Former UCLA Basketball Player and Bruin Engineer Russell Stong Establishes Scholarship

Russell Stong

UCLA Athletics

Russell Stong, then a junior guard at UCLA, was honored as a recipient of the Elite 90 award for the 2021 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship at the semifinal game in Indianapolis, Indiana.

“Particularly for my endowment, I want to help those who might have a financial barrier to coming to UCLA,” said Russell Stong. “If that’s the only thing deterring them from being a Bruin, then they should be a Bruin.”

Newly minted double Bruin engineer and former UCLA basketball player Russell Stong IV ’23, MEng ’24 scored another assist by establishing a scholarship for low-income engineering students.

Stong, who received his undergraduate degree in both mechanical engineering and business economics last year, was a walk-on guard on the men’s basketball team for five seasons while he was an undergraduate student. He was eligible to play the 2022-23 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic the previous year.

Born and raised in Southern California, Stong tried a few sports before a friend’s mother suggested basketball at the local recreation center.

“I started playing basketball when I was 5. I think I scored 30 points my first game, and the rest was history,” he said, reminiscing on a recent sunny SoCal afternoon.

He continued to play through high school, attending Crespi Carmelite and playing on two state championship teams. However, when it came time for college recruitment, it was crickets for Stong.

“My personal recruitment process was pretty much nonexistent,” he said. “My teammates were being recruited by the big programs like USC, UCLA and Arizona, and I’d like to think they saw me when they came to games, but most of my offers came from Division III colleges.”

Russell StongStong wanted to get the most out of college, so he did not limit his applications to schools interested in recruiting him to play basketball. He wanted both the athletic and big school experience, as well as academic rigor, so Stong was excited when he was accepted to UCLA in 2018 as a mechanical engineer. He said he chose to double major in business economics because he is curious to learn the business side of things.

“For me, engineering is more of a thought process — a way to think and problem solve,” Stong said. “I like learning about how the world works and how to change it for the better. I thought mechanical engineering would be a good broad foundation.”

However, Stong also did not forget his passion for playing basketball. The lore of UCLA basketball is iconic — from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar playing in his first public game in the then-inaugural Pauley Pavilion, to Coach John Wooden’s incredible run of NCAA Championships, the Bruins are known for basketball. Inspired by the many Bruin greats, Stong decided that he too would like to give it a shot.

Stong went to his high school basketball coach to share the news about his plan to enroll in UCLA and asked for advice on how to pursue his basketball dream. He was given the contact information for then-Associate Head Coach Duane Broussard and proceeded to reach out to express his interest in joining the team. After about a month of gentle (or not so gentle) follow-up during the fall quarter of his freshman year, he got the call while studying for his Physics 1A midterm.

“They called me when I was in the middle of Powell Library and told me to come to practice the next day,” he said. “I was on the team ever since.”

Because Stong was so involved on campus, word quickly spread among his peers that there was now an engineering student on the basketball team. While Stong could have assumed his classmates and friends would be supportive, he would have never dreamed that support would lead to his name being chanted at the iconic Pauley Pavilion.

“I remember the first time it happened; I couldn’t believe that’s what they were saying. You have your own bias of course so you think it’s your name, but as I kept listening, I couldn’t believe they were actually saying ‘Russell.’ It felt really powerful, and I really appreciated it,” Stong said. “I like to think I represent the common person, who comes to any college and wants to make their mark.”

And make his mark he did! Stong ended up winning the NCAA Elite 90 Award, a recognition he did not even know existed before receiving it. Founded by the NCAA, the award is designed to recognize and honor a student-athlete with the highest cumulative grade-point average while the individual is participating at the finals site for each of the NCAA’s 90 championships.

RussellAt an open practice going into the Final Four, the stadium’s Jumbotron began displaying Stong’s academic history — the classes he had taken, the grades he had received, and the overall explanation of how difficult his engineering degree was. Several NCAA representatives then came out to present him with the trophy. Only one athlete per sport can win this award each year, and athletes of all majors are considered, so winning it as an engineer in a Division I athletic program was an incredible achievement.

After finishing his undergraduate education in spring 2023, Stong decided to pursue a master’s in the fall of 2023, enrolling in UCLA Samueli’s one-year, on-campus Master of Engineering professional-degree program.

“I see this trend, as everyone probably does, toward artificial intelligence and automation, so that led me to get my Master’s in autonomous systems,” he said.

Now that he has got his second degree from UCLA Samueli, Stong is focusing not just on what’s next for him, but also how he can give back to the school. This led to the creation of the Russell Stong IV Engineering Scholarship, a way for him to help support future Bruin engineers. For Stong, engineering came first. Without academics and UCLA Samueli, he never would have been able to chase his dream of playing college basketball, and he wants to put his gratitude front and center in his post-basketball life.

“Particularly for my endowment, I want to help those who might have a financial barrier to coming to UCLA,” he said. “If that’s the only thing deterring them from being a Bruin, then they should be a Bruin.”

Stong is looking to give back to UCLA’s athletic community as well. He is part of UCLA’S Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) Collective, serving as director of Basketball Alumni and Donor Relations. In this role, he fundraises and does corporate outreach, looking for both general team deals and athlete-specific donations on behalf of his fellow Bruins. His goal is to expand the collective to include as many UCLA sports as possible, including a focus on women’s athletics. Stong said he hopes to help current and future Bruins compete at the highest level with NIL, against some of the other top universities in the country.

Though his time as a student has wrapped up, Russell will sing UCLA’s praises for years to come for the academics, athletics, social scene and beach accessibility.

“It’s more a question of, why wouldn’t you come to UCLA? And I can’t really find any reason not to,” Stong said.

Students who are willing to put in the work, and be persistent and ambitious, can do anything at UCLA: look no further than Russell Stong.

If you’re interested in supporting or learning more about Stong’s scholarship, please visit the UCLA Alumni website.
Photo credit: UCLA Athletics