UCLA’s Alfords keep game faces on
As the buzzer sounded on a big victory for the UCLA basketball team, there was no Hallmark moment — no hugs or group high-five — from the Alford family.
Coach Steve Alford proceeded to the far sideline to give a television interview about the Bruins winning their second game of the NCAA tournament.
His sons, both on the team, walked off the court separately. Kory, who played only a few seconds at the end, went first. Then Bryce left, looking tired and sweaty after a solid performance at backup point guard.
Not so much as a glance passed among them.
"It's pretty much all business," Bryce said. "We'll enjoy this after the season's over."
The Alfords know they have something special. A father coaching his boys. Brothers playing side-by-side. All of them headed toward a March Madness showdown against Florida in Memphis, Tenn., on Thursday.
But in the pressure cooker of major college basketball, family ties can be problematic.
Siblings tend to quarrel and parents have a way of getting under their kids' skin. Fans and teammates look for any hints of nepotism, so boundaries must be clearly drawn.
"There are challenges every day," Alford said.
The Bruins opened the NCAA tournament in San Diego last week, playing Tulsa. They held a slim lead just before halftime when Bryce drove toward the basket and took a soft running shot that missed.
The 19-year-old freshman had tried a similar shot — with a similar result — minutes earlier.
"That's not your game," his father barked at him on the sideline. "You're good at the dribble-drive pull-up."
These days, college players tend to get away with that sort of look, but it's different with family. In the Alford household, even the suggestion of insubordination irritates Dad.
"I know which buttons to push," Bryce said.
His father knows how to respond.
The boys are competitive — just like he was as a player — so he challenges their pride. You're getting embarrassed on the court, he says. You're not as good as the other guy.
"If you're not going to listen," he told his youngest son during the Tulsa game, "I'll sit you down next to me."
In the second half, with the Golden Hurricane trimming UCLA's lead to five points, Bryce pulled up and sank the type of jump shot his father had wanted.
"We had this eye contact," Steve Alford recalled. "It was like, see, there are times when Dad does know best."
It was just last spring that UCLA hired Alford away from New Mexico. After his boys decided to join him in Westwood, they had a talk about what to expect.
Alford spoke from experience; he had played for his father in high school.
"When I was a freshman and sophomore, I got booed every time I was put in the game," he said. "Then, in my junior and senior years, my dad got booed every time he took me out."
Kory and Bryce faced their first test in September with the start of preseason practice. They wondered what the other players on the UCLA roster might think.
Their father wondered too. If anything, he was a little tougher on the boys at first, eager to quash any thoughts of favoritism.
"It wasn't even on the radar," said Travis Wear, a senior on the team. "Bryce and Kory are his kids and he wants them to succeed, but he didn't treat them any better than the rest of us."
Once the season began, the brothers felt they needed to convince fans that they deserved to be on the team.
Kory had spent two seasons with his father in New Mexico and knew that outsiders could be skeptical. As a walk-on — a non-scholarship player who serves mostly as a practice opponent — the 21-year-old figured to escape much of that scrutiny at their new school.
The situation would be tougher for Bryce, a freshman competing for significant minutes.
"You can't really worry about what the fans think," Kory recalled telling his little brother. "With coach's kids, there are always going to be naysayers."
Playing hard was the best way to fight back. Bryce has settled into his role behind starter Kyle Anderson, averaging a respectable 8.1 points and 2.7 assists.
His father packages him with another freshman, Zach LaVine, to bring energy — albeit with some youthful mistakes — to the lineup. During the regular season, Bryce's shooting keyed victories over California and Colorado.
"In the beginning, I didn't really know how to handle being the coach's son," Bryce said. "Now I think I've proved that I belong."
Back in the 1970s, on winter days, a young Steve Alford shoveled snow from the driveway and used a broomstick to knock icicles off the net so he could practice shooting.
His intensity — some called it obsession — became part of the folklore in basketball-crazed Indiana as he grew up to lead the Hoosiers to a 1987 NCAA championship.
"Very competitive," Kory said. "Maybe that puts a little pressure on us."
Alford taught his boys to play basketball, often giving them pointers, but was busy working his way up the coaching ranks in the college game. So other men coached his sons' youth and high school teams.
Now, with Kory and Bryce on his roster, he guards against expecting too much, expecting them to be like he was at their age.
"Through the years, I've been able to relax more," he said. "I really wanted to do that and I knew it was going to be difficult."
This season has deepened the bond between father and sons. It has also brought Kory and Bryce closer.
As kids, they squared off with a foam-rubber basketball and a plastic hoop in games that sometimes led to fights. Kory usually came out on top.
The relationship changed as they won two state championships together at La Cueva High in Albuquerque. Bryce slowly pulled even with, and then surpassed, his big brother on the court.
Kory might have played as a starter for a small university but chose to walk on at New Mexico instead. He set his sights on a career in coaching and was determined to learn as much as he could from his father.
At UCLA, he spends free time around the team office, helping the assistants analyze video.
"He has a really good basketball mind," assistant coach Duane Broussard said. "He has been around it for a very, very long time."
Kory shares a lot of that knowledge with his younger brother, who is still learning how to study film and understand their father's system.
"We've gotten really close, living together in the same apartment and playing on the same team," Bryce said. "But we're still brothers, we still fight."
Will they ever celebrate as a family on court? After watching from the stands all season, Tanya Alford wonders.
"Maybe when we win it all," the coach's wife said.
In the meantime, the Alfords make do with small moments.
In Sunday's third-round victory over Stephen F. Austin, Bryce drove the lane and slipped a pass between defenders to center Tony Parker, who scored on a layup.
Kory jumped up from the bench, clapping. Moments later, with play stopped for a timeout, Alford gave his youngest son a quick slap on the back.
They also have Sundays, when they gather for church, then head back to the family home. Conversation around the dinner table inevitably turns to jump shots and rebounds.
"My mom and sister too," Kory said. "They've been raised on the game just like we have."
Basketball has always been the biggest part of their lives, a mainspring for all their best memories. So even if they rarely show it, the Alfords know they have been handed a rare opportunity.
A father finally getting to coach his sons. A family venturing deep into March Madness together.
"It's a feeling you can't describe," Bryce said. "Pretty special."
No hugs or high-fives required.