LOS ANGELES — Twenty minutes.
That’s how long it took UCLA head coach Steve Alford, after one of the most memorable and controversial finishes in recent NCAA Tournament history, to bring it up. His team had just landed an upset win over No. 6 SMU in the Round of 64 of the 2015 NCAA Tournament after his son, star point guard Bryce Alford, made a go-ahead 3-pointer in the final seconds.
Was it above the rim? Did it have a chance to go in? Did the officials make the right call? A goaltend? With 10.9 seconds left? To decide the game? Seriously?!?
That’s what every single person with a bracket or a blog was asking. That’s not what Steve Alford was concerned about, however. He was happy with the win, he wouldn’t trade that in for anything, but he wanted to make sure his son knew one thing: that last 3-pointer, Bryce’s ninth of the game?
It didn’t actually go in the basket.
“This is how competitive our family is,” Bryce said with a laugh during an interview on UCLA’s Westwood campus last month. Those nine 3s were a career-high for Bryce. It also happened to be a record for the Alford family, as Steve had never made more than eight in a game. “He said something maybe 20 minutes after the game was over.”
This is what happens when you’re a basketball family, when dad is one of the best college basketball players of all-time and son is one of the best players currently on a college roster.
“The dad in me says he only made eight,” Steve explained later on. “The coach in me says the ninth he made against SMU — which never went in — I’ve got to give him credit for or we wouldn’t advance. I told him that afterward, ‘Look, the most I ever made was eight. You only made eight in this game, but you got credit for nine. I don’t know if you’re really ahead.'”
“He makes sure I know only eight went through the hoop,” Bryce added. “At the end of the day, nine was on the stat sheet.”
* * *
Ask UCLA fans about Bryce Alford, about why he plays the minutes that he does and gets the shots that he does, and that’s usually the answer that you’ll get. He’s the coach’s son. Of course he’s going to get those touches. Of course he’s going to play those minutes.
Never mind that he averaged 15.4 points and 4.9 assists while shooting 39.1 percent from beyond the arc as a sophomore. Forget that he averaged 8.0 points and 2.8 assists as a freshman while playing on a team that included Zach LaVine, Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams and Norman Powell. He’s won 50 games in two seasons with the Bruins. He has a Pac-12 tournament title ring and two trips to the Sweet 16 under his belt.
That’s a pretty good two-year stretch for anyone, let alone a sophomore who was supposed to spend his career in the Mountain West.
“In this day and age you’re going to see it,” Bryce said of the criticism he gets. “It’s kind of hard not to. As a 20-year-old kid, you’re going to hear about it and see it and people are going to say some stuff to you, but that’s something that I’ve had to learn, to have it go in one ear and out the other. That’s something that my dad and my grandpa have been really good about helping me understand.”
“Those voices don’t matter. At the end of the day, you go out and play. People on the sidelines, people on Twitter, it doesn’t matter what they say. They have no impact on how the game is going to go.”
The criticism for Team Alford is centered in the idea that, on a roster stocked with pros, it’s Bryce that gets key minutes at the point and gets his name called in crunch time. And there is some legitimacy in that. In 2013-14, six of the eight players in UCLA’s rotation are now NBA players. This past season, UCLA sent Kevon Looney to the first round of the draft, got Norman Powell a partially guaranteed contract with the Raptors and, depending on how things shake out this year, could end up sending Thomas Welsh, Tony Parker and Isaac Hamilton to the next level as well.
That criticism didn’t only come from the fans, either. Part of the reason that LaVine left for the NBA after his freshman season was that he and his family believed that he would be forced to play off the ball in favor of Bryce.
“[Steve Alford’s] done a great job getting the players to compete,” LaVine’s godfather, Marvin Carter, told the LA Daily News at the time. “I just wish Zach had more of a chance to compete. Every year he spends at UCLA after this one is a waste. It really is.”
To his credit, Bryce is aware of that dynamic. “There might be times where somebody finds it weird having the coach’s son on the team,” he said. “And the role that I have, I played pretty much every minute last year and obviously there’s going to be, I don’t know if jealousy is the right word, but there’s definitely going to be some stuff there.” He’s conscious of what it looks like if, say, he’s getting ripped into at a practice and he calls the coach ‘Dad.’
