"The Defender" takes a stand

Mbah a Moute speaks out on college coach’s behalf

Luc Mbah a Moute
Mbah a Moute said the UCLA program was a disciplined one during the three years he spent in college. He also said the players were mature enough to police themselves back then.

A much-publicized article appeared in the March 5 edition of Sports Illustrated alleging how a series of team discipline and morale issues have undermined the storied UCLA men’s basketball program.

The article quoted various players and staff members from the last four Bruins basketball teams. Several pointed fingers of blame for these issues at Ben Howland, UCLA’s head coach, for looking the other way as team members allegedly took part in recreational alcohol and drug use, bullied teammates and repeatedly defied the coach’s authority.

The article was disturbing for Milwaukee Bucks forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who was one of the cornerstones of UCLA teams that reached three consecutive Final Fours spanning 2005-2008.

 “I thought the article wasn’t fair for the program and for Coach Howland,” Mbah a Moute said. “It wasn’t fair to portray him as somebody who would allow things of that nature to happen. I know for sure that when we were there, there were never such things going on.”

Mbah a Moute was born in Yaounde, Cameroon on the continent of Africa and is a prince in his Cameroon village of Bafia (Bia Messe). With just two years of experience playing organized basketball, he moved to the United States and spent his last two years of high school at Montverde Academy in Florida, where he averaged 12 points per game as a junior and 18.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and 1 block per game as a senior.

Mbah a Moute was recruited to UCLA in Howland’s third year as head coach at the school and became an instant difference-maker, averaging 9.1 points and a team-best 8.2 rebounds as a freshman to help the Bruins advance all the way to the NCAA championship game, which they lost to Florida.

During his three seasons in a Bruins uniform, Mbah a Moute helped UCLA win three consecutive Pac 10 Conference championships and became the first player in the program to play in three consecutive Final Fours in 34 years.

Mbah a Moute developed into an honorable-mention all-Pac 10 performer and attracted the attention of NBA scouts with his defensive prowess. The Bucks selected him with the 37th overall pick in the 2008 NBA Draft, and he has averaged 6.7 points and 5.5 rebounds in 25.5 minutes per game over his first 259 pro games.

The former Bruin values the years he spent in Westwood and is grateful to Howland for helping him develop into an NBA player.

“I had a great experience there,” Mbah a Moute said. “We won a lot of games. We won three Pac 10 championships. We went to three straight Final Fours and lost in the championship game in two years. We had really good teams and played really good basketball. Coach Howland was good for us. He helped us win a lot of games. He helped bring the program back to where it belongs.

“He is a good teacher. Especially defensively, he got his guys ready for different levels, whether it be the NBA or college. He really taught the principles of defense. I think that’s what he’s hung his hat on. He really helped me personally to become one of the best defenders in the NBA. If you look at the guys who’ve played for him, they all have really good fundamentals, both defensively and offensively. He’s solid.”

Mbah a Moute said the UCLA program was a disciplined one during the three years he spent in college. He also said the players were mature enough to police themselves back then.

“Responsibility doesn’t just rest on the coaches,” Mbah a Moute said. “As a player, you’ve got a responsibility to represent yourself, your family and your school in the right way. Your teammates have to make sure you do that.

“One guy not being responsible or not being a good teammate can mess up the whole team’s chemistry. We were fortunate to have good chemistry. We had a bunch of good guys and our guys got along really well. We wouldn’t let guys do bad stuff. You really had to go out of line to not be doing what you were supposed to do.”

Mbah a Moute said the Bruins never could have accomplished all they did if they hadn’t taken a serious approach to being student-athletes.

“We had fun, too, but we knew that being there was all about making sure we got a good education and did whatever it took to try to win a championship,” he said.

Since the SI story was published, several articles and blogs have pointed out the substantial number of players who have left the UCLA program to turn professional before their college eligibility expired.

During Howland’s regime, current NBA players Jordan Farmar, Arron Afflalo, Jrue Holiday, Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee, along with Mbah a Moute, have exited Westwood early to enter the NBA Draft despite not being touted as lottery picks. Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook were also early departures, but both of them were top-five draft choices.

Mbah a Moute said that none of his former UCLA teammates left Westwood early because they were clashing with Howland.

“Everybody has his own reason for leaving or staying,” Mbah a Moute said. “But the majority of guys who left while I was there got drafted pretty high and they are still in the NBA, doing really well.

“I personally left because I felt it was time for me to move on to the NBA. I went to three straight Final Fours and felt like I gave it a try three times to win a championship, which is the ultimate thing you want to do as a college basketball player. I felt it was time to go on to bigger and better things, and I had the opportunity. Most guys leave because they feel they have a good opportunity to become pros.”

Mbah a Moute has monitored the UCLA program closely since turning pro.

“It’s easy, now that the program’s not winning as much, for people to think there are all these things going on,” he said. “I know I’ve talked to the coaching staff many times about how they deal with certain players and they’ve told me they deal with them accordingly.

“It’s kind of like having a child. You want him to do well, but after the first bad thing he does, you’re not just going to throw him out of the house. You’re going to try to work with him. They’re good basketball players and of course you want to use them, but at the same time, you’ve got to try to help them with any bad baggage they bring. It’s always easy to criticize when things aren’t going well.”

Mbah a Moute hopes the Bruins’ on- and off-court struggles for most of this season – and the negativity brought about after the SI story – prove to be nothing more than bumps in the road for the program.

“They had a tough year this year, with the things that happened and how they really messed up the team,” Mbah a Moute said. “But I think it will be a bump in the road.

“They have one of the best recruiting classes coming in next year. I think it’ll be a breath of fresh air and I think eventually everything will be fine.”