Commentary: UCLA-LSU is America's sweethearts vs. its basketball villains


Editor’s Note: The original version of this commentary did not meet Times editorial standards. It has been edited to remove language that was inappropriate and offensive. We apologize to the LSU basketball program and to our readers. On Monday, Ben Bolch offered an apology, which is appended to the bottom of this commentary.

ALBANY, N.Y. — This isn’t just a basketball game, it’s a reckoning. Picking sides goes well beyond school allegiance.

Update:

10:10 p.m. March 30, 2024A previous version of this commentary did not meet Times editorial standards. It has been updated.

Do you prefer the team that wants to grow women’s basketball or the one seemingly hellbent on dividing it?

The coach who embraces reporters or the one who attacks them?

When UCLA plays defending national champion Louisiana State on Saturday at MVP Arena in the Sweet 16 of the Albany 2 Regional, the contrasts don’t stop with blue and purple.

Some might see this as inclusive versus divisive.

There’s little debate as to which side of the ledger Tigers coach Kim Mulkey falls on. Long after she reportedly failed to support Brittney Griner, in essence telling her gay star to keep her sexual orientation to herself, Mulkey has stumbled again in the wake of an imminent Washington Post profile on the veteran coach.

Last week, Mulkey threatened to sue the newspaper without knowing the contents of the story, labeling it a “hit piece.” Without naming the reporter, she described the Post’s Kent Babb as “sleazy.” She slammed the paper for giving her a deadline to respond to questions while also disclosing that she had refused requests going back two years to sit for an interview.

In doing so, Mulkey turned a non-story into a blockbuster. How many more readers will that Post story get as a result of her grandstanding?

Just as befuddling, Mulkey sidestepped the issue Friday, refusing to address the story she created. The first two questions Mulkey fielded at her media session involved the Post story. The coach dropped the ball each time.

Reporter: “What’s it been like kind of waiting for that story to come out?”

Mulkey: “I did make a statement, and that’s all I’ll comment on at this time because all I am focused on is to try and win another basketball game. Thank you for asking, though.”

Reporter: “Not to belabor the point, but from what you have been told or what you have been asked … ”

Mulkey: “I’m only here today to talk about the next game.”

How convenient for someone who couldn’t stop talking about the story less than a week ago. She’s only mum when it suits her.

Mulkey’s best player also can’t get out of her own way. A year after she taunted Caitlin Clark by giving the Iowa superstar the ring finger and mocking Clark’s hand-waving gesture late in the national championship game, Angel Reese is at it again. When Middle Tennessee’s Anastasiia Boldyreva fouled out of a second-round loss to LSU, Reese waved goodbye as a crying Boldyreva headed to the bench.

The wave led to significant blowback on social media, sparking a virtual shrug from Reese.

“clickbait everything i do keep going viral,” Reese posted to the social media platform X, formerly Twitter, after the game.

Then there’s UCLA, which operates in the saintly shadows while being as wholesome as a miniature stuffed Bruin mascot. UCLA coach Cori Close gives reporters unfettered access to players and practices, repeatedly thanking them for trumpeting the emergence of the women’s game.

She’s unfailingly cheery, loudly announcing her presence early Friday morning after the team’s flight was delayed by 2½ hours and arrived close to midnight.

“Coach is here!” Close said joyfully in a corridor outside the interview area.

Her players reflect her sunny disposition while being as controversial as a pledge drive for underprivileged children.

“She’s a little bit cornier than us,” senior guard Charisma Osborne said, “but yeah, I think she really sets the standard.”

So, maybe they really are America’s sweethearts?

“Sure, I kind of like that,” star forward Lauren Betts said.

Said Osborne: “I like it too!”

Added Betts: “But don’t get it twisted — we’re not sweethearts on the court. It doesn’t mean we’re soft.”

They also won’t give in to easy narratives. Betts and Osborne disputed the notion that Reese lacked class, and they should know — they played with her for Team USA last summer.

“She’s an amazing teammate and I really enjoyed playing with her,” Betts said. “I think she’s an amazing person and obviously when it comes to basketball you’re trying to win, so it’s like, whatever you have to do to win, I don’t think that people should judge her for that.”

Said Osborne: “She’s really nice off the court as well and people don’t always see that.”

Everyone can see for themselves Saturday. How will the nation’s most polarizing team conduct itself versus the one known for its class? The reckoning is here.

Ben Bolch’s apology:

It has taken me two days to write this apology because I wanted to be as thoughtful as possible in my response to the situation I have created. These are words I have not been asked to write by anyone at my paper, but they need to be expressed so that I can own up to my mistake.

Words matter. As a journalist, no one should know this more than me. Yet I have failed miserably in my choice of words. In my column previewing the LSU-UCLA women’s basketball game, I tried to be clever in my phrasing about one team’s attitude, using alliteration while not understanding the deeply offensive connotation or associations. I also used metaphors that were not appropriate. Our society has had to deal with so many layers of misogyny, racism and negativity that I can now see why the words I used were wrong. It was not my intent to be hurtful, but I now understand that I terribly missed the mark.

I sincerely apologize to the LSU and UCLA basketball teams and to our readers. UCLA, a school I have covered for nearly a decade, champions diversity and is known as a leader in inclusivity. However, I have not upheld that standard in what I wrote and I will do much better. I am deeply sorry.

— Ben Bolch





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