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Me getting back into [coaching]," Steve Lavin is saying in his manner that can be described as thinking out loud, "it energizes your basketball family, because there is now a sense of purpose, of looking out for each other, guys looking out for me like I look out for them, like looking at the box scores of my guys who are in the NBA.... " Lavin is aware of his reputation for verbosity, and—"... Not that I follow the NBA in an avid way, but I'm curious how they are doing and if I need to be there for them when they are having a tough time in their personal life. And that is the aspect that separates team sports from other sports, because there is that interdependence on each other that you carry forward, and that is where sports in its purest form is a metaphor for life...." He prefers that profiles of him contain few lengthy quotations, but— "... [Bill] Bradley has that great book Values of the Game that is very poignant and where he speaks about it so eloquently, and that is the way I was raised, that these things you learn, the traits and qualities that transcend sports, you learn them and they prepare you for the real adversity you are going to face in life."
Lavin, of course, was rambling in his inimitably unvarnished way, but it was a purposeful scramble to get to a point he makes again and again: that he is more than a basketball coach. He is a teacher, an educator like his father, Cap (an author and former teacher in Northern California), and that he is more well read and thoughtful than most coaches. That is the conclusion he wants drawn, thus the frequent references to Bradley and (especially) John Wooden and to other men he admires, as if mentioning their names will elicit similar admiration for him.
Lavin has been remarkably successful on this front. The book on him is that he cares about his players beyond their basketball abilities and that he has unhidden depths. That same book, however, leaves unanswered a pretty significant question:
Can Steve Lavin coach?
Before the start of the season Lavin, 46, made a recruiting visit to Los Angeles, where one evening he met three former UCLA players at Ado, a trattoria in Venice. Lavin arrived at the restaurant first, accompanied by former UCLA guard Rico Hines, whom Lavin had hired to be one of his assistants at his newest port of call, St. John's. Next came Todd Ramasar, an NBA agent whose clients include Baron Davis, the last of the party to arrive.
"You should sit here," Davis said to Lavin as he approached the table, pointing to the head chair. Comfortably tucked into a seat in the corner, Lavin waved him off: "No, no, you take it."
For those who followed UCLA during Lavin's stint as head coach, after he replaced Jim Harrick in 1996 on an interim basis and then held the job for seven seasons, that exchange burns with symbolism. Lavin's UCLA teams were perceived to be run by the players, "like I was just rolling the ball out like it was recess," Lavin says. Davis reinforced that view a few years ago when he reportedly walked into Pauley Pavilion, pointed to the rafters and said that there should be a banner celebrating the 1998--99 squad, "The only team to make the [NCAA] tournament without a coach." Davis insists those were not his words, and to be fair, Lavin was not an absentee coach. He suspended players for violating team rules, he benched them for a lack of effort, and he recruited well, twice nabbing the top recruiting classes in the country, including future NBA players Trevor Ariza, Matt Barnes, Dan Gadzuric, Ryan Hollins, Jason Kapono and Jerome Moiso.
In spite of that, UCLA under Lavin was viewed as a headless program. Buttressing that judgment were the inordinate number of games that, despite their talent, the Bruins lost by a large margin, and seasons saved when the players seemed to apply themselves only when the games really mattered. During the 1999--2000 season UCLA was 13--11 with six games remaining, and Lavin appeared to be finished. The Bruins reeled off six consecutive victories and then two more in the NCAA tournament. The '01--02 squad lost early to Ball State and Pepperdine and finished sixth in the Pac-10, then rallied and returned to the Sweet 16. One columnist described Lavin as starting every season seated in the electric chair only to secure a pardon come March.
UCLA fans and school administrators constantly eyed potential replacements; athletic director Peter Dalis reached out to Rick Pitino in 2001, denied they spoke, then later admitted it was true. People disapproved of Lavin's hairstyle (too slick, too much gel) and his recruiting tactics (taking a prospect on a bike ride to Manhattan Beach) and, he says, "The fact that I came from tiny Chapman [University], that I didn't have the pedigree people wanted."
The constant speculation about when or if he would be fired surely hurt the program, and it didn't help that Lavin preferred a player-friendly, open offense. Contrasted to the defensive-minded teams of Ben Howland, who replaced Lavin after UCLA finished the 2002--03 season at 10--19, it appeared as if Lavin's teams got by on talent alone. "I would say [Lavin's] teams were easily distracted," says one coach who worked in the conference at the same time as Lavin.