Father knows best how to irritate his son. It happens whenever UCLA Coach Steve Alford, whose pure jump shot launched a legion of copycats in Indiana driveways, critiques Bryce in practice about the family talent.
Maybe Steve feels Bryce took a bad shot or passed up one he should have taken. Depending on Steve’s tone and Bryce’s mood, the son can take on a persona seldom seen from the senior shooting guard outside Pauley Pavilion. Kory Alford, Bryce’s older brother and the team’s analytics and video coordinator, calls it “Angry Bryce.”
“When he gets mad at me for shooting when I feel like that’s my strength and knowing he’s one of the best all-time in that category,” Bryce said of his father, “something about it just kind of sticks in my brain and it doesn’t resonate real well with me.”
Bryce will scowl, contorting his face into an expression that teammate Thomas Welsh described as a “mean little mug.” Then he’ll go out and do what Alfords tend to do: make shot after shot.
“Bryce is really, really good at basketball,” Kory said, “so when he gets pissed off, he goes to a different level.”
The sight of Steve could trigger another side of Bryce on Saturday night when the third-ranked Bruins face Washington State. As he plays his final home game for his father, nearing the end of a college career in which he’s gone from mocked to celebrated as one of the most prolific players in UCLA’s storied history, there could be a tearful Bryce.
“I’m trying not to think about it,” Bryce acknowledged. “It’s been an unbelievable four years playing here. Obviously, playing for my dad has been something very, very special for me.”
Steve has called his son a better player than he was, quite the compliment considering the elder Alford was the leading scorer for Indiana when the Hoosiers won the national championship 30 years ago and went on to spend parts of four seasons in the NBA. Many of the statistical comparisons do lean in favor of the son, the fifth-leading scorer in UCLA history with 1,861 points.
Bryce has made a school-record 102 three-pointers this season, needing only six more to surpass his father’s total during his senior season in 1986-87, when the three-point line was universally adopted in college basketball. Bryce also is making 3.4 three-pointers per game, ahead of Steve’s 3.1 during his final season with the Hoosiers.
The edge in accuracy goes to Steve, who made 53.0% of his three-pointers as a senior compared with Bryce’s 46.2%. Steve referenced his own shooting prowess during a conversation with his wife, Tanya, after UCLA returned last week from a victory over Arizona in Tucson in which Bryce led the Bruins with 15 points.
“Steve looked at me and he goes, ‘Hey, honey, who do you think would win a shooting competition between me and Bryce right now?’ ” Tanya Alford recalled. “I said, ‘Bryce,’ and he goes, ‘Come on.’ ”
The father-son rivalry extends to the golf course, where Bryce’s drives often outdistance his father’s but Steve’s precision in the short game usually allows him to prevail in head-to-head competitions. As Bryce stepped in front of a pack of reporters this week inside Pauley Pavilion just as his father was departing, Steve informed his son that there had been queries about their golf games.
“Don’t lie,” Steve instructed with a smile.
“He’s got me by a little bit,” Bryce conceded. “I’m catching him.”
Steve has understood the dynamic of a father coaching his son since he struggled, and then starred, while playing for his father, Sam, at New Castle High in Indiana.
“My freshman and sophomore years, I got booed every time he put me in a game,” Steve said. “My junior and senior years, when I was averaging 27 and 37 [points], he got booed every time he took me out.”
Bryce arrived at UCLA facing similar doubts about his presence being largely a function of his last name. He became a starter as a sophomore but continued to spark snickers when he missed 19 consecutive shots. Most of the criticism shifted to Steve during Bryce’s junior season, when the Bruins went 15-17 and a plane flew a banner over campus calling for Alford to be fired.
Father and son said the turmoil has made the successes they’ve enjoyed together this season all the more meaningful. Bryce has become the Bruins’ fiery soul and leading scorer, averaging 16.6 points per game, after being freed from ballhandling duties upon the arrival of freshman point guard Lonzo Ball.
“He’s been evaluated and critiqued probably as much as any player in the Pac-12 Conference over the last four years,” Steve said, “and all he’s done is prove himself time and time and time again.”
Bryce scored 26 points to help UCLA avenge a loss to USC and tied a school record with nine three-pointers during a triumph over Colorado. Any concerns about favoritism should have ended long before Steve sat Bryce for the final five seconds of a game against Utah, allowing the coach to go with a stronger defensive lineup.
Steve took senior Isaac Hamilton, instead of his son, to Pac-12 media day in San Francisco and routinely listed Hamilton first when mentioning his top veterans, as if “Isaac and Bryce” was the name of a TV show he didn’t want to botch.
“We’re all his guys,” Hamilton said of his coach, “and that’s kind of how he looks at it.”
Bryce intends on emulating his father in at least one more way. He hopes to play in the NBA, a realistic possibility considering that scouts for two teams recently told The Times that he has a chance to make the league.
Before they part ways, Bryce and Steve have tried to savor their final months together. The Alford brood enjoys a Sunday routine of church and brunch whenever a busy schedule permits. After the Bruins beat Kentucky at Rupp Arena, Steve, Bryce and Kory pulled in tight for a photo underneath the bleachers, a memento cherished equally by a father and his sons.
“We try to take as many little moments as we can,” Bryce said, “but it’s something that once it’s all over is when we’ll really realize what it was.”
UCLA VS. WASHINGTON STATE
When: 7:15 p.m. Saturday
Where: Pauley Pavilion
On the air: TV: ESPN; radio: 570
Update: The final home game for Bruins seniors Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton and Jerrold Smith figures to be emotional. Alford is the son of UCLA Coach Steve Alford, Hamilton was the coach’s first recruit at the school and Smith has enjoyed a storybook rise from practice player for the women’s basketball team to scholarship player for the men’s. UCLA (27-3 overall, 14-3 Pac-12 Conference) could tie Arizona and Oregon for a share of the conference title should the Wildcats and Ducks both slip in their final regular-season games. Bruins forward TJ Leaf is considered day to day after spraining his left ankle early in his team’s victory over Washington on Wednesday. UCLA’s current eight-game winning streak started last month with a triumph over Washington State (13-16, 6-11), which is coming off an 87-64 loss to USC on Wednesday.
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