Devearl Ramsey dribbles the ball down court during a game against UCSD at the Thunderdome on Friday January 15, 2021. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

Aside from the presence of some UCSB staff members, radio-TV announcers, and other media, the Thunderdome seats are vacant during Gaucho basketball games in this COVID era. To create a sense of a crowd, a vague buzzing sound emanates from speakers. It sounds like a distant leaf blower.

“I miss the fans a lot,” senior guard Devearl Ramsey said. “You still want to put on a show, but you have to adjust.” That means arousing joyful reactions on the team bench. The Gauchos fortunately have a roster of avidly engaged players.

When sophomore Josh Pierre-Louis flew down the lane for a dunk that punctuated last Saturday’s 84-53 victory over UC San Diego, there was an eruption on the sideline. “We all went nuts,” Ramsey said. “Josh is a special talent and a great kid.” Pierre-Louis, a transfer from Temple, is an explosive guard whose initials, JPL, are known to stand for Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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The senior backcourt of Ramsey and JaQuori McLaughlin, both three-year starters, has led the Gauchos to an 8-3 record so far this season. They have swept their Big West Conference series over Cal State Fullerton and UC San Diego since dropping a pair on the road against UC Irvine, the preseason favorite.

McLaughlin, a steady leader who is skilled in all phases of the game, has been named Big West Player of the Week twice this season.

Ramsey is a flashy point guard whose coast-to-coast drives were huge crowd pleasers in the Thunderdome the past two years. He also can make a timely outside shot, as he did to break open last Friday’s game with back-to-back three-pointers against UCSD, scoring a game-high 15 points. The next night, he dished off six assists. With his quick hands, Ramsey has pulled off at least one steal in all 11 games.

UCSB head coach Joe Pasternack likes to say that “the mental to the physical is four-to-one,” and Ramsey takes that to heart. Growing up in South Central L.A. before attending Sierra Canyon High, he was inspired by Lakers legend Kobe Bryant.

“I try to have the mentality that he showed,” Ramsey said. “More than his skill set, it was the way he approached the game. He had such passion.”

Coming up next Tuesday, January 26, is the first anniversary of the tragic helicopter crash that took the life of Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others. Ramsey woke up to the news that Sunday morning. He had spent the night with friends in Calabasas, not far from the crash, after the Gauchos won a home game over UC Riverside.

“It was surreal,” Ramsey said. “It took me a long time to process. Things can happen in the blink of an eye. I’m going to enjoy life as much as I can.”

In retrospect, Bryant’s death seemed to presage what was to come in 2020. It was a year of heartbreak and turmoil, headlined by the outbreak of the virus pandemic. Basketball fans learned it was serious in March when the NBA suspended its season and the NCAA’s March Madness was canceled.

Ramsey said, “It sunk in when we went back to Santa Barbara” instead of playing in the conference tournament in Anaheim. “We knew it was over.”

Big West basketball has come back in 2021, with big changes to deal with the ongoing virus threat. Fans can watch the games only by streaming videos. Coaches and players are tested regularly. “Four times a week,” Ramsey said. “We do it ourselves, swabbing each nostril 10 times.” Friday-Saturday doubleheaders cut down on travel. The Gauchos are scheduled to play for the next seven weekends, from January 22-23 at Cal State Northridge to their March 5-6 home finale against Cal Poly. The conference tournament will begin March 9 in Las Vegas.

Ramsey said he sympathizes with UCSB athletes in fall sports (soccer, women’s volleyball) who have seen their seasons scuttled. “I knew we’d have basketball no matter what,” he said. “The NCAA has gotta have its tournament.” Modeled after the NBA’s summer bubble in Orlando, this year’s money-making March Madness will take place in Indianapolis.

The NBA is back too. Besides applauding the league’s leadership in advocating awareness of social justice issues, Ramsey is excited to see Gabe Vincent, a 2018 graduate of UCSB, playing for the Miami Heat. “I practiced with him my redshirt year,” Ramsey said. “He’s a good player and an even better man. He worked his tail off. He gives hope to guys like us.” Vincent scored 24 points and 21 points last week in two Miami games.

Ramsey said he is not specifically plotting out his own future after he graduates at the end of the current quarter with a degree in history. As he learned in the past year, “So much can change.”

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