'Sometimes you, sometimes me, always us': Selflessness at heart of UCLA's unbeaten start

UCLA guard Camryn Brown, left, celebrates with teammates guard Charisma Osborne.
Camryn Brown, left, and Charisma Osborne, second from left, shown during a game last season against Oregon State, have set a tone of selflessness this season for undefeated UCLA. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Charisma Osborne didn’t think twice about her own points. She didn’t care that returning for a fifth year at UCLA on such a stacked team might diminish her own stats or playing time. She didn’t even consider how it would affect her WNBA draft stock.

She just remembered the dream she had when she signed with UCLA as a 17-year-old.

“The goal was to win something,” Osborne said. “The goal wasn’t to come here and lead every category. … The stats, those will come and go, but people remember the people who won here.”

Led by selfless fifth-year players Osborne and Camryn Brown, the No. 2 Bruins remain in position to achieve their top goal of winning the program's first NCAA title. UCLA is one of two remaining undefeated teams in the country (South Carolina is the other one) and enters Sunday’s rivalry rematch with No. 9 USC at 2 p.m. at Galen Center.

UCLA (14-0, 3-0 Pac-12) has won nine straight games against its crosstown rivals, including a 71-64 victory on Dec. 30 when the teams met as top-10 foes for the first time since 1981. USC freshman star JuJu Watkins led all scorers with 27 points in front of a sold-out crowd at Pauley Pavilion, but UCLA overwhelmed the Trojans (12-1, 2-1 Pac-12) with four double-digit scorers and tenacious defense.

Read more: No. 2 UCLA defeats rival No. 6 USC to remain undefeated on the season

Head coach Cori Close summarizes the team’s mentality as “sometimes you, sometimes me, always us.” It’s a catchy phrase that’s hard to live out.

Before the season, players chose selflessness as one of the values that would define the team’s success. It’s an appropriate word considering that this team is by far Close’s deepest in her 13 years at the helm. Each game, players grade themselves on a scale from 1 to 10 on how selfless they were.

Getting a passing mark doesn’t just mean sharing the ball. UCLA ranks second in the nation in assists per game with 21.2. For the Bruins, being selfless also means prioritizing the team’s emotional needs over their own at any moment.

“We don’t care who scores, but all of us are perfectionists and when we mess up, we beat ourselves up,” Brown said. “In that sense, we’re being selfish because we can’t give to somebody else when we’re beating ourselves up.”

Brown's selflessness is contagious, Close said. When associated head coach Shannon Perry-LeBeauf noticed against Oregon State that players were getting caught up in calls that didn’t go their way or how many minutes they were playing, she asked Brown to intervene. Brown became the first player to greet her teammates coming off the court. She spoke up even louder in huddles.

Averaging just 2.6 points, Brown's greatest thrill has been watching her teammates succeed. Her connection with her teammates is what brought the Texas native back for her fifth season despite an injury history that is still hampering her day-to-day availability.

In the locker room after UCLA’s Sweet 16 loss to South Carolina last season, year, Brown thanked her teammates for making the season the most fun she has had on the court in years. Tearing her anterior cruciate ligament three times in four years, dating to high school, and breaking her hand during her sophomore year at UCLA had robbed her of her joy in the sport. She was done with basketball.

Then she played with her freshmen, Brown said, affectionately emphasizing how it felt like the first group of young players she was responsible for. Kiki Rice, Gabriela Jaquez, Lina Sontag, Londynn Jones and Christeen Iwuala “completely changed my perspective,” Brown said.

Read more: No. 2 UCLA women keep guard up in victory over Oregon State

"They came in and they forced me to be better at everything really fast,” Brown said. “I was like, 'I need to be prepared enough to help teach you and guide you through this process.' To look back at their growth, I said, ‘Oh, this is cool.’ I knew I was impacting the game and my team a little bit more than I thought I was going to."

When talking about the now-sophomores, Brown sounds like a proud parent. She gushes about the way they lead the huddles. She has no ego about how that leadership position should belong to her as a veteran on the team. She’s ready to pass on that responsibility.

"I'm too old for this," joked Brown, who turns 23 this month. "Take some weight off my back."

Feeling the lingering effects of her injuries, Brown is often frustrated that she can’t execute simple things on the court the way she used to. But she refuses to spend her time selfishly fretting over personal struggles when she could focus on the team's success.

"Am I OK-OK? No. Does my body hurt? Absolutely. However, it’s still moving, we’re winning, we're playing well, we’re having fun,” Brown said. “I can get up for that."

Even with her scoring down to 13.4 points, Osborne’s fewest since scoring 12.2 a game as a freshman, the Windward School alumna also finds little reason to complain these days. The Bruins are front-runners for their first conference title since 2006. They're tied for the best ranking in program history.

Osborne said she knew the Bruins would have a chance at history this season after they finished last season with their first Sweet 16 trip since 2019. The opportunity to chase a championship outweighed the risk of possibly getting buried in a deeper draft class in 2024.

Despite her scoring dip, Osborne could remain a top pick this year. She was projected to go 11th in ESPN’s most recent Dec. 10 mock draft. Her defense is better than ever; she was the primary defender on Watkins, who was held to just seven-of-24 shooting on Dec. 30. She’s shooting 41.1% from the field and 42.3% from three-point range and dishing 4.6 assists per game, all career bests.

The Moreno Valley native’s playing time and scoring are down, but Close says her draft stock is up.

Read more: Angela Dugalic and Lauren Betts power No. 2 UCLA to victory over Oregon

“She just has found many more ways to give,” Close said. “She’s been a servant leader. She’s really sacrificed for the sake of the team and I think that’s going to come back to her tenfold.”

Osborne is already reaping the benefits of waiting to pursue her pro career. She’s now UCLA’s all-time leader in made three-pointers. She’s 15 points away from becoming UCLA’s fourth 2,000-point scorer.

Osborne led the Bruins in scoring the previous two years and it felt as if the team was hers to carry. Now she bristles at the idea that it's her team.

"It's everyone's team," she said.

She’s happy to relinquish that headliner title if it means claiming a different type of crown.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.