The Name on the Front

Mar 9 2017
Photo by
Mark J. Terrill/AP Images
Mar 9 2017

Let’s hear your best stuff. No, really. I mean it.

Have at it. I’ve heard it all by now anyway.

Daddy’s boy.

Three-star recruit.

Stop shooting!

How are you not a walk-on?

White boy.

And there’s a whole lot of other stuff you can’t print.

After almost four years here at UCLA, I like to think I haven’t let the haters bother me too much — I like to think that I’ve never cracked.

There was one time, though.

It was in a game my sophomore season. I can’t remember who we were playing, but we won. And — the strangest thing about it — I played fine, if not pretty well.

At least I thought so.

But as I was walking off the court, I heard a voice behind me.

UCLA Athletics

“Hey, Alford!”

If there’s one thing that’s common to all the trash talk I hear, it’s that no one — no opposing fan — ever just calls me Bryce. It’s always Alford. And the way they pronounce it — let’s just say that they don’t mean it as a last name. People really lean into it, like it’s a swear word.

“Hey … Alford!”

I turned around, and right behind me, up in the stands, I saw where the voice was coming from. It was a middle-aged guy — a stout, out-of-shape dude with a full beard.

He was screaming, red in the face. Seemed really fired up. “Go back to New Mexico!”

Normally, if he had been just some random rival fan, that kind of thing wouldn’t have fazed me too much.

But then I saw what the guy was wearing.

A blue hoodie. A blue UCLA men’s basketball hoodie.

We’d just won the game, and I was getting heckled by a UCLA fan?

I’m getting taunted … by our own fans?

In that moment, that guy got to me. I hate to admit it. He got under my skin. But I’ve thought about that moment a lot because it revealed something to me.

At UCLA, the expectations are just different.  

I might not have known it then, but high expectations aren’t so bad.

When I first started getting attention from college basketball programs — which was around my sophomore year of high school — my dad sat me down in our kitchen in Albuquerque. Keep in mind, he was the coach at New Mexico at this point.

“I don’t want you to waste other coaches’ time,” he told me, “so if you know that you want to play for me then we need to make that known.”

My dad was always on the road recruiting, so I understood the importance of what he was advising me to do — even though I also also knew it was a mind game he was playing with me.

The truth was: I didn’t want to commit to a school yet. I was 15 years old and I was still curious about my options. I had a lot of friends from the AAU circuit who were starting to get recruited, too, and I wanted to find out what that process was all about.

So I told my dad I wanted to feel it out — to see what the alternatives looked like.

the Alford Family

It was a funny moment for me — for both of us. Growing up, I got pretty good at identifying when my dad was in “Coach Mode” and when he was in “Dad Mode.”  To his credit, he was always really good at coming home after work — from a practice, a game or a recruiting trip — and just being my dad.

But this was new territory for us. I could tell I was playing with fire — trying to play both roles at the same time.

“If that’s what you want to do, I’m all for that,” he said.

“But if you’re not going to decide to commit to New Mexico now, I’m going to have to start recruiting to fill your spot.”

That statement hit me in the mouth. He’d give up my spot? His son’s spot?

Shortly after that conversation, I committed to play for him at UNM.

As my senior year of high school went on, I was all geared up for a career at UNM. I had just had a great season at La Cueva High, so everyone locally seemed really excited about me staying in town to play for the Lobos. Most of my friends would be enrolling at UNM, too, and I knew my dad was happy he’d get to coach me and my older brother, Kory, at the same time. Plus, the way the roster was setting up, it looked like I was going to get some burn right away as a freshman.

Things were looking good.

But one day in the spring of my senior year, I got a strange text from my dad.

“Are you sure you don’t want to play at UCLA?”

I was confused. I’d already committed to New Mexico.

I waited for a follow-up text, but none came.

So I texted him back. “I want to play at New Mexico. What are you talking about?”

He texted me back right away.

“Meet me in my office after school.”

Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal/

It all felt kind of mysterious. When I showed up at his office on campus, he told me that he had been offered the head coaching job at UCLA.

“Would you like to join me there?”

I was hesitant. I wanted to talk to Kory first — he was playing for my dad at UNM at the time, and if my dad decided to take the UCLA job, I knew that Kory would be going to Westwood, too. So I asked my brother straight up about my main concern: “If Dad’s my coach, I know I’m going to have to earn respect no matter where I play. But UNM is not UCLA. Do you think I can make the same impact at UCLA?”

“Definitely,” Kory said.

I’ve always trusted Kory, so that’s all I needed to hear. It still felt like a big risk, but I decided I was all in. We moved to Los Angeles early the summer after my senior year.

As soon as we got to UCLA and I walked around Pauley Pavilion for the first time, I got the sense that the adjustment to a Power 5 conference wasn’t going to be my biggest challenge.

What I wasn’t prepared for were the expectations that come with wearing those four letters: UCLA.

Naturally, people assumed that I was just there because of my dad. On paper, they saw that I was a three-star prospect. They saw my height. I know for sure that my high school career didn’t mean much to anyone outside of New Mexico, even if I had averaged 38 points, nine rebounds and six assists as a senior.

It didn’t help that once the season started, I struggled in my first few games as a backup rotation player.

To make matters worse, I did what you’re never supposed to do — I searched my name on Twitter. Bryce Alford isn’t a true PG, they were saying. Alford doesn’t belong at the high D-I level.

I’ll cop to it — for my first three years at UCLA, I didn’t deal with that stuff the right way. I was trying to prove people wrong instead of playing my game. At 18 and 19 years old, I was still figuring things out.

