"I look back at the Minnesota game, and I know the problem," Lavin says, referring to the regional final in which the Bruins' season came to an end. "We never got down 16." UCLA had nonetheless finished 24—8, won a Pac-10 title and gone from the bottom of the Grand Canyon to within 10 minutes of the Final Four, an improbable perch given the team's 3-3 start.
"Lavisms," some of the Bruins players call these recurrent catchphrases. They're not usually the Yeats couplets and Hemingway excerpts and Aristotelian precepts in which Cap traffics. But they result in the edification of the class just the same. UCLA sports information director Marc Dellins, who has heard them all, just shakes his head and says, "It was Homily City here last season." Before Lavin, six other coaches had tried to succeed the Wizard of Westwood at UCLA, the University Constantly Looking Around. Several were disasters; none was an unqualified success. If catchphrases were what it took to finally move UCLA basketball out from the shadow of a guy who was just an English teacher, Lavin was happy to be the Wizard of Homily City.
Wooden has a thing for homilies himself, and he particularly likes this one from Cervantes: The journey is better than the end. Says Lavin, "My dad has always urged me to be process-oriented. It's the teacher in him—to be concerned with not just the ends but the means. That it's O.K. to fail. I learned more by failing last season than I had in nine years of observing as an assistant coach."
Ever since college the father's great passion has been for the teachings of Aristotle: the imperative of balance, the golden mean. The son's credo is the greeting he put on his answering machine when he was still an assistant driving a rattletrap Toyota and up to his coccyx in debt: "Stay in your stance!"
Funny that father and son thought they'd chosen different fields. Turns out they wound up devoting their lives to the same thing.
The San Francisco that raised Albert (Cap) Lavin was a Herb Caen column sprung to life, a big city with a small town's soul, where a kid could grow up quickly but safely. So long as the day had light, there would be a pickup game at Rochambeau Playground, just steps from the house in the Richmond district where Cap lived with his mom, who was separated from his father. Come nightfall he might slip into a North Beach jazz club, curious to know where each solo flight from a Diz or a Monk or a Bird might come to rest. He and his buddies acted as if they ran the town, an attitude that in the case of one of them, future mayor George Moscone, would turn out to be justified. Throughout they partook of the spirit of what Cap calls "a place that makes you feel like who you are."
At St. Ignatius, the gemstone of the city's parochial high schools, Cap made his name as a basketball player, a guard cited as "player of the decade" for the '40s when he was inducted into the San Francisco Prep Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992. The papers called him Capricious Cappy for the way he would whip a pass through his legs to the teammate who least expected it. But at St. Ignatius he also immersed himself in books, and this lanky kid with the rapscallion streak was drawn to the rigor of the priests' approach to life and learning. There was something challenging about the Jesuit way—"something," Cap says, "to go up against." He had been raised in a Unitarian home, but as a sophomore at San Francisco, a Jesuit university, he became a Catholic.
He was named captain of the Dons as a senior, but a herniated disk forced him to sit out that '51—52 season and ultimately to spurn an approach from the NBAs Minneapolis Lakers. "It was hard to coach somebody who was more intelligent than you were," Newell once said of Cap. The young man might have gone on to do graduate work in philosophy, but he and his new bride, Mary, had a kid on the way. In 1954 Cap took a job teaching English at San Francisco's Riordan High, coaching the school's basketball team on the side. Four years later, with three kids now, the Lavins moved to Marin County. Cap, teaching at Drake High, gave up the bench in 1959 to become head of the English department.
There was a vastness to the world that he wanted to honor, not only at this school named after an explorer but also in the house where he and Mary were raising what would soon be two girls and four boys. Cap's biggest fear was that his kids would become what he called "cherries," just more overripe produce from Marin County, which by the 70s would acquire a not-undeserved reputation as the epicenter of narcissism. "He thought the suburbs were like Disneyland," says his son. "No garbage in the streets. Nothing but peacock feathers and hot tubs."
So Cap did everything he could to expose his kids to the same range of culture he had experienced when he was young. If Steve and his five older siblings wanted to watch The Partridge Family, the TV would get tuned to Alistair Cooke. Even before Steve could read subtitles, he was being dragged across the bridge to the cinematheques for films by Cocteau. Cap would dump the kids at Rochambeau, now a mosaic of ethnicity, for the afternoon; or take them to the Legion of Honor to ponder Rodin's The Thinker, or drag them to the Sunset district for what Cap calls "Hopper time, to see the shadows come."