But he doesn’t want to call his dad ‘coach’, either.
“They wait to get eye contact with me to ask a question other than having to say coach,” Steve said, chuckling.
But there’s also another layer to this: Are we so sure there’s no future for him at the next level? The new trend in the NBA is small-ball, right? An uptempo-style of play that emphasizes spreading the floor and three-point shooting? Steve Nash and Steph Curry are the two catalysts of this style of play — both won MVPs in the last decade, and Curry is coming off of an NBA title — and it’s not difficult to see the similarities between Bryce’s game and that of Nash and Curry.
He can handle the ball. He can beat people off the dribble. He can create for his teammates. And, since he’s an Alford, he can really, really shoot.
“A lot of people tell me that’s what my game reflects,” Bryce said. “The way [Curry] plays. I watch a lot of tape of him, old Steve Nash, Kyrie working off ball-screens, Chris Paul.”
Nash and Curry weren’t ever expected to be as good as they’ve been in the NBA. They worked. And worked. And worked. And, eventually, they developed into players that have literally changed the way the game is play.
Is Bryce ever going to be that good? Probably not, but remember, he doesn’t even turn 21 until January. He’s got a long way to go before he’s done.
* * *
Bryce always knew that he was eventually going to play for his dad in college. Steve played for his dad when he was in high school back in New Castle, Ind., winning the state’s Mr. Basketball award and getting named to the 1984 Olympic team after averaging 37.7 points as a senior. When Steve’s playing career came to a close, his father — Sam — spent nine seasons as an assistant on his staff. Kory Alford, Bryce’s older brother, spent four seasons playing for their father as a walk-on, enrolling at New Mexico when Steve was still the head coach there, and Bryce figured that, one way or another, he’d end up doing the same thing.
He was going to be a coach’s son.
Because that’s just what Alfords do.
“That’s all I really knew,” Bryce said. “I experienced that being around his teams and his players always kind of took me in and I just wanted to be a part of that.”
At the time that Kory enrolled at New Mexico, Bryce was entering his junior season in high school. He’d had a successful career to that point, good enough that it was obvious he was going to be playing basketball in college but not yet clear just what kind of role he would play. Was he destined to follow in his brother’s footsteps — a practice player who was using his college eligibility as a way to prep for a career in coaching — or did he have a real chance to make an impact at that level?
The answer to that question became obvious during the 2011-12 season. Bryce had not only grown to 6-foot-3, but he was bucking the mold of an Alford. Steve and Kory were known as shooters, guys that played off the ball and relied on a shooting stroke to overcome relatively limited physical gifts.
“He’s a lot more athletic with much better feet than I ever had,” Steve said. “He can create things on his own like I couldn’t do.”
Bryce figured that out as well. That realization that he wasn’t his father — that he didn’t have to follow in his footsteps, that he was his own player putting in his own work and writing his own story — was the best thing that ever happened to Bryce. “In high school, I felt [the pressure of being an Alford] a lot. In my early years, I was trying too hard to be my dad,” he said. “I started to figure out my junior year that I was my own player.”
“I started trying to be the best that I could be instead of trying to be what he was or what people want me to be.”
That new mindset combined with a bigger, stronger, more athletic body changed the trajectory of Bryce’s career. Suddenly, he wasn’t just an Alford putting up solid numbers in a New Mexico high school league that isn’t exactly known for churning out future pros. He was a lead guard that was dominating his conference and primed to be recruited by some of the better programs in the country. While Bryce was still figuring out just how good he could be, Steve put the pieces together pretty quickly. His younger son was going to be recruited. He was going to be a factor in Division I basketball.
And for Bryce, that college decision came down to one conversation with his dad early on in his junior year.
“Should I go through the recruiting process?” Bryce asked. Dad was ready for it.
