UCLA's basketball coaches do their best to avoid hairy situations
UCLA could drop every game the rest of this season and its coaches wouldn’t lose any more hair.
No matter how many shots the young Bruins miss or turnovers they commit or layups they allow, there will be no pulling of long or short locks among a coaching staff that arrived in Westwood with a clean slate and a clean pate.
There will also be no mourning what’s been lost among Mick Cronin and his assistants.
“I feel bad for the men that have to style and gel their hair,” said associate head coach Darren Savino, who has proudly sported a bald head for almost 15 years.
Cronin chose to go bald about two years ago, unhappy with thinning hair that grew in dark on the sides and blondish on top. Assistant Rod Palmer bid farewell to hairy situations a few years before that. Fellow assistant Michael Lewis noticed about a decade ago that his hair was going, going and made sure that it was gone.
“I decided to beat it,” Lewis said. “I was at Butler and I was just like, it’s going to happen, so I’m going to get out in front of it and own it.”
At first, Palmer thought that going smooth up top was just a Cincinnati thing. Before coming to UCLA, Cronin and Savino had been part of a Bearcats staff that also included bald assistants Larry Davis and Antwon Jackson. When Lewis completed the Bruins’ staff, Palmer figured that being bald might have put him and his new colleague head and shoulders above the other candidates.
“That’s what I thought,” Palmer said with a chuckle. “I thought it was a prerequisite.”
One player even adopted the look this summer when freshman forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. sent Cronin a picture of himself with a shaved head. Cronin momentarily thought Jaquez was being in solidarity with the coaching staff until learning that he was just participating in a hazing ritual with other rookies on the Mexican national team.
Jaquez eventually regrew his hair when he returned to campus, which was an opportunity lost.
“That probably could have helped making my first impression,” Jaquez said, “coming out with a bald head just like all the other coaches.”
For years and years, even after he went bald, Cronin spent part of each day running his hands through long, curly hair. It belonged to his daughter, Sammi, who bonded with her divorced father every time he washed, combed and conditioned her hair.
It took a while for Cronin to perfect his routine after receiving tips from his former wife, friends … and Google. He learned that product was paramount but sometimes had trouble aggressively combing through knots, not wanting to hurt his little girl.
“My back used to get so sore because she’s in the bathtub and you’ve got to wash it,” Cronin said. “Then, because of the curly hair, you’ve got to do the conditioner, leave it in for a couple of minutes and get it all through and then wash that out. So it’s a lot.”
Sammi, now 13, has taken command of her own haircare, leaving her father to focus on his membership in the hairless club for men. It can be an effortless endeavor, with no upkeep involved besides trips to the barbershop. Cronin’s assistants even skip that step, shaving their own heads every few days without much fuss.
“Whatever I put on my face,” Lewis said, “I put on my head.”
The coaches will be the first to tell you that bald can be sexy. Cronin noted that bald actor Jason Statham was dating a Victoria’s Secret model and Lewis rattled off a lengthy list of pluses for life minus hair.
“Bald men, we’re more confident, attractive, dominant and successful than guys with hair,” Lewis said, reading from a Men’s Health magazine story on his phone before looking up to add his own thoughts. “I actually wish I had done it a lot earlier. The maintenance, the haircare costs, all that stuff. Just own it.”
Lewis has been self-assured going back to his days as an Indiana point guard, when he had a thick mane of brown hair. He once returned verbal fire at Bobby Knight when the Hoosiers coach got in his face about a blown defensive assignment during a game against Michigan. A replay of the sequence has generated more than 180,000 views on YouTube.
Two decades later, Lewis and Palmer work primarily with UCLA’s guards while Savino handles the big men. It’s a homecoming for Palmer, a guard for the Bruins for two seasons in the 1980s. He probably never imagined his head would be a trending topic on campus upon his return.
“We were talking about that,” senior guard Prince Ali said of a recent conversation with former teammate Jaylen Hands, who now plays with the Long Island Nets of the NBA’s G League. “Like, wow, why are all your coaches bald?”
Senior forward Alex Olesinski initially confused Savino and Lewis during early practices before learning their voices, the coaches’ heads not providing much of a clue.
“If somebody said something and I wasn’t looking,” Olesinski said, “I wouldn’t know.”
Who wore it best has become a running debate among coaches and players alike.
Said Ali: “Savino rocks the smooth bald head.”
Said Savino: “Of course me. It’s not even close. You can’t put me in the same category with those guys. That’s a joke, of course.”
A fifth bald figure stepped onto the practice court in the preseason when Shaquille O’Neal walked through the doors inside the Mo Ostin Center. The Lakers legend advised his son Shareef, the Bruins’ freshman forward, to have fun with his hair while he could because one day he might no longer have that opportunity.
Freshman guard Tyger Campbell, whose flowing dreadlocks flop with every step he takes on the court, has engaged in some fun back-and-forth banter with coaches who invariably tell him that he needs to cut his hair. Campbell retorts that at least he has some, though nature will have the final say on for how long.
“I mean, you just look at men in general,” Lewis said, “their time is coming.”