As they prepare for their first official practice tomorrow, UCLA basketball is in unchartered waters.
About two thirds of the team has been doing skill work for three weeks without a full schedule ahead of them, without knowing how or where games will be played, who they’ll be playing, or whether fans will be allowed to attend.
Both players and coaches keep their distance from one another on the court. At breaks, athletes sit in chairs spaced across the gym that serve as stations for their belongings, as the locker room is closed for now. The lack of a full roster, and of a practice squad, hasn’t been an issue so far, but challenges will arise when it’s time for full-court simulations and scrimmages.
The Bruins leave practices and walk to their apartments through an empty campus, as the COVD-19 pandemic has rendered all classes online. But they are back at the school that is their second home, with people they care about, and they’re playing the game that they love. All of that qualifies as a life raft right now.
“We’re very socially-distanced and have to wear a mask everywhere,” All-Pac-12 senior forward Michaela Onyenwere said. “We can’t really (hang out with) our other teammates. But we’re making it work and are we’re all grateful to be back. And if this is the way it has to work….”
Coach Cori Close, now in her tenth season at UCLA, said the return feels closer to a kind of normal than it has been for her and the Bruins for a long time.
“You really appreciate the chance to be together, to bounce a ball, to have some routine, be part of a team and have day-to-day contact and be together that way,” she said.
The month of March had begun with such promise, as UCLA had finished second in the Pac-12, and was eager to make a showing in the NCAA Tournament. But five days after they played in the conference tournament semifinals, the NCAA closed down the season as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. Instead of preparing for Selection Monday, most of the team found themselves on planes home to shelter in place.
The initial weeks of the nationwide lockdown period was rough on everyone.
“As coaches, we all had one-on-ones with players every single week,” Close said. “We would have two Zoom calls: one on basketball and one relationally-focused. We tried to put a premium on mental health resources, counseling, and providing outlets and resources for Black Lives Matter. We tried to come in with a total, holistic approach.”
But Close admitted that it was a huge challenge.
“It (was) extremely difficult, like a roller coaster,” she said. “This is not what they signed up for. It was difficult for me as a 49-year-old adult, so think about what it’s like for someone 18-22 years old.”
As the spring wore on and the entire country settled into a new life and routine, Bruin players continued to workout and train. But each had a different reality.
Both Onyenwere, who is from Colorado, and sophomore guard Charisma Osborne, from the Los Angeles area, had access to resources. Bruin staff provided the assist.
“Our strength coach tried to make it very individualized,” Close said. “In the beginning he was filling up milk cartons and trying to teach them things they could do in their living rooms.”
Junior guard Lindsey Corsaro said she had access to facilities in her home state of Indiana, and she took on training with no holds barred.
“For my whole quarantine…I was with a trainer in the gym any day I wanted,” she said. “My family is workout crazy, and they have a full gym in the house. I was going at it. And I had a productive summer because of that.”
Australian Chantel Horvat, in contrast, had to enter a much more severe kind of quarantine when she returned home.
“When I went back I was stuck in a room for two weeks and I wasn’t allowed to leave that room,” she said. “I couldn’t have contact with a single person. I had my own bathroom and my mother would leave meals at the door. I could hear my family’s voices.”
“I was fortunate to have a door that lead outside, so I could go out sometimes. It was really difficult.”
Players began returning to campus the second week of September. Onyenwere and Osborne will be roommates this year, so they entered quarantine together. Senior Natalie Chou has her own apartment. Athletes who don’t live together have to remain socially-distanced from each other, and their coaches. In practices, everyone is careful to remain six feet apart.
“It’s good to be back and play the sport that we love – that is amazing,” Close said. “At the same time, there’s a grieving. We haven’t been able to train the way we want, to be together the way we want.”
Junior guards Kayla Owens and Kiara Jefferson opted out for the season, out of safety concerns. Onyenwere and Chou said they were excited to return for their much-anticipated senior years.
“To be back has solidified why I love being here so much,” Onyenwere said. “We’ve worked on being adaptable, giving one another grace and being there for each other – that’s really important for us this year.”
For Chou, it’s all about adaptability and gratitude.
“I’m really excited to be back on the court with my teammates,” she said. “I try not to overthink it.”
Corsaro said her decision to play was a foregone conclusion because she has missed two years of playing time due to injuries.
“For me, it was always a no-brainer coming back,” she said. “I wanted to be back, I was excited to come back. I was thinking earlier in the summer that I’d be so bummed if the season got canceled because that would be three years with no events. I couldn’t wait to have a season and to be with my teammates.”
From tomorrow until the start of the season, on Nov. 25, teams are allowed 30 practices. The Pac-12 decided on a 22-game conference schedule, which leaves only three games open on a league-wide 25-game limit. Close said she and every other coach in the U.S. are trying to find opponents to play, after having to scrap their schedules.
“You just throw what you had up into the air and start over,” she said. “It’s a mad dash with scheduling. We don’t know who we’re trying to play Nov. 25, or close to it.”
The University has also been negotiating with Australia to allow their two freshmen, Gemma Potter and Izzy Ansty, to enter the country.
The Bruins who are here said they are impressed with the school’s safety measures, designed to minimize risk, and with the willingness of all to do their part.
“Coaches and staff are making the sacrifices necessary to be successful,” Corsaro said. “The girls on our team are limiting who they come in contact with every day. It’s cool to see the commitment of each person to do what we have to do to have a season.”
The obstacles of the year have also made everyone more appreciative.
“I’m cherishing the moments we have together,” Osborne said. “Like last year, you never know when it’s going to be taken away from you. I cherish every moment I have with my coaches.”
Close is similarly buoyed by being around her team.
“It helps me to be in the gym with these women,” she said. “The long haul of these last six months….it took a toll – I’m not going to lie. But though there are still a lot of challenges, you know that’s how it’s going to be this year.”
“It helps so much to have that interaction with them, and to be on the court with them has put some wind my in my sails.”