“Hey, if you want to be recruited nationally, you’re doing things now where you’re going to come to the forefront and a lot of coaches are going to be calling,” he answered, laying out the pros and cons of being a coach’s kid and what it’s like to go through the recruiting process. “I can handle it one of two ways: I can open up your recruiting, and you can be recruited just like any other player, or if you know that you want to play here, you’re getting an offer right now from New Mexico and you can end this whole thing and just play for me.”
It didn’t take Bryce more than a day or two to decide. He was going to play for his dad. They announced his commitment that March, and by the time he was a senior, Bryce was absolutely dominant. He set a state record by scoring 1,050 points in his final season in high school, averaging 37.7 points — the same as his dad — to go along with 8.3 boards and 6.5 assists.
“What’s funny is that [his commitment] probably hurt his ranking,” Steve said. “People always say ‘he wasn’t ranked very high, he didn’t get any offers.'”
“Well, there was a reason why.”
* * *
Before he was an all-conference player at the most prestigious program on the West Coast, before he was a record-setting scorer in the New Mexico high school ranks, before he was even competing in the family’s driveway shooting contests, Bryce Alford was just another child of a college coach wondering when his dad was going to come home.
It’s not an easy job, coaching college basketball. The demands of the business necessitate weird hours, lots of travel and a seemingly endless amount of time sitting in a film room, trying to parse out just what makes a future opponent’s defense so effective or why a star big man hasn’t been able to get touches on the low block. There are road games and road trips. There are recruits to be scouted during the regular season, not to mention the AAU tournaments that take place during the live periods in April and July. There are practices to be planned and opponents to be prepared for. There are boosters that need to be schmoozed and media members that need their quotes.
And that says nothing of the stress that comes with having to win games or lose your job, get recruits or get fired.
Luckily for Alford, he’s never actually been fired. He’s been a head coach for each of the last 25 seasons, for every year he’s been a father. The rigors of raising a family in the business never really weighed on the Alford children because they didn’t know anything else. This was just how it was.
“You’re kind of naive as a kid,” Bryce said. “You don’t really know everything that’s going on. There’s times where he was gone for a week on the road recruiting and you’re asking mom when he’s going to be back. What he’s doing, stuff like that.”
“But it’s all I knew. I think if I had a time where he wasn’t a coach, and then he was a coach, it would have been different. Because I would have had him there and then I wouldn’t.”
When Steve was in town, he made sure to have his family around as much as possible.
“Kory went to the first 70 games I coached at Manchester College, home and on the road, and if you ask him he probably doesn’t remember any of them,” Steve said. “It’s just something that they grew up with, coming to practice, going to the gym. They learned to run around in there. That was their playground area.”
The benefits were two-fold. On the one hand, Steve was able to create a family atmosphere within his program. His players got to know his kids. His kids got the chance to hang around the stars of the local basketball team. He was a family man in the eyes of the parents of the kids he was recruiting. He was even more of a hero to his kids while getting them to burn off that excess energy bouncing a ball instead of bouncing off of the walls of his family’s home.
“I’m going to be a dad before anything else,” he said. “‘Dad’ is who I am and basketball coach is what I do.”
There was an added bonus for the elder Alford. When your children consider a practice gym a playground, the odds are pretty good that they’ll grow up believing that “Ball Is Life.”
“He could tell at at young age that I loved it,” said Bryce. “Always, from when I was a toddler, every picture I have I’ve got a little tiny ball in my hands. I was dribbling around his practices while he was coaching at Iowa and Missouri State. Even at New Mexico I would go up and start working out with them in high school.”
Steve added that he learned from his father not to push the game on his children.
“Always give them a ball and always give them a basket and advice when they want it,” he said. “But let them have the freedom to fall in love with it.”
“And I think they fell in love with the game.”
* * *
Who’s the better shooter?
“He’s known as one of the best shooters in college basketball, so I’m not there yet,” Bryce said. “But now? I can get him.”
“He’s knocking on the door and I’ve told him he’s knocking on the door,” said Steve, who shot 53.0 percent from 3-point range in the one college season he played with a 3-point line. But he’s wrong.
“There’s a lot of things I’ve given up,” Steve said.
“But I’m not ready to give that up.”