point attempt with just seconds left, the ball falling short of the rim, dropping into Trapani’s hands like a gift from Wooden himself, lofting it off the glass and into the rim.
But this was different, and I’m not just saying that because The Girlfriend is not only feeling jealous, but neglected ON HER BIRTHDAY.
No, this was Howland in an ever-fleeting moment of joy, spontaneous, carefree.
Maybe he learned something from last season. Maybe he’s just happy that he seemingly squeezed every last drip from a team that was not projected to go this far. Maybe he looks at things a little differently after Wooden passed.
All I know for certain is one thing.
I’m never washing this forehead again.