All Ball Sports: USC ballers teach UCLA a lesson, Hall of Famer Bill Plaschke

by Paul Teetor

Where have you gone, Johnny Juzang? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you….woo, woo, woo.

With apologies to Simon and Garfunkel and their classic tune “Mrs. Robinson.” This time it’s Bruins Nation searching for a hero to lead them to the promised land of national championships.

For the record, Juzang, the hot-shooting hero of the miracle UCLA basketball team that fought its way to the NCAA Final Four just two years ago, is now shuttling between the NBA’s Utah Jazz and their G-League team, the Salt Lake City Stars, while trying to earn some playing time with the Jazz.

The Bruins he left behind when he declared for the NBA draft last spring and gave up his final year of college eligibility are doing just fine, ranked eighth nationally and sitting in first place in the PAC-12 with an 8-2 league record.

But their glaring need for an offensive creator, a go-to guy who can manufacture shots for himself and his teammates – you know, someone like Johnny Juzang — was never more obvious than in Thursday night’s 77-64 loss to USC in front of a raucous Trojan crowd of 10,000 at the Galen Center in downtown LA.

Just as they had in the first game last month against their arch-rival, the Bruins jumped out to a big halftime lead – 37-25 — and appeared to be on cruise control for an easy victory.

But unlike the game last month at Pauley Pavilion, when they collapsed in the second half, and blew their entire lead, only to win on a last-second three pointer by Jaylen Clark, this time the Bruins completed their collapse, and trudged off the court with their heads down and shoulders slumped.

They lost because USC has exactly the one championship ingredient that UCLA lacks: a go-to scorer who can get his team a bucket when they absolutely, positively have to have one.

USC’s Boogie Ellis led all scorers with 31 points, far more than UCLA’s leading scorer, 6-foot-6 wing Jaime Jaquez, who had 15. Indeed, Ellis scored 27 points in the second half – matching the Bruins’ entire team total in the second half.

Ellis is a senior guard who is a three-level scorer: he has a reliable 3-point shot, a good mid-range jumper, and the athleticism to get to the hoop and finish whenever he wants. Thursday night his full repertoire was on display as the Trojans improved to 7-3 in the PAC-12, just one game behind the Bruins.

Now maybe the Trojans will get some votes for the national top 25. As of Thursday night they hadn’t gotten a single vote all year, while UCLA has been consistently ranked in the top 10.

That’s partly because UCLA’s two fifth-year seniors – do-it-all forward Jaquez and slick point guard Tyger Campbell – have been around so long that they have become brand names themselves. And it’s partly because they were both an integral part of that magical Bruins team that came within a 40-foot-miracle buzzer beating shot by Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs of reaching the NCAA final game two years ago.

But it’s mainly because the Bruins coach, the fiery Mick Cronin, has put his stamp on UCLA hoops: his teams are going to play maniacal, in-your-face defense on every play, contest every shot and fight to the death for every rebound. He stomps up and down the sideline, berating players who aren’t diving on the floor hard enough for a loose ball or closing out fast enough on an open shooter.

But this season has exposed the limits of both Jaquez and Campbell. Jaquez is a legit NBA prospect because of his great defense, his exquisite footwork and his innate sense of what his team needs at any given moment in a game, and how to give it to them. He is the ultimate glue guy, and those types of guys tend to have long careers in the NBA. But he is not a go-to scorer, a guy who will get you 20 to 25 points a night, not in college and certainly not in the pros.

Campbell, however, is not even a legit NBA prospect. In a league filled with outstanding point guards, he does not have the size, the shooting ability or the sheer physicality it takes to stick in the big leagues. But if he’s willing to travel overseas, he can make a nice living for a long time in the European leagues or even in the Asian leagues. He’s a terrific ball handler and passer, but again, he is not a go-to scorer who can create shots for himself or for others whenever they are needed.        

UCLA Coach Cronin, who is usually quick to blame his own players for a loss – but never himself – stayed in character after the game. “We were supposed to be more aggressive on Ellis. We played him soft and he made his play. And that’s what he does when you’re playing soft.”

