UCLA owes an explanation

SPORTING CHANCE - The Philippine Star

It’s strange that a respected educational institution like UCLA would refuse to divulge details on why Kobe Paras withdrew from the school despite accepting an athletic scholarship two years ago and passing academic guidelines for eligibility as an NCAA Division I basketball player. UCLA hinted that the withdrawal was prompted by an “SAT scoring issue.”

A statement from UCLA said Paras left the school “due to academic conditions of his admission not being met.” UCLA also said Paras was “conditionally” admitted before his withdrawal. The question is – did Paras withdraw on his own or was he forced to withdraw? UCLA said it is under no obligation to disclose the circumstances surrounding the withdrawal, presumably to protect Paras’ reputation. But is the presumption correct? Could UCLA be protecting its own reputation instead?

Paras was personally recruited by UCLA coach Steve Alford, a 51-year-old former NBA player who saw action with Michael Jordan, Pat Ewing and Chris Mullin on the 1984 US Olympic gold medal team. Alford’s assistant Ed Schilling is a long-time friend of several Filipino coaches, in particular NU’s Eric Altamirano. Paras accepted Alford’s offer to join the varsity in October 2014 and signed his national letter of intent last November.

Before Paras’ withdrawal, he had enrolled in summer school and started practices at UCLA so the decision wasn’t only surprising but also shocking. Surely, Paras wouldn’t have withdrawn voluntarily at this late stage. Why would he? Paras was heavily recruited by other Division I schools and chose UCLA over the likes of Fresno State, Arizona State, University of Texas at Arlington, Portland State and University of California at Irvine. When the withdrawal was announced, at least 10 Division I schools immediately knocked on Paras’ door.

Paras supposedly failed to meet academic conditions which were part of UCLA’s admission requirements. But if he was short of eligibility, why was Paras enrolled in summer school and why was he allowed to start practicing with the varsity? Besides, he was declared to be academically eligible to play in the NCAA Division I. So what are the academic conditions that he failed to meet? UCLA wouldn’t comment.

Paras deserves an explanation and so do the millions of Filipino sports fans following the progress of his career. Was he discriminated against? For sure, Paras was put in a tough situation. Luckily, there were still Division I schools whose rosters had slots available for someone of his playing caliber. Paras would’ve been in limbo if the withdrawal was announced too late in the day for other schools to come calling.

There is speculation that upon review, UCLA had exceeded its scholarship allocations and had to make a cut. Alford’s son Bryce is an incoming senior and a shooting guard like Paras. A source said Alford volunteered to strip his son of his scholarship to keep within the limit of 13 allocations. Alford would be reclassified as a “walk-on” without a scholarship. The other option was to check on the standing of the incoming freshmen and strike out the player with the lowest rating. Last season, UCLA only had 11 athletic scholars on the team.  

In US college basketball, there are four prominent evaluators of prospects from high school – ESPN, Rivals, Scout and 247Sports. Paras was rated a three-star prospect by ESPN, Rivals and 247Sports and a four-star by Scout. Three other UCLA recruits were rated higher. Two players, 6-6 Lonzo Ball and 6-10 T. J. Leaf, are five-star prospects while 6-10 Ike Anighogu is a four-star.

Alford is coming off a poor season with UCLA, posting a 15-17 record, 6-12 in the Pac-10 Conference. It marked only the fourth losing record in UCLA basketball history since 1948 when John Wooden became coach. Alford played on coach Bobby Knight’s 1987 NCAA champion Indiana varsity and for Dallas and Golden State in a four-year NBA career then started coaching in 1991. In 25 years as a head coach at the collegiate level, Alford has registered at least 20 wins in 16 seasons with two at least 30. He’s under pressure to perform since UCLA failed to make it to the NCAA Tournament last season. In two previous campaigns, UCLA advanced to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen.

A source from Los Angeles said Paras was made a sacrificial lamb by UCLA and didn’t deserve the unfair treatment. “His SAT score was 1750 and is NCAA qualified for Division I basketball and he took the test last February,” said the source. “If the SAT was the issue, Kobe could have retaken the test if it was not high enough for UCLA’s standards. But UCLA didn’t say anything until June 29 and Kobe was already one week into summer school and practicing with the team. Then, he was asked to withdraw. He is a three-star player and the other three recruits are four and five-star players. The other three recruits’ SAT scores were not released. Kobe was in the bottom of the depth chart but there will be a lot of pressure on Alford to play him. Alford’s son, however, needs playing time to be seen by NBA scouts. Alford offered to take his son off scholarship as a walk-on but now his son keeps his scholarship with Kobe out. To summarize, Kobe is a three-star player, an international student and the lowest ranked recruit so they took him out.”

If UCLA cut Paras because he was the lowest-ranked recruit and Alford’s son couldn’t be relieved of his scholarship, then that should have been disclosed. The cock-and-bull story of Paras’ withdrawal due to an SAT scoring issue was an insult to his intelligence considering he was an honor student at Cathedral High School in Los Angeles.

Paras’ transfer to Creighton University, a private Jesuit school in Omaha, Nebraska, could be a blessing in disguise. Varsity coach Greg McDermott, 51, has coached six years in the school and compiled at least 20 wins in five. In 2014-15, Creighton ranked sixth in Division I standings for most attendance with an average of 17,048 a game. So the fan support will be awesome for Paras. Creighton has produced NBA players like Doug McDermott, Anthony Tolliver, Kyle Korver and Paul Silas. NBA legend Willis Reed once coached the varsity.

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