A season was on the line. The N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament was at full throttle and Northwestern had melted a 14-point deficit to 3 when Tyger Campbell, the 5-foot-11 U.C.L.A. senior point guard, drove the lane and was knocked to the floor by a hard foul.
Fewer than three minutes remained, nerves were fraying and Campbell had not scored a field goal — nor would he by game’s end.
Yet as he sat on the floor under the basket, he smiled. He picked himself up and calmly sank two free throws (he would finish 12 for 12 from the line) to help push the Bruins past the Wildcats and into Thursday night’s highly anticipated round-of-16 matchup with Gonzaga.
“Basketball is a game that is generally decided by the winners of the genetic lottery, played above the rim, played with explosive, unimaginable physical prowess,” said Bill Walton, the former U.C.L.A. star and member of the basketball Hall of Fame. “And here’s this little guy Tyger who controls the game and wins the game.
“And he’s completely dedicated to winning,” Walton added. “It has nothing to do with stats, nothing to do with flash, nothing to do with ego.”
From Campbell’s heady play to his playful hair, he has emerged over the past few seasons as one of the college game’s most recognizable faces. The Bruins again have become a national power, and not always by following obvious avenues.
Campbell tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on the last play of the last practice before what would have been his freshman season, 2018-19. While he was recovering from knee surgery, U.C.L.A. fired the coach who had recruited him, Steve Alford. But when Mick Cronin was hired, the transition was seamless. Campbell never considered leaving, and his new coach never considered replacing him.
“I knew he was a tough kid,” Cronin said after the Bruins slipped past Northwestern on Saturday night. “And once he started playing his freshman year, I liked this kid. He’s a Mick Cronin player. He maximizes every ounce out of that body.
“He’s not tall, he’s not the fastest guy, he doesn’t jump out of the gym, but he just finds a way to get it done.”
The Northwestern game was a glowing example of how Campbell’s fingerprints can be found all over a U.C.L.A. win, even on a rare night when he fails to make a field goal: Though he was 0 for 7 from the floor, he tallied seven assists and two steals and had no turnovers in 39 minutes.
“My respect for him is off the charts because he isn’t as good an athlete as the guys he plays against,” Cronin said. “And he’s smaller than them. And he outplays most of them.”
Campbell has prepared his entire life for this moment. A native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he moved with his family to Tennessee so he could play varsity ball as an eighth grader at Christ Presbyterian Academy, a small school in Nashville.
He played the next three years at La Lumiere, a college preparatory boarding school in LaPorte, Ind., that counts Chief Justice John Roberts among its alumni. Campbell graduated a year early, considered what he called a “final four” of universities that also included Purdue, Maryland and DePaul, and picked U.C.L.A., even though he was more comfortable in the Midwest.
“It was a leap of faith for him to be that young and move to Los Angeles, a huge university where people were telling him he wasn’t going to make it, he would just be an afterthought, even though he was highly recruited,” said his mother, Jennifer Krekeler-Campbell. “He got a lot of pushback. For him to be brave enough and strong enough, and then to endure that year with the knee injury, I’m so proud of him.”
Tyger Campbell was named for Tiger Woods because his mother was watching the golfer win the Mercedes Championships as she was giving birth to him in January 2000. Krekeler-Campbell and Tyger’s father, Tony Campbell, swapped in a “y” to give their son his own style (Tyger’s three siblings are named for sports figures as well).
The signature hairstyle? That’s all Tyger. He hated haircuts as a child, crying incessantly with each one, so finally his father struck a deal with him.
“If you’re going to cry, we’re not going to cut it,” Tony told Tyger. “But you’re going to have to take care of it.”
And so, since he was 11, the last time he had a proper haircut, the family said, he has.
He gives his hair a trim when “it gets too much in my face, or if I can’t see through the sides,” he said.
Not only do free-flowing dreadlocks represent strength and a respect for nature to Rastafarians, but to Campbell, his also represent his personality and style of play.
“Easygoing, not really worried about a lot of things,” said Campbell, who is a history major. “My hair is just, it kind of defines who I am. I’m a free spirit.”
When Campbell’s former star teammates Johnny Juzang and Jules Bernard left after last season, Cronin asked Campbell to improve his shot and to look to score more. Campbell responded with a career-high 13.6 points per game this season, including the conference tournament.
“Having a coach always telling me I’ve got to take these shots if we want to win, it just helps me make shots more and it helps instill confidence in me so I can share it with my teammates,” Campbell said.
Thursday night’s game with Gonzaga already is evoking memories of the Bulldogs-Bruins Final Four classic in 2021, which Gonzaga won in overtime, 93-90, on Jalen Suggs’s 40-foot heave at the buzzer. That game was played in Indianapolis, with just family and limited others allowed inside Lucas Oil Stadium because of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, with fans in the stands and pumping more adrenaline into this tournament every day, Campbell’s calmness (“his superpower,” his mother calls it) is resonating more than ever.
“Tyger Campbell is one of my favorite all-time Bruins,” Walton said. “He is creative, he is imaginative, he is durable and he’s at his best in the biggest of moments. Where everything is just swirling around in a maze of craziness, Tyger is as solid as can be.”
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