May 28, 2024

MINUTES AFTER THE congregation of basketball players ranging from NBA All-Stars to pro prospects to gym rats who keep high tops in the trunk of their cars spilled outside into the warm August air, Rico Hines dutifully readied the space for the next tenants inside the UCLA Student Activities Center.

Under the soft glow of sunbeams seeping out from the corners of the blue roller shades that cover the windowed walls of the sweltering second-floor gymnasium, the 45-year-old former UCLA basketball player toted a trash can around the three hardwood courts as members of the women’s volleyball team trickled in for their midday practice.

With the same attention to detail he just preached to the dozens of hoopers about filling their roles on their respective teams to cap another day as ringleader of perhaps the most accomplished pickup basketball game on the planet, Hines deposited every last paper cup and plastic bottle strewn along the sidelines into the bin — covering the court with the diligence of a lockdown defender smothering a guard on the perimeter.

“I try to lead by example,” Hines told ESPN. “I’m not ‘too good’ for anything.”

It’s been some 20 years since Hines, who followed Nick Nurse this offseason from a spot on the Toronto Raptors staff to a front-of-the-bench post with the Philadelphia 76ers, was a student at Westwood.

The 2.2 points per game he averaged across four seasons with the Bruins won’t get him mentioned with the likes of 2023 UCLA draft picks Jaime Jaquez Jr., Amari Bailey and Jaylen Clark — let alone with school legends Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love.

But Hines’ presence on campus has become a summertime staple, the bridge for the entire program to the league. Maintaining the pickup runs allows current UCLA players to play against pros, while reshaping how NBA teams organize their offseason schedules to try to gain an edge.

Two months removed from the deciding game of the NBA Finals and two months away from the first wind sprints of training camp, the late-summer runs organized by Hines signal the end of jet-setting vacations and music-festival frivolity and the start of players hitting the lab.

“This is a pure place and there’s a lot of memories in here,” Hines said from a corner of the gym that features a chalkboard preserved in plexiglass that 10-time NCAA championship coach John Wooden used to scribble plays on. “And there’s a lot of people that’s made a lot of money in here.”

A bevy of players and NBA teams — the Sixers, Raptors, Sacramento Kings, LA Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Detroit Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks, plus the G League Ignite — made pilgrimages to UCLA for games this summer. The Houston Rockets might not have officially made the trip as a team, but Jalen Green and Jabari Smith Jr. were regulars.

Hines isn’t naive. He knows the game that goes on behind the game. He’s reluctantly embracing social media, arranging a camera crew to capture highlights from the pickup games to share on Instagram.

But basketball — not the $10 billion annual business of the NBA — is his priority. Teaching it, playing it, living it the proverbial right way.

“I don’t get caught up in that,” Hines said when asked about the potential corporate and franchise influence that could creep into the gym. “I get caught up in just trying to help guys accomplish their goals and dreams, man, and give them some structure.

“It’s going to sound funny, but I think the Basketball Gods will always reward this place.”

HINES’ GAMES ARE spread across three courts. The middle is the winners court, where your team wants to stay. If you lose, you go to the second court on the far end of the gym. Win there, and you get to get back on the winners court. Lose and face a trek back to the third court by the main entrance.

Lose on the third court, and you’re watching from the sidelines for a game.

“Games are competitive,” Washington Wizards guard Delon Wright told ESPN. “You don’t want to go to the [third] court.”

Hines organizes the teams, and this summer those teams featured plenty of five-player lineups from the same NBA team. Games are played to seven. But Hines, in the middle of the action doing everything from refereeing the games, to using his hands as a makeshift scoreboard, to barking out feedback until his salt and pepper beard drips with sweat, makes things interesting.

He has carte blanche to start counting down a shot clock that exists only inside his head.

“I switch up the cadence of the game,” Hines said. “So as soon as they hear my voice with, ’10! Nine!’ or whatever, it automatically takes their imagination to being somewhere.”

If you score the winning point to bring your team total to seven, the game’s not over. You have to hit a free throw to validate the win or the other team gets back the ball.

