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But then St. John's called.
Lavin frequently offers snapshots of his life that are a little too perfect—he tells the story of a day several years ago when he was in New York City on a trip with Mary and said, "If the St. John's job ever opens up, that would be a no-brainer."
Destiny aside, St. John's was a good fit. The school had a high-enough profile to draw him away from television, and is located in a city he, Mary and his parents love. It also had to be a program desperate enough to gamble on someone who had been out of coaching for as many years as he had (seven). In Lou Carnesecca, the highly successful, much-beloved longtime St. John's coach who retired in 1992, the school also offered Lavin a statesman to salute and quote and associate with as he once did with Wooden.
"St. John's needed someone who can make a difference and not just in the win-loss area, but also in moving the needle. They needed a coach who could make a splash in the Big Apple," says UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero, who recommended Lavin to his counterpart at St. John's, Chris Monasch.
One knock on past St. John's coaches (Lavin is the sixth since Carnesecca retired) is that they didn't manage the demands of New York's grass-roots power brokers, which is a nice way of saying they didn't play ball with those who controlled the area's top talent. To this, Lavin says, "There are more similarities than differences between the L.A. and New York basketball landscapes." He also doesn't plan to rely solely on the locals. During the November signing period he landed six players ranked among the top 100 high schoolers in the country, and only 6'6" Maurice Harkless from Queens hailed from nearby. The others are 6'7" Jakarr Sampson from Akron, 6'3" D'Angelo Harrison from near Houston, 6'10" Norvel Pelle from Long Beach, Calif., 6'6" Amir Garrett from Los Angeles and 6'6" Sir'Dominic Pointer from Detroit. Pelle is noteworthy since he chose St. John's over Washington and never seriously considered UCLA.
Led by the senior trio of Dwight Hardy, Justin Brownlee and D.J. Kennedy, the Red Storm dropped back-to-back games against St. Bonaventure and Fordham in December but were a respectable 9--3 at week's end, after winning their first two Big East games, against West Virginia and Providence. They face a tough stretch over the next month that includes No. 5 Syracuse, No. 1 Duke and a homecoming game of sorts against UCLA on Feb. 5.
Lavin's biggest additions may have been to his coaching staff. He hired 53-year-old Mike Dunlap, the former Oregon and Arizona assistant, then a few months later he added 74-year-old Gene Keady, the legendary former Purdue coach, as an "adviser."
While at UCLA, Lavin was often told he needed to hire a tactician to assist him. "But I wouldn't replace an assistant at a time we were making Sweet 16s and landing No. 1 recruiting classes," he says. Securing the services of Dunlap and Keady can be construed as Lavin admitting a deficiency (or at least ensuring it won't get used against him again), but he chooses to focus on the symmetry of Keady, his onetime boss when he was a Purdue assistant, returning to help him. Destiny again.
"And another thing is that New York is a good fit for me now because I've been beaten up a bit," he says. "If people just saw me as coming from California with this wife who is an actress, it wouldn't work. To be accepted here I needed to take some shots like the ones I took at UCLA."
At breakfast in Marina Del Rey, Lavin was asked if it was fair if a story written about him concluded that his run at St. John's was going to answer the question, once and for all: Is Steve Lavin a good basketball coach?