Lively Lavin dives into St. John's gig (cont.)
Lavin's next hire was Rico Hines, a native of Greenville, N.C., who was his first recruit at UCLA. Hines spent the last five years as an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors specializing in player development. Hines worked long hours with pros like Baron Davis, C.J. Watson, Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry, and as a former player of Lavin's he can facilitate the communication between the new coach and the players. More important, hiring Hines allowed Lavin send a clear message that he takes care of his own. "I wanted to reach back and bring someone forward who helped me reach my station in life," Lavin said. "You make a statement that way in terms of family and loyalty. It can't just be empty talk. You have to give it teeth."
That was also part of Lavin's reasoning behind luring Mike Dunlap off the staff at the University of Oregon. Lavin first got to know Dunlap when he was a student at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and Dunlap was an assistant at USC. Dunlap later worked the basketball camps in San Francisco run by Lavin's father, Cap. Lavin later added another dash of West Coast flavor by hiring Derrick Wrobel, the director of external relations at California, to be an administrative assistant. (Wrobel once worked Lavin's camp at UCLA.)
Having found something new, something borrowed and something blue, Lavin hopes to add something old. He has been trying convince Keady, the former Purdue coach who gave Lavin his first job as an assistant in 1988, to join the staff as well. Keady, 74, wouldn't be able to coach on the floor or recruit, but if nothing else he would really liven up the coaches' meetings. "He could be our Dick Harter or Tex Winter -- or Don Zimmer, to use a local reference," Lavin said. The main thing holding up the deal is Keady's need to figure out what to do with his 8-year-old poodle, Queen. Keady's wife, Pat, passed away last year, and that pooch is his last direct link to her. Keady sounded inclined to take the job, though living in New York City, even if it's only for six months out of the year, will be a culture shock. "It rained the other day and I ended up paying $87 for a damn umbrella," Keady groused.
Look at this staff, and you can see Lavin's vision for the resurrection of St. John's. Conventional wisdom holds that the school should recruit almost exclusively from the New York area, but Lavin hopes to extend the reach much further. He does have strong local ties in Chiles as well as Maurice Hicks, who won five state championships as the coach at Rice High in Harlem and has signed on to be Lavin's director of basketball operations. Beyond that, Lavin gained a foothold in the south with Hines and in the west with Dunlap and Wrobel. And of course, Lavin has his own deep ties to the west coast.
Indeed, Lavin's first splash on the recruiting front at St. John's came from Southern California. His first task after taking the job was to find out who were the top uncommitted high school seniors in the country. Then he had to discern who might be interested in coming to Queens. One of the first names that came up was Dwayne Polee Jr., a 6-foot-7 swingman from Los Angeles' Westchester High, the same school that produced two prior Lavin signees at UCLA, Trevor Ariza and Billy Knight. Lavin's contacts out west told him the kid was legit, so he called Polee, who had previously de-committed from USC and was considering Georgia and Oregon, and encouraged him to visit St. John's campus. Polee, who Lavin said is "the best athlete I've ever recruited," signed his Letter of Intent on May 10.
Polee is no savior; neither Rivals.com nor Scout.com ranks him among the nation's top 150 seniors. But the significance of scoring an early coup cannot be overstated for a fan base that has grown weary of seeing the nation's best schoolboys, local and non-local, head for rival schools. Those fans will be even giddier if Lavin also snags Remi Barry, a 6-7 native of France who is currently a senior at Sacramento High. Barry is also considering UCLA, Arizona State, St. Mary's, Gonzaga and Washington. He will take an official visit to St. John's in early June.
For all his West Coast ties and New York hires, Lavin is quick to point out that while he was at UCLA he recruited several international players as well, guys like Jerome Moiso and Dan Gadzuric. He said that if French native Tony Parker was going to attend a college in the U.S., it would likely have been UCLA. "Even back then, he was asking about starlets," Lavin said. Now he needs to repeat that success at St. John's, which next spring will lose nine seniors off its roster, forcing Lavin to sign 11 players in two years.
"St. John's and UCLA are very similar. Both schools have a global brand," he said. "St. John's has a school in Paris. We have a school in Rome. It's the same time to fly to Los Angeles from here as it is to those places. Every country is represented in New York City. We want to keep a share of the best players in New York, but we also want to be able to go throughout the country and overseas to develop multiple fronts in recruiting."
St. John's has been on one long rebuilding job ever since the program imploded under Mike Jarvis in the fall of 2003. Though Jarvis's successor, Norm Roberts, did well to take the program back to respectability in his six seasons, his failure to lead the Red Storm back to the NCAA tournament proved fatal. Lavin's own tenure is off to a good start, but he knows the good vibrations won't last. "This is the honeymoon," he said. "We haven't played a game in the Big East yet."
The conference isn't the only unique challenge that awaits. In February, Lavin will take his new team to his old neighborhood for a previously scheduled game against UCLA. "When I was interviewing for the job, Chris Monasch said, 'You know, we're playing UCLA next year.' " Lavin said. "I said, you gotta be kidding me."
Better fasten your seat belt, coach. The magic carpet ride is about to get real bumpy.
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