“It’s dope,” Golden State Warriors forward and fellow UCLA alum Kevon Looney told ESPN. “A lot of guys be scared to go to that free throw line. I done seen a lot of guys shoot 90% during the season miss in the summertime.”

The games run for about 90 minutes, and the day ends with three minutes of full-court sprints and a huddle at center court.

Recent UCLA players have benefited from Hines revamping the runs — for the most part.

A couple of days after Jaquez Jr. was drafted No. 18 overall by the Miami Heat, a clip from last summer of Paul George crossing him up with a behind-the-back dribble and scoring on a pull-up jumper made the rounds on social media. George even had Jaquez as a guest on his podcast in July to talk about it.

“The moment we had, it sucked for you being on that side of it,” George said on his show, Podcast P. Any embarrassment Jaquez felt was diluted by the gift of instruction.

“I took you to the side and I was like, ‘Hey, this is what gave me that space, getting that shoulder into you,'” George told Jaquez. “I learned that trick throughout my time of playing.”

Tyger Campbell, who played for the Orlando Magic‘s summer league team after finishing his UCLA career in the spring, won’t forget his rude awakening to the run, either.

“I remember one notorious moment,” Campbell told ESPN. “Dante Exum, my first game on the court, he hit me with a crossover and I fell … not to say anything less about Dante Exum, but he caught me.”

“I wanted the young guys to run beside the old guys and kind of push each other. Lou [Williams] used to run with a freshman in high school when he was in like Year 13 or 14,” Hines said.

“Then he might say, ‘Oh, s—, I ain’t gonna let this young dude kick my ass.’ Or that young dude might be like, ‘Man, he too old. Let me show him how it’s done.'”

His message in the huddle after a Monday run in mid-August that didn’t meet Hines’ standards was unvarnished.

“There’s a couple guys in here, you guys are All-Stars, I get it. You know y’all games. You’re superstars. But some of us are going to have to be complementary players and there ain’t nothing wrong with that,” Hines told a group that included two-time All-Star Pascal Siakam of the Raptors, one of Hines’ favorite pupils, and Kevin Punter Jr., the former Tennessee Volunteers guard who recently signed a multimillion-dollar deal with Barcelona coming off a finals MVP in the ABA League.

“So when you’re in here, don’t just be in here dribbling 17 times. When you’re in here, work on your s—. Figure out how to get yourself tired and still make your shots. Some of y’all can’t shoot for s—. And it’s OK. We’ll work on it.

“But you better be able to shoot that motherf—er, I’m telling you. You better be able to make an open shot. You got to have to know how to play when you’re tired. … Play hard as f—. …

“It’s tough in here. If you don’t play the right way, you’re going to lose every game.”

But before breaking for the day, he reminded the group that he was on their side.

“I f— with y’all, you all know that.”

L.A.’S PREMIER PICKUP game once belonged to Magic Johnson.

Back in the heyday of the Showtime Lakers of the 1980s, Johnson — with the help of former Lakers ball boy and current real estate developer Adam Mills — was in charge of the UCLA run.

“Magic Johnson ran all of this,” Earl Watson, who was in the same 1997 freshman class as Hines at UCLA, told ESPN. “You had to play the right way and learn how to play off the ball, because Magic had the ball, right? Or you were going to go home.”

The run featured a parade of stars, from James Worthy and Michael Cooper, Reggie Miller and Kiki Vandeweghe, all the way through Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant when Johnson was retired from the league. He still played at UCLA to stay in shape for the barnstorming team he was traveling with playing in exhibition games.

Legendary tales from those early UCLA runs are still passed on, from the time Wilt Chamberlain, in his mid-40s, vowed to block every shot taken at the rim after being upset about a foul call and went on to do just that. Or, in what seemed like a frequent occurrence, Johnson’s teams would leave the gym undefeated thanks to not only the point guard’s brilliance, but his propensity to call every foul in his favor if the game was on the line.

