Plaschke: Meet UCLA’s most beloved player. He’s a walk-on who has made one basket in four years

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Two weeks ago, in UCLA’s season opener against Cal State Bakersfield, the chant appeared for the first time in the Paulie Pavilion, down from the student square like a prayer.

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“We want to Russ-sell! We want to Russ-sell!”

The Bruins basketball team is filled with some of the sport’s most colorful players, prominent figures, who have taken over the city with breathtaking shots.

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The mantra is for the child who has made a basket in four years.

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“We want to Russ-sell! We want to Russ-sell.”

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The legendary Bruins basketball team is led by celebrity athletes who participate with full scholarships and marketing deals and a real chance at the NBA’s big money.

The mantra is for the child who is paying to play.

“We want to Russ-sell! We want to Russ-sell.”

And thus, in this year’s Bruins basketball bible, the last will be the loudest.

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Arguably the most beloved player from one of America’s most popular teams sits at the end of the bench, only to play at the end of the game, and wonders if anyone knows his name, much less chanting it at the end of blowouts.

“I was like, ‘Are they really that excited for me? He first heard the rally cry, remembering senior walk-on Russell Stong. “I was in shock. No one warned me. I was stunned. This is the most amazing thing.”

UCLA’s Russell Stong cheers during a recent match against North Florida at Pauley Pavilion.
(Wally Scallis /)

In a world where big-time college athletics has fallen out of reach for most regular college students, this is the best thing to do.

Stong has a 3.86 GPA while studying mechanical engineering and business economics, her parents pay about $40,000 a year in tuition and she rides on a motorized scooter on campus, juggling frequent classes and labs and tests. runs up.

Yet for four years he also played on the basketball team, each one of the superstars, a kid who brings schoolwork on road trips and takes tests in the locker room and shoots himself at 11 p.m. because that’s the only time While he can breathe, his journey is difficult but enjoyable because people are now publicly demanding that he join the Games.

“I’m not going to lie and say that I haven’t dreamed about being in crunch time and shooting buzzer beaters to win. But my biggest dream is just to be a part of this team.”

UCLA Basketball Walk-on Russell Stong

Happy Thanksgiving from this hottest and wonderful shade.

“He’s ‘The Man,'” said coach Mick Cronin.

On his wrist, Stong wears a silver bracelet that bears his lifelong motto, “Dream. Accept. Getting it.” So far in his 21 year youth, he has checked every box.

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“He’s a hot commodity,” said teammate Jaime Jacques Jr. “She is loved throughout UCLA like no other.”

The 6 foot 3 guard is loved even though he has played a total of 24 minutes in four years, no more than three minutes in a game.

“I have great courtside seats,” he said with a smile.

The Krispy bachelor is loved even though he has taken a total of four shots in four years, his only basket coming against San Jose State two years ago.

He is asked if he remembers it. dumb question.

“I caught the ball on the left wing, pump-fked all three, went to my right, the defender reached, I swung back on my left hand and shot a left-hand layup,” he said. “That drama is definitely etched in my mind.”

Not to mention, his shoes are written on it. He was so infatuated with his bucket that he immediately marked the incident on the side of his sneakers and placed them in a makeshift trophy case at his Northridge home. In the same case are several other pairs of shoes supplied by UCLA, the first shoe they were given, the first shoe found at a sport, an actual rack of gratitude.

Obviously, while no one has played less than this guy, no one is happy to be here.

“Sometimes I get a reality shock,” Stong said. “It’s like, ‘I’m really on’ [the] UCLA basketball team!’ When I have a second to breathe and think about what I’m doing and where I am, it’s amazing, I’m blessed, I’m the happiest person in the world.

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His joy can be seen throughout the game, from the end of his bench, as he loudly celebrates each of his teammates’ big games. His joy can be seen even during the briefest moments of his game, as he refuses to gun down the ball like an opportunistic benchwarmer, instead playing as if the score is tied.

“He always does the right thing,” Cronin said. “You can’t have a better non-scholarship player for his program, his teamwork, his academics, his character, he’s a great positive for us.”

