Meanwhile the Lavin home became a salon for teachers, clerics, authors and politicians, including Moscone, until he was assassinated in office in 1978. "As the baby, Steve was always around older people and was treated like an adult sooner," says Rachel Lavin Moore, who is Cap and Mary's eldest. "He was hearing discussions of things I never heard discussed."
But there were two differences between father and son. Steve suffered from dyslexia, which kept him from making companions of books the way Cap did. The other difference was Steve's aptitude for playing the game. Basketball didn't come easy to the son, who was as "short, thick-legged and slow," in Steve's words, as his father had been lean, graceful and quick. In 1984, as a 19-year-old sophomore at San Francisco, Steve told his dad he wanted to make basketball his life, but as a coach.
None of Cap's kids had followed him into a life of the mind, and here was the last of his issue, a boy with good critical faculties and a knack for absorbing and assimilating information, choosing a world that could fit on a clipboard. "I didn't oppose his choice," Cap says, "but I did tell him, 'You're still in college, keep exploring.' In the course of the conversation we both felt strong emotions. But by the time it was over, we both knew what his vocation was, and why."
"He meant to challenge me, to see if I really had the passion to bring something different to the game," Steve remembers. That summer they created a laboratory in which to find out: the Lavin Basketball Camps, which now attract 2,000 boys and girls each summer at several locations in the Bay Area. The English teacher's son also began writing letters, seeking advice. He wrote Newell and Woolpert, of course, but he also wrote active coaches whom he admired, particularly those who emphasized defense, such as Purdue's Gene Keady, Indiana's Bob Knight, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and UNLV's Jerry Tarkanian.
In 1988, when Steve was finishing college at Chapman in Orange, Calif., he got letters back. Both Knight and Keady invited him to spend his intersession break observing their programs. (Another Lavism: If you want to soar with the eagles, you've got to go where the eagles soar.) For six weeks at the height of the Big Ten season he bunked with student managers and players, eyeballing practices and helping break down film, learning all sorts of things, among them that this was absolutely what he wanted to do. "To go to Bob Knight and Gene Keady takes humility and boldness," his father says. "Most people don't have that combination."
Keady and Knight were impressed enough to let Lavin return in the summer as a volunteer counselor at their camps, and Keady hired him as a graduate assistant the following fall. Thus began nearly a decade of penury: Two years as a grad assistant at Purdue. A third year there as a volunteer assistant (he made ends meet by taking out loans and accepting free salad-bar coupons from a friend of Keady's who owned a Wendy's). In 1991 Harrick offered Lavin the same job at UCLA, where he spent three more years in poverty before moving up a notch to restricted-earnings coach, which paid $16,000 a year. Not until the 1995-96 season did he become a full-fledged assistant.
Coach Lav, the "cream-and-sugar guy" whom Harrick counted on to fetch coffee, was more than $70,000 in debt on Nov. 6, 1996, when UCLA fired his boss, primarily for falsifying an expense report and repeatedly lying when confronted about it. Lavin lucked out every which way: Harrick's top assistant, Lorenzo Romar, had taken the Pepperdine job nine months earlier, and another experienced aide, Mark Gottfried, had left before that for Murray State. So Lavin was handed the Bruins job, albeit with no guarantees other than if the school hired someone else on a permanent basis—which it seemed all but sure to do—he would be kept on as an assistant.
Just hours before learning of his new assignment, Lavin had had lunch with Newell. That evening, after the extraordinary events of the day, he took a phone call from Wooden. Don't worry about whether you'll get the job full time, the old coach told him, and set aside what just happened to your boss. "You don't want one foot in tomorrow and one foot in yesterday," Wooden said. "Keep both feet in today, and you'll get to tomorrow." Lavin owed it not just to himself, but to his team, to stay in his stance.
"I'm like a terrorist," Lavin told the players before the season began. "You don't know what to expect from me, and I've got nothing to lose." He started three lineups over the first 10 games. For being late, talking back in practice and breaking curfew, misdemeanors that went largely unpunished under Harrick, Lavin benched three starters. Six games into the season, with a mediocre 3-3 record, he began phasing out the offense that UCLA had used almost without interruption since the beginning of the Wooden era: the high-post set, a sequence of precise passes that usually led to midrange jump shots.
The attack he installed, the motion offense, would ultimately flatter a team that couldn't sink a midrange jump shot to save its life and wasn't much better at threading a pass from here to there but could move and slash to the hoop. But first came those embarrassing losses. Amazingly (for this was UCLA), they didn't seem to matter. Calls, letters and E-mail coming into the athletic department praised Lavin's body language on the bench and his efforts to discipline the team. On talk radio the kibitzers remarked on how the players were no longer talking trash and questioning calls and were suddenly sprinting to the sideline for timeouts. Fans and boosters loved the way Lavin posted his 23 "expectations" (he refused to call them rules) and sat down starters even though he had virtually no reserves. While players had given Harrick lip with impunity, so much as a peep and Lavin had everyone running 17s, the despised sprint drill that requires touching 17 sidelines in a minute.