Then, uncharacteristically, he changed his tune.

“Give the Trojans credit,” he said. “They made some great shots. Then they got going. And once they got going, the crowd got behind them. That’s when they made some unguardable shots.”

When Mick Cronin is praising USC, it’s time for the national media who do the voting in the polls to give the Trojans a second look.

Meanwhile, UCLA will have to keep looking for this year’s version of Johnny Juzang. Without finding a go-to scorer and creator somewhere on their roster, they are not going to the Final Four this year.


Bill Plaschke, Hall of Famer

Journalism awards are a dime a dozen these days. Any reporter with more than two years experience who can’t claim to be “an award-winning journalist” should probably look for another line of work.

But when you’re selected for a journalism hall of fame, well, that’s a different story. It’s pretty special and deserves some recognition, even by competitors lower on the media food chain.

So, hearty congrats, and a job well done to LA Times sports columnist Bill Plaschke, who was recently named to the National Sports Media Association Hall of Fame.

Plaschke, who has been with the Times for the last 36 years, has developed a devoted following as the pre-eminent sports columnist in LA. Of course, one reason he’s so widely read is because he has an equal number of haters as well as fans.

Some love to read his stuff because he has a weakness for human interest stories verging on the sob-sister genre: cancer kids fighting back against an insidious disease that attacked them at random, behind-the-scenes employees at ballparks and stadiums who never get any recognition for the essential jobs they do, and old-school sports stars long past their glory days who have been forgotten by everyone except Plaschke.        

A great example of that kind of tears-and-fears human interest inspirational story was his series on the high school football team from Paradise, the little northern California town that was destroyed by fire a few years ago. In his telling, the gritty little football team came to personify the town’s resilience in the face of incredible tragedy. The story was so moving that he later turned it into a book.

Others love to read his stuff because he has a long track record of writing as if he were the General Manager of the Dodgers, Lakers or Rams, practically ordering those teams to make the moves he deems necessary to win in his adopted hometown of LA. His “suggestions” usually mirror public opinion pretty closely and often forecast what is about to happen.

Still others love to read his stuff so they can sound knowledgeable when they tell others how much they hate it. But that local undercurrent of constant criticism has never stopped him: Like any good sports columnist, he’s not in the business of making friends. He’s in the business of telling it like he sees it and letting the chips fall where they may. And no one does that better – or more prolifically.

The man is that rarest of newsroom species: a talented workhorse. He churns out several columns a week while also working on long-form stories that sometimes take weeks or even months to fully report and write.      

The 64-year-old Louisville, Kentucky native took an unlikely route to his prestigious post in America’s number two media market.

After graduating from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in 1980, he started out working for papers in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and Seattle, Washington before coming to LA, where his primary beat was the Dodgers. He was promoted to columnist in 1996 and has expanded his national profile by becoming a regular panelist on Around the Horn, the long-running ESPN battle-of-the-banter talk show.

When he talks everyone listens – and sometimes laughs – because he has displayed a weakness that even he acknowledges: he is the ultimate homer.

No matter what the topic or the question being debated, he usually manages to work an LA team – Dodgers, Rams, Lakers, Clippers, Chargers, whatever – into his answer.

Where should a great player who wants out from his current team go?


Who’s going to win a highly hyped game?

The LA team.

And he has developed a sub-specialty of declaring a team’s demise long before it’s official – sometimes before the season has even started.

Indeed, “It’s over” has become his signature catchphrase on the show.

The problem for his fellow panelists: he’s usually right.               

Here’s hoping he continues for many more years telling the stories of those unsung heroes who have been overlooked by the big-time media, telling the too-often clueless folks running the local teams what to do, and of always putting LA first when it’s his turn to talk on Around the Horn.

Congrats, Bill: You’re a Hall of Famer now, just like Kobe, Kareem, Sandy and so many others you’ve written about so eloquently over these last 36 years.            

Contact: Follow: @paulteetor. ER



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