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Meet UCLA’s most beloved player. He’s a walk-on who has made one basket in four years

The chant first appeared at Pauley Pavilion two weeks ago, in UCLA’s season opener against Cal State Bakersfield, and came out as a prayer from the student body.

‘We want Russ-sell! We want Russ-sell!”

The Bruin basketball team is filled with some of the sport’s most colorful players, prominent personalities who have captured the city in breathtaking photographs.

The song is for a child who has made one basket in four years.

‘We want Russ-sell! We want Russ-sell.

The celebrated Bruins basketball team is led by celebrity athletes who participate with full scholarships and marketing deals and a real shot at big NBA cash.

The song is for the child who pays to play.

‘We want Russ-sell! We want Russ-sell.

And so, in this year’s Bruins basketball bible, the latter will be loudest.

Arguably the most beloved player of one of America’s most popular teams sits at the end of the bench, playing alone at the end of games and marveling that anyone even knows his name, let alone singing it at the end of eruptions.

“I was like, are they really cheering me on?” remembered senior walk-on Russell Stong from the first time he heard the battle cry. “I was in shock. No one warned me. I was surprised. It’s the most amazing thing.”

UCLA’s Russell Stong cheers during a recent game against North Florida at Pauley Pavilion.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

In a world where big college athletics has sprinted beyond the reach of most ordinary students, it’s the most perfect thing there is.

Stong has a GPA of 3.86 while studying mechanical engineering and business economics, his parents pay about $40,000 a year in tuition, and he races around campus on a motorized scooter while constantly juggling classes, labs, and tests.

But for the past four years he’s also on the basketball team, an everyman of the superstars, a kid who takes schoolwork on road trips and takes tests in locker rooms and shoots alone at 11 p.m. because that’s the only time he can breathe, his journey so difficult but wonderful that people are now publicly demanding that he join the games.

“I’m not going to lie and say I haven’t dreamed of being in crunch time and shooting buzzer beaters for the win. But my biggest dream is just to be part of this team.”

— UCLA basketball walk-on Russell Stong

Happy Thanksgiving from this most warm and wonderful shade.

“He’s ‘The Man’,” said coach Mick Cronin.

On his wrist, Stong wears a silver bracelet inscribed with his lifelong motto: ‘Dream. To believe. Achieve.” So far in his young 21 years, he has ticked everything.

“He’s a hot commodity,” said teammate Jaime Jaquez Jr. “He’s loved at UCLA like no other.”

The 6-foot-3 guard is loved, even though he has played a total of 24 minutes in four years, never more than three minutes in one game.

“I have great court seats,” he said with a smile.

The Crespi graduate is loved even though he has shot a total of four shots in four years, with his lone basket coming two years ago against San Jose State.

He is asked if he remembers. Stupid question.

“I caught the ball on the left wing, pumped the three, drove to my right, reached the defender, I spun back to my left and shot a southpaw layup,” he said. “That piece is definitely etched in my mind.”

Not to mention, written on his shoes. He was so excited by his bucket that he immediately wrote the event on the side of his sneakers and placed them on a makeshift trophy case at his home in Northridge. There are several other pairs of UCLA-supplied shoes in the same briefcase, the first shoes he got, the first shoes that came into a game, a true gratitude.

Clearly, while no one has played less than this man, no one is happier to be here.

“Sometimes I have a reality shock,” Stong said. “It’s like, ‘I’m actually on (the) UCLA basketball team!’ If I have a moment to breathe and think about what I’m doing and where I am, that’s great, I’m blessed, I’m the happiest person in the world.”

His happiness can be seen throughout the game, from his side of the bench, loudly celebrating every great play of his teammates. His luck can also be seen in his short playing moments, as he refuses to shoot the ball immediately like an opportunistic bench-warmer, instead playing as solidly as if the score were tied.

“He always does the right thing,” Cronin said. “There is no better non-scholarship student you can have for your program. His teamwork, his academics, his character, he is a great asset to us.”