When Stong approached Cronin with the idea that he would take advantage of the NCAA’s COVID redshirt rules and remain in place for a fifth season next year, the coach’s answer was telling.

UCLA's Russell Stong catches the ball during a recent game against North Florida
UCLA’s Russell Stong catches the ball during a recent game against North Florida at Pauley Pavilion.
(Wally Scallis /)

“I’m like, ‘You can live for 10 years,'” Cronin said.

Strong was not given even 10 minutes in the beginning. When he played for two state championship teams in Crespi, he was nowhere to be recruited seriously. He decided to attend UCLA for academics, while dreaming madly that he could just show up and join the basketball team.

“He looked at me point-blank and said, ‘Don’t worry Mom, I’ll play basketball,'” said her mom, Candice. “What Russell brings is hope…don’t let anyone tell you you’re not good enough…there’s always a place for you.”

He initially formed a relationship with Steve Alford’s staff through then-Crespi coach Russell White, but he also could not settle a favorite walk-on spot. It took months of continuous e-mails and texts and visits for Alford’s people to recognize him. But injuries occurred and a space opened, and on a November day that Stong will never forget, his study session at the Powell Library was interrupted by a phone call.

“It was the basketball team,” he remembered. “He said he needed me. I said I’d be there.”

He has been there ever since, even though it strained and strained his academic pursuits, even though he did not get anything monetary in return, working with his passion, living with love.

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“He’s definitely reached cult hero status. I’m worried it’s going to get so bad, we’ll be eight with 2:20 to play and I’ll have to turn him in.

UCLA Coach Mick Cronin

His childhood friend Brendan Harrington said, “Working so many hours in class, constantly being in the gym, working harder than anyone on the team and never taking a minute must be a daunting task.” “But the bottom line is, he really loves to do it. He knows how cool it is. He’s UCLA’s No. 1 fan.”

He will be late for practice because he cannot rearrange his difficult schedule like the others and because he refuses to leave class. He once took a midterm test in the Stanford locker room before a walk-through, and another midterm test in the same locker room before a game. When the books finally go down, basketball goes up in late-night single shooting sessions on the Mo Ostin practice court, with only Lil Baby’s smartphone with him.

His current schedule during the most important UCLA basketball season in many years? He’s taking microeconomic theory, statistics for economists, a manufacturing process lab, and a biomechanical research class.

UCLA's Russell Stong drives during a game against North Florida at Pauley Pavilion
UCLA’s Russell Stong drives during a game against North Florida at the Paulie Pavilion.
(Wally Scallis /)

“I personally don’t know how he does it,” said his mother. “But he does.”

Turns out, he does it so well, he was the only Bruin to win last year’s Last Four. He won the NCAA’s Elite 90 award for having the highest GPA of any player on any of the four teams.

“What Russia does is inspiring for all of us,” Jacques said. “He wants to make us all better.”

Jaquez admitted that in recent games, he has joined the crowd in chanting “We want rus-sell”.

Cronin admitted with a laugh that the more he listens to the chant, the more pressure he feels.

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“He’s definitely reached cult-hero status,” Cronin said. “I worry it’s going to be so bad, we’ll be eight with 2:20 to play and I’ll have to turn him in.”

Sure, Stong is human. Yes, he has dreams. Sure enough, he wondered what would happen if, only once, Cronin would see him down on the bench before the final minutes of a route and give him the first chance in a close game.

“I’m not going to lie and say that I haven’t dreamed about being in crunch time and shooting the buzzer-beater for the win,” Stong said with a smile. “But my biggest dream is just to be part of this team.”

Ironically, the most compelling aspect of Russell Stong’s name is when people misunderstand it. Before several games, UCLA’s director of basketball communications, Alex Timiros, would often have to fixate on opposing radio broadcasters and public address announcers.

“They must have already stuck the ‘r’ in their last name, thinking it’s ‘strong’,” Timiros said. “We always look forward to reminding people, it’s not ‘strong’, it’s ‘strong’.”

Turns out, they’re both right.

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