April 14, 2024

The loves of their life converged in a dusty stairwell outside Pauley Pavilion.

A shrine to UCLA basketball and each other, that campout spot below Gate 10 brought together the graduate student known as Major Fro for his fuzzy blue wig and the senior sociology major who never missed a game or a class on the way to graduating magna cum laude.

Schlepping their sleeping bags and air mattresses into that cramped space for coach Ben Howland’s debut season 20 years ago, they spent the night with a pack of friends before every home game just to get priority entry into the arena to pick their seats.

They bonded over the Bruins, not to mention a shared love of the teen drama “Beverly Hills, 90210.” Branden Brough was also drawn to Jennifer Flint after learning that she was only allowed to say a bad word growing up if it was followed by USC.

Then UCLA-students Branden and Jennifer Brough.

Then UCLA-students Branden and Jennifer Brough.

(Courtesy of Branden and Jennifer Brough)

Sometime during the night before UCLA dedicated its court to Nell and John Wooden on Dec. 20, 2003, with the normal throng of student campers thinned by winter break, Branden and Jennifer commenced their romance with a kiss.

“It was sort of like, are we doing this? Do you like me?” Jennifer recalled. “And we started dating.”

They became inseparable, earning the nickname Branifer as if they were another celebrity couple. They eventually shared the same last name, just another pair of prime seat-seekers who unexpectedly found their way into a love line.

Why, it was in that same stairwell that Branden would go on to deliver one of the greatest assists in Pauley Pavilion history.

“What about Shannon?” Branden asked a fellow camper. “You should ask her out.”

These days, students wanting the best seats have a layup of a wait.

They can line up as few as four hours before games, with a rare exception coming Thursday when the line starts eight hours before the Bruins face No. 5 Arizona. Once their tickets have been scanned and they receive a wristband, students can leave the line so long as they understand they’ll have to go to the back once they return.

That means no more camping out unless they do so voluntarily. No more seeking a bathroom at 2 a.m. No more mussed hair and morning breath.

“They’re soft,” Jennifer Brough said of the current students with a laugh.

Back when the Broughs were at UCLA, a big opponent like Arizona might require them to camp out for up to four days while waiting for the games, the players, the memories. Soon they waited for the wait, eager to do it all over again.

“This was something where the actual campout itself was an event,” Branden said. “It wasn’t just some drudgery in order to get a good seat at a basketball game.”

UCLA students camp outside Pauley Pavilion while waiting in line for tickets.

UCLA students camp outside Pauley Pavilion while waiting in line for tickets.

(Courtesy of Branden and Jennifer Brough)

The first student in line was supposed to be the one in possession of the hand-me-down signs from the 1970s with sayings — “Who’s that? Who cares? So what?” — that would prompt the entire student section to yell, in unison, sarcastic responses to the introduction of the opposing team.

Others were lured by the promise of first-row, center-court seats. Those came with priority passes handed out at 7 a.m. on game days that dictated the order of entrance to the arena.

Getting to sunrise was the challenge.

Each student was paired with a partner so that one could stay in line and the other could go to class, get something to eat or sleep in their own bed, if desired. Periodic check-ins were conducted to make sure at least one partner was present.

Andrew Comstock, who was often second in line behind the sign-holder, always enjoyed the extra quality time with his girlfriend, Amy Wong. Even if she didn’t spend the night, Amy would stop by early in the mornings when she worked the opening shift at a campus coffee shop.

“Coming by fully showered to our disheveled mess,” Andrew said of the girlfriend who is now his wife, “must have been a sign of love.”

Andrew and Amy were among a hub of friends who frequented Gate 10, the corner of Pauley Pavilion closest to the intramural fields and the hill leading to the dorms. Before the arena was renovated, stairwells accessible from the outside provided the perfect escape from bad weather.

That’s where about 25 students slept before every game — exhibitions, showdowns and even games during winter break to see a team that would finish 11-17 during Howland’s first season. A similar number of students camped above the stairwell and in the other corners of the arena.

“It was just sort of a thing that you did,” Jennifer said.

