Reeves Nelson wasn't always the poster child for what was wrong with UCLA -- far from it. Colorful tattoos covered his left arm, including the one representing yin and yang. As a freshman, he started two nights after getting 15 stitches following a face-first fall on a slam dunk, with coach Ben Howland likening him to Rocky Balboa. He was a fan favorite in those days.
Nelson was also a rebel for sure, but one the Bruins had thought would annoy opponents rather than themselves. He was supposed to be the next in a long line of Howland acolytes, taking on the role of the tough guy. As a sophomore, Nelson ended up leading the team in scoring and rebounding.
Friday's announcement that Nelson's career at UCLA was over following two suspensions in the span of three weeks wasn't the necessarily the easiest decision for Howland to make.
"I had a lot of hope for him," Howland said a couple of hours after informing Nelson of his dismissal. "Reeves improved a lot as a player from his freshman to sophomore year. It's very disappointing."
Here's how a profile piece on Nelson written by Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLosAngeles.com during his freshman year began:
He had them with his first dive for a loose ball. The gnarly shiner and bloodshot right eye he picked up earlier this season when a Kansas player poked him in the eye sped the development of the love affair up.
The eclectic tattoo collection on his forearms, shoulders and chest cemented things.
The UCLA student section has fallen for freshman center Reeves Nelson in a head-over-heels, face-painting, tattoo-copying, instant-cult-hero kind of way.
"Oh man, the crowd definitely loves him," sophomore guard Malcolm Lee said. "The other night I saw people drawing that infinity [symbol] tattoo he has on his arm on themselves.
"I think it's because he's just real aggressive. He's not scared of getting hit or hitting other people. That's big for us because our shots can go in or out, but his brutality and aggression is always there, night in and night out."
But there were always signs of another side to Nelson that weren't pretty. In high school, he was suspended following an alcohol-related incident in which he was a passenger in a single-car accident in the school's parking lot. Footage of Nelson throwing the ball at teammate Brendan Lane's chest after an opposing player scored on Lane during a game surfaced on YouTube. Nelson wasn't the best of teammates and he frustrated staff members with his attitude and demeanor, but all that came long before he was suspended twice and also missed a team flight.
"In fairness to the team, there's a point where we've got to move forward and do what's best for the team," Howland said. "I really want to help and am hoping he can grow as a player that is able to fit into a team and organization that handles all the things that go with that.
"Reeves did not want to leave. He's disappointed, but he also understands that it's the final decision. This is it. We are moving forward without him."
Howland said the two best practices of the season came after Nelson was suspended the first time Nov. 14, but his dismissal might not end up being addition by subtraction. The 2-5 Bruins have plenty of other problems to deal with, including center Joshua Smith's conditioning level, spotty guard play and an increasing malaise from fans who have seen both their basketball and football programs go under .500.
In the end, Howland had to turn Nelson from Sports Illustrated cover boy to castoff.
"I didn't want to turn this into a thing where this is the focus of UCLA basketball," Howland said. "I think it will be a positive for our team because the distraction for our team has not been a positive for our team. Negativity is not a positive for our team."