Dear Bryce and Isaac,
I cannot believe your regular season careers here at UCLA came to a close this past weekend. I have to imagine it’s been quite the ride for four years; it was for the Bruin faithful.
By the way, I’m not forgetting you, Jerrold Smith. Your story of determination and industriousness is fantastic and is indicative of UCLA basketball as a program.
After all, your paths to Westwood were not exactly straight lines. Whether you followed your father from New Mexico or decided to come back home and lose a year of eligibility after going to El Paso, there was always something that followed you here.
Bryce, your last name always engendered suspicion and a little extra scrutiny. Unfortunately, it was kind of inevitable, and the vitriol from the fan base in the tough times went way too far (and I contributed to that).
Isaac, leaving UTEP to come back closer to home and family is a decision I will always respect, even for folks who leave UCLA. Family should always come first, and leaving home like you did originally is a brave decision to make. I have to imagine the suspicion people raised about your sincerity to come back to Los Angeles made a difficult situation even harder.
You also came to UCLA at a time of some upheaval after Ben Howland got fired. The program was reaching for glory it found in the 3 straight Final Four trips, but never quite reached. The talent was there - Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams were blossoming, Norman Powell was ready to explode and Zach LaVine was incoming - so even though you couldn’t play for a year, Isaac, you and Bryce were ushering in a new look to UCLA basketball.
The first season was fine. Bryce, you held your own in the Pac-12, shooting near 40% from 3, dishing out over 100 assists to less than 60 turnovers, and playing reasonably well for a freshman. You handled the point well when asked, and even though the season ended with another loss in the NCAA tournament to Florida, the table was set for another successful season.
But then Kyle and Jordan left. So did Zach LaVine, and while doing so he left behind crumbs of discontent over playing point guard over him, Bryce. We’ll never know why he left for certain, but those crumbs fed the angst towards your father of a restless fan base.
The next season was a struggle in parts for both of you. Without Anderson and Adams, it was your show alongside Norman Powell. Both of you were given the point guard keys, and at different points, you both struggled to drive.
In the Bahamas, you and your team got run off the court by North Carolina. Then there was the Kentucky game, one of the worst showings in UCLA history, where you only scored 7 first half points and lost by 39. Couple those with the 5 straight losses, drubbings by Utah and Oregon, and it was a difficult season.
Heck, even after you got into the tournament, a bid no one thought you deserved, you won on the strangest 3 point make that wasn’t. The end result - a Sweet 16 loss - was the same as the year before, but it did not feel like a success.
And in truth, it wasn’t totally your fault. Bryce, for as much as your father trusted you, he did you no favors by not having another point guard on the roster. He saw what you could do when surrounded with talent like the year before, but the problem was that three NBA players walked out the door. Same for you, Isaac. Point guard was never your game; sure, you did it and could do it in high school, but you were much better at driving and slashing off the ball.
Last season, the bottom fell out. Isaac, to your credit, you played well enough to earn Pac-12 honors in what must have felt like a thankless task. Even though you had your struggles - remember the Maui Invitational? - you kept on fighting. Never once did you cause a stir or unrest in a lost season. If anything, we could see you struggle because you were pressing, desperate to turn around the season and revive a proud program that was going through hard times.
And you, Bryce, man. What was the worst part: the “Daddyball” accusations? The defensive woes? Fans flying a banner over Pauley wanting your dad fired?
I’m ashamed to admit that I joined in with the chorus of discontent, Bryce. I sang loud, too. It was anger misplaced towards your father that ended up hitting you. It wasn’t all your fault - while you certainly didn’t play your best all the time (I think you’d admit that), you only did what the coach asked. It just so happens that the coach is your dad and the one everyone thought was giving you unfair preferential treatment.
So I’ve got to admit, it’s been a blast to watch you two this year. It certainly has helped to have Lonzo and TJ and Ike around, but after 4 long years, it’s clear you’ve both found your places here. On any given night, you guys can be either the first or fifth option; you’ve had your struggles, sure, but the heights you’ve both hit this year have gone higher than they did before.
And frankly, after what you’ve endured the past three years, and what I’ve thought of you at times along the way, I don’t deserve to watch you shine.
Was it too much to ask you two to carry the team? Absolutely, though you gave it your all when asked to do so. You never complained, never caused problems, never did anything to besmirch the Four Letters (that I know of). You did what was asked, and while you struggled to meet the demands, I cannot question the effort.
Will they retire your jerseys? Highly unlikely, though that’s no knock on you. UCLA doesn’t do that everyday. Will you play in the NBA? I hope so, though that remains to be seen. But the fraternity of Bruins in the NBA is an elite one, and it’s always great to see more Bruins shining on the biggest stages.
You’ve both been through it all, and it feels right that the last chapter is setting up to be a storybook ending. So thanks for everything, Isaac and Bryce. I’ll miss you both, and while the results haven’t always reflected this, you’ve both done great things for UCLA and I wish I appreciated that sooner. I know the rest of the Bruin faithful appreciates you now.