Jennifer and Branden were also among the founders of the Den student group that formed the previous fall, thankfully going with that name over other suggestions such as Ben’s Den or Dorrell’s Den that were meant to recognize coaches who would eventually be replaced.

Howland himself or assistant Donny Daniels or any one of the players would sometimes reward the campers with free pizza or Diddy Riese cookies. Entertainment was provided by an old television carted out from Branden’s engineering lab along with the extension cords required to reach an outdoor electrical outlet some 50 yards away. Invariably, someone would hook up a Nintendo to play video games in the days before iPhones or internet access.

One of the favorite parts of each campout was the walk to Branden’s engineering building to use his after-hours access to the bathroom so that everyone could brush their teeth. One never knew when fresh breath might be needed.

Matt Crisafulli first spotted Shannon Kehrig at a Den tailgate before the rivalry football game against USC at the Rose Bowl in 2004, thinking she was cute and that he would like to get to know her better.

But the circumstances weren’t right. Being in the midst of a relationship — albeit a somewhat shaky long-distance one — Matt didn’t want to make a move. Having once endured a similarly frustrating courtship, Branden encouraged Matt to ditch his girlfriend and ask out Shannon.

He finally did, finding the right moment when their friends were going to a Harry Potter premiere that neither of them had any interest in attending. They went to dinner and later began spending many hours together camping out for basketball games.

Given the lack of technology and distractions, they had little to do besides talk. Sitting in fold-out lawn chairs, they openly wondered why their messy brothers couldn’t be more like them and groused when nearby campers wouldn’t go to sleep before games that started before noon.

Matt and Shannon Crisafulli attend the 2007 NCAA regionals in San Jose.

Matt and Shannon Crisafulli attend the 2007 NCAA regionals in San Jose.

(Courtesy of Shannon Crisafulli)

Though she spent the night just a handful of times, Shannon would routinely stay until midnight or 1 a.m. before returning home.

Said Shannon: “Matt was such a gentleman that he let me go sleep in my own bed and then come back down the next morning.”

Added Matt: “Well rested and warm.”

It was the opposite of speed dating, more like a slow-simmering pursuit.

“Spend hours hanging out with someone, into the middle of the night and early morning when you’re getting cranky and running on fumes,” Shannon said, “and see if you still want to stand next to them at the game the next day.”

Then-UCLA students Matt and Shannon Crisafulli attend a campout together in 2006.

Then-UCLA students Matt and Shannon Crisafulli attend a campout together in 2006.

(Shannon Crisafulli)

Their marriage in 2011 was an homage to UCLA sports. The color theme was blue and gold. The tables were named after school venues — Pauley Pavilion, the Rose Bowl — instead of numbered. Their reception entrance was to Van Halen’s “Right Now,” the same song that had greeted the Bruins running out of the locker room to a crescendo of clapping from students.

Among those in attendance were fellow stairwell couples Branden and Jennifer and Andrew and Amy, who taking their cue from all those nights inside Pauley Pavilion, instinctively commenced the clap.

Within moments of leaning in for that first kiss, Branden had a crazy idea.

Why not go all the way and propose?

“I remember having a very conscious thought of, OK, that would be weird, that probably wouldn’t be received so well,” he said this week.

Later, he asked his belle of the stairwell how she might have reacted if he had asked her to marry him.

“She said she might have said yes,” said Branden, now 46 and living in Washington, D.C., where he works as the White House’s director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office. Jennifer, 41, is an energy attorney for a private law firm. “I’m sure it served us well to go through a much more normal dating cycle afterward, but I don’t think we really left each other’s side since.”

Branden and Jennifer Brough sit together on the court at Pauley Pavilion.

Branden and Jennifer Brough sit together on the court at Pauley Pavilion.

(Courtesy of Branden and Jennifer Brough)

They were married in 2007, with daughter Maggie arriving in 2015.

Their bonds with many of those who camped out alongside them remain timeless. Some have become de facto family members, serving as honorary aunts and uncles to each other’s children.

The campout couples try to see each other whenever they can. Matt and Shannon live in Long Beach, Andrew and Amy in Emerald Hills. They all share the same unlikely spot as a genesis for their love.

“That all came,” Branden said, “from sleeping in this hole.”

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