Thirty-two years old, $70,000 in debt and with uncertain job prospects, UCLA assistant coach Steve Lavin figured he'd be on the spot this season. What he didn't expect, after three years of toiling in outrageously expensive Westwood as a $16,000-a-year part-timer and two more years as a full-time assistant, was that he'd be feeling pressure for an entirely different reason. After UCLA fired coach Jim Harrick on Nov. 6 for lying about his expense account to cover up a recruiting violation, Lavin was named to coach the Bruins on an interim basis. Suddenly he's responsible for coaxing results out of one of the nation's most promising collections of talent.
The Bruins bring back their top six players from a team that lost to Princeton in the first round of last spring's NCAA tournament. That ignominious exit notwithstanding, it's easy to spot the potential in this group: Seniors Cameron Dollar, recovered from debilitating injuries to both pinkies, and Charles O'Bannon, who has packed an extra 15 pounds of muscle onto his frame, are the Bruins' anchors at the point-guard and scoring-forward positions, respectively. As a freshman last season, center Jelani McCoy sank two shots for every one he missed, and 3.3 times a game he swatted away the efforts of his opponents. Junior off-guard Toby Bailey bottomed out nearly 40% of his three-pointers despite having to help Dollar with point-guard duties. That either forward J.R. Henderson or swingman Kris Johnson will have to come off the bench says much about a squad so lavishly gifted that any one of six Bruins could lead the team in scoring on a given night. "We can't hide the fact that we're talented," Lavin says. "Eight guys on this team have Pac-10 championship rings, and five of them have national championship rings."
After he brought Lavin aboard in 1991, Harrick joked that he had hired "a cream-and-sugar guy"—someone to make sure the boss's coffee was just so. In fact, UCLA's new mentor is someone who has been steeped in the game since age five, when his father, Cap, who played at San Francisco for Pete Newell, gave him a Wilson Jet basketball.
In his 20s Lavin built a chain of basketball camps on the West Coast, and his exaltation of defense reflects the three seasons he spent apprenticing under Purdue's Gene Keady. "Stay in your stance!" is how the greeting on his answering machine ends—an invocation of a back-to-basics approach, heavy on conditioning, that he'll be implementing in Westwood. "That's what this team needs," says Dollar. " Coach Harrick was really laid-back. He gave you a lot of room to do your own thing and maneuver."
Last season's underachievement raises all sorts of questions about this year's team. The Bruins were formidable when they could hang onto the ball long enough to get off a shot; they ranked first in the nation in field goal percentage. But they were too often heedless with the rock, committing more turnovers than any other Pac-10 team. And there is the matter of attitude. McCoy can bring da funk, but last season he often went into one, too. Bailey and Henderson, underclassmen who may test the NBA waters this spring, could be stylin' for the pro scouts. And O'Bannon, benched twice last season, once for taunting an opponent and later for breaking team rules, won't elicit any flattering comparisons to his brother, Ed, whose leadership played such a critical role in UCLA's 1995 NCAA title, unless Charles does a little tinkering with his 'tude.
Given the uncertainties surrounding the team's emotional state, one player to watch is senior Bob Myers, a 6'6" reserve forward. A former walk-on, he gradually increased his playing time over three seasons, and he may be the ideal player to complement the more ballyhooed Bruins. An injury to his lower back flared up over the summer, but Myers chose not to take a redshirt year and vows to play through the pain. He's also an economics major with a team-high 3.44 grade point average—perhaps just the guy to counsel Lavin on how to retire his debt.
UCLA's change at the top could even turn out to be a positive, despite its coming only 14 days before UCLA's opener against Tulsa last week, a 77-76 Bruins loss. "I'd be surprised if a veteran team like UCLA doesn't say it wants to win for Coach Harrick," says Arizona coach Lute Olson. "I think it'll be a rallying cry." And there is some precedent for an assistant coach's coming in at the last minute and winning it all; Michigan won a national title in '89 under Steve Fisher, who took over when Bill Frieder was fired only one day before the start of the NCAA tournament.
Stanford coach Mike Montgomery, with one eye on the Bruins' roster and the other on the conference race, makes UCLA the favorite in the Pac-10. He says, "They're a dead-pipe cinch." The man said dead-pipe, not lead-pipe. But then UCLA has the kind of talent that gets rivals thinking of their own mortality.