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LOS ANGELES — Pauley Pavilion remains thoroughly extant. It still sits so snugly on the UCLA campus that you might breeze on by and miss it unless you happen to walk the side with the John Wooden statue. It still looks spiffy indoors at age 57½. It still seems to lack rats, violating the American affinity for ratty old arenas.
It still conducts its best-known hallmark: UCLA men’s basketball games. It still doesn’t sell out most of those, an old story in a multifarious metropolis. It still hangs the 11 banners noting national titles between 1964 and 1995 — 10 of them 1964-75 — and it still makes a point of not bothering to hang banners from eight other years that ended in mere Final Fours. Its elegance still outpaces its intimidation by a smidgen or two, even if its students near the floor achieve boisterousness and can sing “Don’t Stop Believin’” with lyrical precision right on down to the “South Detroit” of it, a feat given a song that peaked at No. 9 many Decembers before their births.
It still harbors hopes, this Pauley. In a national hodgepodge of a men’s college basketball season, here’s a No. 5-ranked UCLA team that has sparkled from 3-2 to 17-2 entering its showdown at No. 11 Arizona on Saturday, a team on a 30-game winning streak in a stat category of a weird global era (games with fans present), a team … wait, listen to one of the more listenable people in American sports.
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It’s UCLA Coach Mick Cronin defining the NCAA tournament, how you probably have to navigate six games of a puzzling variety.
“My 81-year-old father’s here today,” he said on Jan. 14 after UCLA used its toughness and the skill that toughness afforded to turn a 44-35 deficit to Colorado into a 68-54 win. “He used to tell me he used to win dance contests. [A slight smile here.] You’ve got to be able to dance to every song they play. Some are slow. Some are fast. You know. So it ain’t the tango every night, so you’ve got to be able to win different ways against different styles. So it’s not always going to be easy.”
Old Pauley, set to be 58 in June, and less-old Cronin, set to be 52 in July, live a fourth season of marriage after his 13 seasons at Cincinnati. “I’m much more comfortable now,” he says. Now, two years after a UCLA team that engaged Gonzaga in one of the best games ever played in the 2021 Final Four, and one year after a UCLA team that suffered a late push from a hot North Carolina in the 2022 Sweet 16, he’s got a team which has got many things in a season in which many things might be enough.
It has names seemingly around for eons, such as Jaime Jaquez Jr. (116 UCLA games), Tyger Campbell (115), David Singleton (146) and Jaylen Clark (78), and a name bursting with joy, prowess and promise, the 6-foot-10, 235-pound freshman Adem Bona from Nigeria (early childhood), Turkey (early teens) and Napa (two years of high school).
It yaks on about defense, as when Jaquez says, “If you play defense, you give yourself a chance, and we’re giving ourselves a lot of chances.” It marvels on about Bona, seniors praising a freshman on the interview dais, to which Bona says with grinning charm, “I’m going to take all that praise. Appreciate you.” It even goes on about its student managers, as when Clark says, “They’re just a part of the whole family. Ain’t no levels, ain’t no ranks.”
But wait, here’s Cronin, in that voice unhurried in pace, rich in authenticity and lacking in slickness.
He finishes his pause from earlier.
“But when you defend,” he says, “you always have a chance. I tell these guys, they’ll tell you: Teams that only win when the ball goes in are in the NIT. Real programs win when things aren’t going their way and they find a way to make it go their way.” Also: “It’s 20 years, doing this. Sometimes, I think a long time ago, you’ve got a team that’s maybe just a year away from being tough enough to [solve in-game problems]. I’ve had those kinds of teams. And then, when you have a team that you know can do this — they’re old enough, they’ve got enough character and they know how to do it and they’re tough enough to do it, you know when you have a team like that.”
As he speaks in the interview room in a building where Wooden and then nine ensuing full-time coaches once spoke, the date of April 9, 2019 really does seem a speck in the rearview. That’s when UCLA hired Cronin, when his name bubbled to the fore after a 100-day coaching search that stopped by TCU’s Jamie Dixon and Tennessee’s Rick Barnes and maybe even Kentucky’s John Calipari, when UCLA finished one of those searches that get lampooned because searching at length constitutes American status sin.
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The hire did have its oddness given a native Cincinnatian who had coached in Kentucky and Ohio but never closer than two time zones of Los Angeles, and Cronin began by saying, among other things, “I understand the expectations.”
“I took this job [because] you run to the fire,” he still says, and by now he seems of it as much as in it.
Mad for his sport and sad for a loss like all his coaching brethren (and sisters), but not really a ranter, and more of a storyteller, and patient with his explanations (especially about his beloved deflections), he spent two recent home games mostly kind of standing over there along the bench in his suit and analyzing. Then he did his postgame radio at courtside as a smallish group of fans lingered and listened, and as a slightly larger group formed a line up the stands and down to the court to pose for photos upon the Pauley Pavilion court.
He finished, stopped with ease to pose with one fan who requested, stopped to pose with two more, walked out through the doors into a tunnel toward the locker room, and stopped there for a bit.
“It happens to me nonstop, I got one this week: I get tickets for somebody that’s in L.A., somebody I know, and their dream is to go to a game in Pauley Pavilion,” he said. “I would be rich just off of every time I’ve been told that, and left somebody tickets in four years. I mean, it happens all the time. Basketball people. Guys that played years ago. Or guys, they get a chance to come to Pauley Pavilion. And I was that way when we came in ’17” — a 77-63 Cincinnati victory — “when I got a chance, when they decided, they agreed to play us home-and-home, I was so excited, I got to coach a game in Pauley Pavilion. Like, I didn’t obviously know I was ever going to be here, so here’s my one chance to coach a game in Pauley Pavilion.”
Now he coaches under the 11 banners of Pauley, and he says, “I’m too young to ever remember those teams, but I know it’s Coach Wooden’s gym.”
“Forever?” goes a question.
“A hundred years from now?”
“One thing,” he continues, “when you take the job here, you’d better not have a big ego, ’cause you’re never going to be the best coach, and you’re never going to be the most revered coach. It doesn’t matter what you do. And I’m okay with that. I got a chance to have Coach Wooden’s job. I’m good with that.” He said, “I wanted to be in a place where you’ve got a legitimate chance to get players and win a national title. I figured, you only live once. I’m Irish. We run toward the fight, even when you can’t win.”
Then he carries on down the hall, and it’s striking that in Year 4 already, he’s a fixture already, and that he might just be among the best things ever to happen to haughty old Pauley.