“If it was ever game point, nobody ever went back the other way if he had the ball,” Hines said. “He would shoot a skyhook, you wouldn’t even touch him and he’d be like, ‘Bring it back. Foul. Foul.'”

Hines didn’t take the baton from Johnson, per se. The game ebbed and flowed each from summer from the time he arrived on campus in the late 1990s through the early 2000s when Johnson had passed the torch to Baron Davis, another member of Hines’ UCLA freshman class. Gilbert Arenas, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett also became foundational faces keeping the ball bouncing.

“For me, it’s how can somebody get from being a two-way player or just a subpar player to then getting, ‘Man, he’s made it. He’s a real NBA player.’ That’s what it’s about for me.”

Rico Hines, on the importance of his summertime pickup games at UCLA

Hines reunited with the run in 2015 when, after five seasons as an assistant coach for St. John’s University under Steve Lavin — the coach he played for at UCLA — the staff was let go.

“I came back and started doing this so I could keep my chops tight,” Hines said. “It’s just like when a singer’s out of work, they want to go to the local bars and sing and to keep the chops tight. You know what I mean? I wasn’t one of those guys that’s gonna be walking around and just giving out my resume.”

Hines adopted the game and kept the spirit of Johnson’s competition, while implementing some of the teaching sensibilities he learned from longtime NBA assistant coach Tim Grgurich, whose dedication to basketball is universally revered within the sport.

“This is just like the camps [Grgurich] used to have,” Hines said. “It’s just with a remix.”

Since Hines took over, basketball’s best have continued to come. LeBron James played in 2017. Stephen Curry has been on multiple occasions, including last summer. “Everybody’s been through,” Hines said. “If it’s good enough for Kobe and Magic, you should at least come once.”

Hines saves most of his words for the post pick-up huddle at the center of the winner’s court, but he’ll pipe up when he sees things going sideways.

“It ain’t just roll the ball out to do whatever,” Hines said. “I’m not for everybody, because some people don’t want that structure. They just want to do whatever.”

Pick-up games are part of the cocktail that players mix into their summer plans, but one ingredient outweighs the others.

“You don’t get better by just drilling,” Hines said. “Because it ain’t no cone out there on the court when you’re playing.”

WHEN HINES ARRIVED at UCLA freshmen orientation in the fall of 1997 with fellow incomers Watson (a future NBA head coach), Davis (a future NBA All-Star) and Todd Ramasar (a future NBA player agent), they couldn’t believe he was a teenager.

“Exactly the same [as he is now],” Ramasar told ESPN. “Just more hair … Rico has always had an old soul.”

Cracked Watson: “We asked to see his ID.”

Despite averaging even fewer assists and rebounds than he did points, the 6-foot-5 guard out of Greenville, North Carolina, was a three-year captain for a Bruins team that went 88-42 in his four seasons. Hines, whose personal motto is “know your big picture,” was setting himself up for a lifetime in the sport.

He stayed attached to the game preparing prospects for the NBA draft and worked closely with Davis as he embarked on his pro career.

In 2006 — Davis’ third season with the Warriors and his first playing for coach Don Nelson after Mike Montgomery was let go — Hines was working out with his college buddy before the season when Nellie called him into his office.

“He was like, ‘Hey man, Rico, heard a lot about you,'” Hines recalled of his welcome to the NBA moment. “‘I don’t have a lot of money to give you, but how would you like to be on my staff?’

“I was like, ‘Hell yeah, coach! You ain’t gotta gimme nothing.'”

Hines laughs at the story now, but he has kept the same approach all these years later. He takes care of the game and trusts it will take care of him.

“I didn’t make any money. … But I got my foot in the door and people saw that I wasn’t just Baron’s guy.”

Stephen Silas, former coach of the Rockets and current top assistant for Monty Williams with the Pistons, was on the same staff in Golden State.

“People don’t know the connection [with Davis] anymore,” Silas told ESPN. “There used to be that, like, attached-at-the-hip connection. Not anymore.”

Silas, who got his break into the league thanks to his father and former NBA head coach, the late Paul Silas, knows what it’s like to stand on your own after getting an initial opportunity from an inside connection.