When Stong approached Cronin with the idea that he would take advantage of the NCAA’s COVID redshirt rules and stay for a fifth season next year, the coaches’ response was telling.

UCLA's Russell Stong holds the ball during a recent game against North Florida

UCLA’s Russell Stong holds the ball during a recent game against North Florida at Pauley Pavilion.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“I’m like, ‘You can stay for 10 years,'” Cronin said.

Stong didn’t even get 10 minutes at first. Although he played for two state championships with Crespi, he was not seriously recruited anywhere. He decided to go to UCLA for the academics while dreaming that he could just show up and join the basketball team.

“He looked straight at me and said, ‘Don’t worry mom, I’m going to play basketball,'” said his mother, Candice. “What Russell brings is hope…don’t let anyone say you’re not good enough…there is always a place for you.”

He initially connected with Steve Alford’s staff through then Crespi coach Russell White, but couldn’t even argue over a favored walk-on spot. It took several months of constant emails and texts and visits before the people of Alford even recognized him. But injuries happened and a space opened up and on a November day that Stong will never forget, his study session at Powell Library was interrupted by a phone call.

“It was the basketball team,” he recalled. “They said they needed me. I said I’ll be there.”

He has been there ever since, even though it stretched and strained his academic pursuits, even though he received nothing in return, worked on his passion, lived on love.

“He has definitely reached cult hero status. I’m afraid it’s going to get that bad, we’re eight ahead with 2:20 to play and I have to put him in.”

— UCLA coach Mick Cronin

“It must be hard working all those hours in class, being in the gym constantly, working harder than anyone else on the team and never making minutes,” said childhood friend Brendon Harrington. “But the bottom line is that he really likes doing this. He knows how cool it is. He is UCLA’s #1 fan.”

He will be late for practice because he cannot change his difficult schedule like others and because he refuses to miss class. He once did an interim test in a Stanford locker room before a walk-through, and another interim test in the same locker room before a game. When the books finally drop, the basketball goes up during late-night solo recording sessions on Mo Ostin’s practice field, where he’s joined only by his smartphone blaring Lil Baby.

His current schedule during the most important UCLA basketball season in many years? He takes microeconomic theory, statistics for economists, manufacturing process lab, and biomechanical research class.

UCLA's Russell Stong contests a drive during a game against North Florida at Pauley Pavilion

UCLA’s Russell Stong contests a drive during a game against North Florida at Pauley Pavilion.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“I personally don’t know how he does it,” his mother said. “But he does.”

Turns out he’s doing so well, he was the only Bruin to record a win in last year’s Final Four. He won the NCAA’s Elite 90 Award for having the highest GPA of any player on the four teams.

“What Russ is doing is inspiring to all of us,” Jaquez said. “He makes us all want to get better.”

Jaquez admitted that he has joined the crowd in recent matches by singing “We Want Russ-sell.”

Cronin laughingly acknowledged that the more he hears the chant, the more he feels the pressure.

“He’s definitely reached cult hero status,” Cronin said. “I’m afraid it’s going to get that bad, we’re eight up with 2:20 to play and I have to put him in.”

Sure, Stong is human. Yes, he has dreams. Sure, he wonders what would happen if Cronin watched him just once on the bench for the final minutes of a loss and gave him an earlier chance in a close game.

“I’m not going to lie and say I haven’t dreamed of being in crunch time shooting buzzer-beaters for the win,” Stong said, pausing, smiling. “But my biggest dream is just to be part of this team.”

Ironically, the most compelling aspect of Russell Stong’s sung name occurs when people get it wrong. Before many games, Alex Timiraos, UCLA’s director of basketball communications, will regularly need to correct opposing radio stations and announcers.

“They must have already gotten stuck in the ‘r’ in his last name, thinking it’s ‘Strong,'” Timiraos said. “We’re always quick to remind people, it’s not ‘Strong’, it’s ‘Stong’.”

It turns out they are both right.