The three players Lavin met for dinner spoke admiringly of their former coach. All are in their early 30s now, about the same age as Lavin when he got the UCLA job. (He was 32.) Time has instilled an appreciation for the challenge he undertook. "I can barely take care of myself right now," Davis jokes. They don't believe an experienced coach would have done better, and they cite, as Lavin often does, the impressive record he compiled at UCLA: an Elite Eight appearance in his first season and then trips to the Sweet 16 in four of the next five.
Despite those numbers, UCLA followers still view his tenure as a failure, and this irks Lavin. It is why he brings up—often without provocation—unflattering opinions so as to offer a counterpoint. "People say, 'He couldn't coach in close games,' " Lavin says. "But I was 8--0 in overtime games against Top 20 teams."
He has been so successful burnishing his image as a caring educator, it puzzles him that his tactical skills went so unappreciated. "I wonder if I had worn glasses back then, had a little more gray hair, would I have been judged differently?"
Toward the end of dinner, it was mentioned that Davis never defeated Stanford, and its then coach, Mike Montgomery, who would go on to coach Davis briefly in the NBA. Lavin jumped in and talked with amazing recall about a game in which he should have just let Davis go for 50 points and the win. But he went against his instincts, and the Bruins lost by four points.
Asked about his comments later, Lavin says, "I guess you could call that a mistake."
Some might hold a different opinion of Lavin if, after UCLA fired him, he had vanished into the coaching ether, if he had taken a job as an assistant somewhere or become head coach at a small West Coast school. Jim Saia, Lavin's former high school teammate and top assistant at UCLA, ended up at Fresno (Calif.) Pacific University, an NAIA school, and will coach Cal State—San Marcos in Division II next year.
Lavin didn't go back to the grind, however, he went on television.
He spent five months of the year traveling, watching games for ESPN and talking hoops. In the off-season he went to Europe with his wife, Mary, and he made long visits to Northern California to see his parents. He kept his place on the border of Venice and Santa Monica, and when in town could be found at a nearby yoga studio or at Ado picking at a plate of pasta and sipping Barolo.
He says he was offered the North Carolina State job in 2006 but wasn't ready. "At that point I hadn't had enough time away, and there wasn't enough distance to fully heal. I had also just begun the learning process, where I was increasing my basketball knowledge in a way you can't do when you are in the fast lane being a head coach."
He grew comfortable with the idea that his career would mirror those of coaches-turned-broadcasters like Digger Phelps, Bill Rafferty and Dick Vitale. "I started to look at it like coaching was a chapter in my life that was over and felt that there wouldn't be that moment like Brando in On the Waterfront where I am saying, 'I could have been a contender.'"