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Basketball Coach Ben Howland shares team-building strategies

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Photos by Cyndy Haddad
Men's head basketball Coach Ben Howland
Calling the UCLA head coaching job “a dream come true for a kid growing up in Southern California who watched all those Wooden teams,” men’s basketball Coach Ben Howland spoke recently about life and basketball before a rapt audience in the Neuroscience Research Building auditorium.
 
Howland’s appearance on Oct. 20 — “A Conversation with Coach Howland: Leadership and Team-Building” — was the latest lecture in the Institute for Molecular Medicine’s (IMED) Seminar Series. Howland chatted with host Lee Goodglick, associate professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, about such topics as the difficulties of building and maintaining a successful team in the current basketball age, his philosophy for recruiting and developing team leaders, and his love for UCLA and Coach John Wooden.
 
When building a team, Howland said, it’s important to consider three very important factors: whom you work for, whom you surround yourself with, and talent. Whom you work for is particularly critical, said the coach, who said he was “very blessed” to have Athletic Director Dan Guerrero as a boss. When Howland arrived at UCLA in 2003, he received Guerrero’s blessing to hire an academic counselor for both the men’s and women’s basketball programs, a video coordinator and a strength/conditioning coach, none of which UCLA previously had.
 
Howland also praised Chancellor Gene Block for forging ahead with the Pauley Pavilion project. “To go ahead with the Pauley project in these tough economic times takes a lot of foresight and belief in what’s best for the program, long-term,” he said.
 
Second, Howland surrounds himself with assistant coaches who are “self-motivated, who are team players themselves, and who are all working toward a common goal of having a great team so that they have opportunities beyond here to go on and become coaches.” Three of Howland’s former assistant coaches are now head coaches for other programs.
 
Third — to no one’s great surprise — Howland mentioned that talent is extremely important. He drew laughs when he said that he is a much better coach when he has good talent. “At our level, recruiting is everything,” he said. “The greatest thing about the job when Coach Wooden was here was that players stayed for four years. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton were here for four years. That would never happen today. It’s just impossible.”
 
To compensate, Howland said he finds himself recruiting more and more players in case some of them decide to leave early. Making the task even more difficult is finding players who are coachable, willing to work hard, and able to handle the academic rigors of UCLA.
 
He is excited about Josh Smith, a promising freshman player who, at 6-foot-10 and 300-plus pounds, meets all those criteria. “He never complains, even though he had to do all kinds of extra conditioning over the summer,” Howland said. “Being positive, being receptive, being coachable — all the best players in basketball keep getting better.”
 
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Howland (left) and host Lee Goodglick
Identifying players who will be leaders is an easier task, Howland said. Some kids just have it, like Jordan Farmar, who was a leader on the court but also got his teammates to do things with him outside of basketball. “That matters when you’re playing together and competing together. He was positive, and he had personality,” the coach said. It was the same with Russell Westbrook, who left UCLA after his sophomore year and became an immediate leader in the locker room of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder.
 
At other times, it’s the quiet, hardworking players who lead by example, such as Alfred Aboya, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Arron Afflalo. “Unbelievable work ethics,” Howland declared.
 
To improve the mental and physical toughness of their players, Howland and his staff make practices competitive. Every drill has a competition assigned to it, and there is always a winner and a loser. The coaches keep stats so that if a player wonders why he’s not playing more, they have something to back up their decision.
 
“Like the day before yesterday, our three leading rebounders in practice were Tyler Honeycutt, Reeves Nelson and Malcolm Lee. Those happen to be our three best players. There’s a direct correlation, and I can point to it,” Howland said. “There’s always an accountability every day, in everything that you’re doing.”
 
One of the great joys of being the coach at UCLA, Howland said, was getting the chance to know John Wooden.
 
“People ask, ‘What was it like, having Coach sit right there, looking over your shoulder?’” Howland said. “Well, it was great. He was the greatest coach ever. This was his program, and will always be his program. … I can’t say enough about Coach and what an honor and a privilege it was to have the opportunity to have a relationship with him.”
 
The next seminar in the IMED Seminar Series will feature William Brody, professor and Irwin Jacobs Presidential Chair at the Salk Institute, on Nov. 3. For more information about the IMED Seminar Series, go here.