UCLA Athletics

I did have some big games early on — one of my favorites was our 60-59 win over SMU in the first round of the NCAA tournament in 2015. I got hot and hit nine threes (which tied a school record) in that game, and we won in the final seconds. When the buzzer sounded, Kory ran onto the court and tackled me. It was the best feeling ever. It was then when I realized that the magnitude of the stage at UCLA could bring the best out of me.  

But even as my confidence was growing, the pressure felt like it was mounting, too. Back when I was trying to carry the load on offense and play point guard at the same time, I caught a lot of heat when things didn’t go our way. It made sense — I was the floor leader. I remember during my freshman and sophomore years coming back to the locker room after games and feeling physically ill. I was feeling so much pressure to be flawless. On the outside, I wanted to be a pro, say the right things, act like a leader. But inside, the pressure was just tearing me up.

There has to be a better way, I thought.

This year, my senior year, I think I have finally accepted the idea that, If they’re talking about you, you must be doing something right. You go to college to learn, to mature, to grow. UCLA probably does that as well as anywhere. I’m grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to take advantage of it.

Last off-season was a real low point. They say you can’t enjoy the highs without experiencing the lows. I’m not so sure about that. I never want to feel that low again.

We hadn’t even gotten invited to a postseason tournament — not even the NIT. We had just had only the fourth losing season at UCLA since 1948.

One of the first things my dad and I did together after last year’s season was meet up for a round of golf at a course near our house. Naturally, even in the off-season — and especially after that season — our discussions on the course always come back to UCLA basketball. So we started talking about the upcoming year … and eventually about my dad’s incoming recruits.

The discussion ended up — where most UCLA basketball discussions these days tend to end up — on a familiar subject: Lonzo Ball.

I didn’t really know much about Lonzo yet. The big thing that I remembered about him was his position: point guard. He was considered the best point guard in the nation.

But point guard was my position.

“Hey,” my dad asked, “Are you excited to be playing off the ball, finally?”

And that’s how I lost my job.

The coach in him knew that Lonzo was the natural choice to start at point guard. But I’m sure the dad in him was probably worried about how his son would respond.

I wasn’t the only one who got displaced, though. Aaron Holiday, a beast of a player who started all 32 games for us at the two spot as a freshman the year before, has had to embrace the role of sixth man. To his credit, Aaron has not only embraced that role, but thrived in it.  

I’d like to think that I have thrived in my new role as well. The chance to play the two guard was a fresh start and, in many ways, it was also a relief. I knew with the freshmen — Lonzo, TJ Leaf and Ike Anigbogu — coming in, we were going to be really good. At the two guard, I could just play my game.

So that’s what I told my dad on the golf course that day. I could see he was relieved, both as a coach and as a father.

I finally got to see Lonzo in action on our team’s trip to Australia last summer.

The hype was crazier than I expected. After our exhibition games, T.J. and I would have a few kids approach us for autographs, which was cool. And then we’d look over at Lonzo and he’d have 50 to 75 people in line waiting for him. People in the stands had Lonzo jerseys on for crying out loud — where did they even get those?! We were halfway around the world and Lonzo’s freshman year was still months away, but the buzz was in full effect.

That hype, of course, hasn’t let up.

It has been eye-opening for me to watch how Lonzo has handled the commotion. He’s dealt with it in the most Lonzo way possible: humble, low key, quiet.

When Lonzo does speak up, you get to see a whole other side of him. Like, for instance, he’s a really good rapper. I found that out in Australia. He’d freestyle for like 15 minutes while we tossed him random words. Because he’s naturally so quiet, it was cool to see him come alive and really open up. I don’t want to gash him up too good now, but I’ll admit — yeah, he’s not bad at all. I’d go as far as to say he’s good. (He’s brilliant compared to me.) But still, Zo, stick to hoops.  

Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports

TJ is another freshman who I’ve had a really good time getting to know while I’ve been showing him the ropes. We’ve grown really close despite our age difference. TJ is definitely the team weirdo — he’s a goofball who plays the whole “6′ 10″ white boy/ladies man” thing to a tee. He’s always talking trash, but in this extra goofy way that never comes off mean.

Our opening game of this season, against Pacific, was the first chance we had to show off our new lineup. With Lonzo at point, all I had to do was get open and get shots up. Lonzo kept hitting my shooting pocket time after time, every pass better than the last. Even now, I just can’t really overstate how much fun it is to play with him – a selfless guard who knows where you need the ball.

I had 30 in that game. Played 32 minutes. And when I got to the locker room, I wasn’t dead tired.

It felt easy.

That’s when I knew this team wouldn’t be missing the postseason.

In my four years at UCLA, this is probably the closest group of guys I’ve been around. And I think it shows. We trust each other. We have fun. We’ve had some close groups before, but there’s just something about this one that’s special.

And this team, and this year in particular, has also brought me closer to my dad. Maybe it’s partly because we both know that this is our last run together. Maybe it’s because I can finally appreciate all the times he’s laid into me. I realize now that he did it simply to make me better. That’s the life of a coach’s kid — you get it from all sides.

Which brings me back to that round of golf with my dad. We’re really competitive out there, but the most important part of our rounds together is that they give us a chance to catch up on life.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports

Back on that golf course last spring, my dad was talking about the way last season had ended. The disappointment. The NCAA tournament was going on at the time, and I could tell he was in agony.

As we were walking down a fairway, he turned to me like he was joking — he totally wasn’t — and said, “Let’s never be on the golf course at this time of year ever again.”

I promised him that we never would be.