“He is like a father figure to these guys, but he can also relate at the same time, which is a really hard balance,” Silas said. “I wouldn’t have been a head coach without being with Rico. Like, no chance. No chance.”

Davis signed with the Clippers in 2008, but Hines proved enough to stick with the Warriors for two more seasons. After five years in New York with St. John’s, he came back West in 2015, and as he tightened his chops at his alma mater, it didn’t take long for him to get back into the league.

The Kings hired him as an assistant with their G League affiliate, the Reno Bighorns (now the Stockton Kings). After three seasons he was brought up to the varsity club as a player development coach. Then Toronto. Now Philly, bringing with him a basketball journey that could make him a head coach in the league one day.

“He has an eye, he has a thumbprint and he has an impact on the future of the game,” Watson told ESPN. “Because he’s involved in it. He’s in. He’s in it. You got to be in it. Not looking at YouTube, not searching to see what’s next. You got to be in the mix. On the court.”

IT WAS GAME point, and 18-year-old Matas Buzelis, a 6-foot-11 small forward projected as a top-two pick in ESPN’s most recent 2024 NBA mock draft, had the ball beyond the arc. He’d already gotten the gym’s attention after a couple impressive days playing for the G League Ignite at UCLA, but his attention lapsed for a split second as he scanned the court looking for a passing lane. For the 31-year-old Harrison Barnes, it was time to strike.

The Sacramento stalwart swiped the ball out of Buzelis’ grip and raced down court with the G Leaguer on his hip. Barnes jump-stopped near the basket and used a pump fake to make sure he wouldn’t be blocked from behind, but missed the layup when he went up with it.

Knowing the angle the ball was coming off, Barnes stuck his backside into Buzelis to create space, grabbed his own rebound and finished the putback to give his team its seventh point. Then the 81% career free throw shooter went to the foul line and sunk the free throw to validate the win. Most importantly, his team earned a spot back on the coveted main court.

Barnes’ team was stacked with NBA talent, but it was a random grouping running alongside the Wizards’ Wright, the Rockets’ Green, KJ Martin of the Clippers and Serge Ibaka, the longtime pro who signed with Bayern Munich in the EuroLeague earlier this month.

“It’s just a little bit of communication, figuring out, OK, how do we make this thing work?” Barnes said of his temporary teammates. “How do we all try to get on the same page here for the next two hours, try to get as many wins as possible. And I think that’s the puzzle you try to work on every day.”

But sometimes hidden in the summertime lineups at UCLA, the haphazard pairings are also hoops prophecies. Westbrook and James Harden got to keep their connection going in 2018, hitting Hines’ runs together, after Harden left the Oklahoma City Thunder and before they reunited in Houston.

In 2018, five years before they joined forces with the Phoenix Suns, Kevin Durant and Devin Booker piled up points as summertime teammates with Hines shouting out the dwindling shot clock to see what jump shot trickery they’d produce.

Wright remembers being the up-and-comer, playing in the games against his older brother, 11-year pro Dorell Wright and his friend, retired NBA journeyman Trevor Ariza. This summer, Ariza’s 15-year-old son, Tajh, a 5-star recruit at St. Bernard’s High School in Los Angeles, not only played in the UCLA run against Delon, he blocked one of his shots at the rim.

“Seeing the growth of Tahj, it’s just crazy. Like, he’s taller than me now,” Wright said. “Talked a little trash, too. He’s next up in L.A., for sure.”

Hines welcomes the stars, of course. But he especially relishes the chance to send players into their orbit.

“For me, it’s how can somebody get from being a two-way player or just a subpar player to then getting, ‘Man, he’s made it. He’s a real NBA player,'” Hines said. “That’s what it’s about for me.”

And as sure as Hines will be there for the runs, there will be a player propelling forward because of him. Pushing himself. Pushing the game.

“Just to see guys just make jumps, man,” Hines said. “Every summer it’s somebody, man. Every freaking summer.”

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