For UCLA, Afflalo lends helping hand

Top scorer adds compassion to nasty play

College Basketball


Los Angeles -- Scene I: Tired of Adam Morrison's act, of his bumping and grabbing and trash-talking during an NCAA tournament game last week, a UCLA player, his arms locked with the Gonzaga star, disdainfully yanks himself free with such force that he sends the All-America forward crashing to the floor.

Scene II: Saddened by the sight of Morrison, again on the floor, this time in tears and anguish after his team had been shocked by the Bruins, 73-71, a UCLA player leaves his wildly celebrating teammates to bend down and console him.

Vastly different scenes. Same UCLA player.

On a team that survived a season-long series of injuries that encompassed nearly the entire roster and has persevered to reach the Final Four, no one is a fiercer competitor than Arron Afflalo, the team's leading scorer and defensive stopper. Yet no one has proved more compassionate.

Two days after the Gonzaga game, the post-game scene was repeated. This time, the opponent was Memphis and the player devastated by a season-ending loss was Rodney Carney. But again the player consoling him was Afflalo.

He was named, his father Ben said, for Aaron, the biblical figure who exhibited great strength in serving his brother, Moses, among the ancient Israelites. It was Afflalo's mother, Gwen Washington, wanting to give her son a distinctive name, who decided to change the spelling to A-r-r-o-n.

"It makes me feel proud to see that he has grown up to be such a great man," Ben Afflalo said, " so tough, yet so compassionate. It's a heck of a combination.

"This compassion has always been in him. The [Morrison] thing was not calculated."

Afflalo has been captivated by basketball since he was little more than a toddler. He was given a Lakers video as a child and would watch it over and over again. The player he watched most closely was sharpshooting guard Byron Scott.

"He had a nice jump shot. Perfect form," said Afflalo, smiling at the memory.

As Afflalo moved from his backyard to youth leagues to Compton (Calif.) Centennial High, he never forgot Scott. In tribute, Afflalo wore No. 4, Scott's number, as he still does today.

Afflalo might have been ready to emulate his hero, but, when he first showed up at Centennial, his coach, Rod Palmer, wasn't impressed.

"He was pudgy, kind of on the thick side, not real fast," Palmer said. "It was a struggle for him at the start."

But not for long. Afflalo went on to lead Centennial to the 2004 Division III state title.

And by then, his next basketball destination was already set.

When Ben Howland became UCLA's coach in 2003, he checked with his most trusted Southern California basketball sources, and decided that if he was to lift the then-struggling basketball program back to the heights it had once enjoyed, he needed two high school players as his foundation, a pair of guards who could become his dream backcourt: Afflalo and Jordan Farmar.

Howland wasn't the only one trying to land Afflalo. Recruiters came from Syracuse, North Carolina and Kansas, but they never really had a chance.

Afflalo's value to the Bruins in this, his sophomore season, has been incalculable. Heading into tomorrow's game against Louisiana State, he is averaging a team-high 16.2 points a game, has a team-high 80 three-point baskets, and has led the defense that has led UCLA to the Final Four.

Afflalo is now focusing on the ultimate goal.

"I don't feel this program will be fully restored," Affalo said, "until we win a national championship."

Steve Springer writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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