The letter is written in a disciplined English teacher's hand.
The man about to retire and vacate room 417 at Sir Francis Drake
High in San Anselmo, Calif., sent it to his son last April as "a
way of handing over a heart made glad." Here is what it's like
to be in the autumn of one's life and encounter a spring like no
I have an acute sense of things coming into life--green shoots,
buds, flowers I've planted, the birth process again, the rites
of spring and so on. And of course it's bittersweet because,
much as I love springtime, how many more springs will I be here
to welcome so April-hearted? It's always bittersweet, the old
turning world, 'spring forward,' ...the clouds, April showers
and breezes of this wild vernal equinox and all. Just more
bittersweet now and a bit less full of wild, exultant hope. But
lovely beyond words, it is, still.
Odd season, spring. To those immersed in basketball, spring
usually marks an end, not a beginning. But for Cap Lavin, and
for his son, Steve--erstwhile coffee gofer, Forrest Mitty,
Walter Gump and, thanks to the way his 1996-97 Bruins went
(Steve's words here) "from the bottom of the Grand Canyon to
within 10 minutes of the Final Four," the latest resolution to
the persistent coaching melodramatics at UCLA--last spring
marked a beginning and an end.
Transitions are like that. Cap had put in 43 years, most of them
teaching Advanced Placement English with such dedication that
his retirement occasioned huge stories in both San Francisco
dailies. Steve always wanted to be a basketball coach. The son
nonetheless admired the integrity of the life his father had
chosen--how through literature and philosophy Cap caught
glimpses of things most people never paused to imagine. The two
might be walking down the street and come across a young woman
in Birkenstocks and a batik skirt and a macrame tote bag that
all but screamed Virginia Woolf paperback inside, and Steve
would throw Cap an affectionate elbow and say, "Dad, look! A.P.
November 17, 1997
For his part, Cap knew well Steve's devotion to "this crazy,
graceful and rugged game," as the elder Lavin calls it, the game
at which the father had starred and the son had done anything
but. Even though Cap played for two Hall of Fame coaches, Pete
Newell and Phil Woolpert, at the University of San Francisco in
the late '40s and early '50s, he feared that a life in coaching
would box his son in. "I thought the profession could be rote
and boring," says Cap. Yet last March, when the NCAA tournament
rolled around, there was Cap at UCLA's pregame warmups, a
67-year-old retiree-to-be bounding past the security guards at
The Palace of Auburn Hills before the Bruins' first-round game
against Charleston Southern, the teacher in him not to be
suppressed. "Dad in his Florsheims," Steve says, recalling the
sight, "feeding Jelani McCoy in the post and fiddling with Toby
Once, mentioning Cap to a certain previous occupant of the job
Steve now holds, the son had made the mistake of referring to
his father as "just an English teacher." Many years ago, at
South Bend Central High, John Wooden, too, had been "just an
English teacher." The legendary Bruins coach has forgiven Steve
the remark but never forgotten it. "Coach Wooden has been brutal
ever since," Steve says. "The phone will ring and he'll say,
'It's just the English teacher calling.'"
The English-teacher influence is nonetheless clear. You can hear
it in the many catchphrases that spill out of the younger
The Yankees of college basketball
Those Nyquil nights where you stare wide-eyed at the ceiling
God writes straight with crooked lines
Nothing wrong with falling down as long as you get up
In the same boat, rowing to shore and praying to God
From the bottom of the Grand Canyon to within 10 minutes of the
Two weeks before last season began, UCLA fired Jim Harrick, the
coach who a year and a half earlier had guided the school to its
first national championship since Wooden's retirement in 1975.
Suddenly Lavin, then 32, found himself in charge of the Yankees
of college basketball. Only the Bruins played like the '62 Mets.
Down 28 with a minute left in the first half against Kansas on
Dec. 7, UCLA was booed off its own floor. There would be plenty
more of those Nyquil nights where you stare wide-eyed at the
ceiling, particularly after a 48-point loss at Stanford five
weeks later, a game in which Lavin says the Cardinal "sliced us
up like a side of fries."
But God writes straight with crooked lines (a Portuguese proverb
and Graham Greene epigraph, on loan from Cap). In telephone
calls, Wooden and Newell provided Lavin with guidance. There's
nothing wrong with falling down as long as you get up, and
didn't the Bruins scramble to their feet at Cal a couple of days
after the Stanford debacle, winning by eight? Didn't they hoist
themselves up again by coming back from 16 down to beat Oregon,
then doing the same to win at Washington? When UCLA found itself
losing to Iowa State in the semifinals of the NCAA Midwest
Regional, Lavin told the team, "We're not down 16 yet--once
we're down 16 we'll be O.K.," and sure enough, next TV timeout,
they were down 16. "Look, we're fine," Steve told the Bruins.
Just stay in the same boat, rowing to shore and praying to God.
And of course they came back to win that game, too.
"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
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
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
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 NBA's 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
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."
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
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
"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.
Despite slicked-back hair that made him look literally wet
behind the ears, Lavin seemed to be a turnbuckle between the
generations--"a young old-timer," as Krzyzewski has called him.
Harrick had delivered the very thing that was supposed to sate
these people, an NCAA title, and had gone unloved; here was
Lavin, sitting down his best players, and the boosters and
alumni only wanted to give that boy the job permanently. He had
stayed in his stance and done right by the old school.
"If I'm trying to help you achieve a certain level as an athlete
and a person, I have to hold you accountable," Lavin says. "If I
don't, I shouldn't be coaching at UCLA. After some time the
players realized I wasn't just concerned with winning the game.
I wasn't just concerned with the end."
As brave as that sounds, each loss in late January and early
February tested Lavin's faith that he would be kept on. But his
girlfriend, Treena Camacho, worked in the athletic department,
and she answered the phone and saw the mail. She sensed that
director of athletics Peter Dalis could see that the train was
leaving the station, and he wanted to book a seat. "Anytime
Steve wants to sit all his starters down, for the right reason,
and we lose a basketball game, it's all right with me," Dalis
said on Feb. 11, when he announced that Lavin would be UCLA's
Of course it was important where the journey ended--that the
Bruins won. But in Westwood, suddenly, attention was being paid
to the trip itself. Lavin would drag the team on outings to
homeless shelters and children's hospitals. He would keep a bowl
in his office stocked with candy bars, to lure his guys into
stopping by during the day. There was a place for laughter, too,
even at Stanford. Watching the Cardinal pick off pass after lazy
pass during its Jan. 9 rout of the Bruins, Cap had risen from
his seat behind the UCLA bench, unable to abide the spectacle
any longer. "C'mon, guys!" he screamed. "You've gotta crow-hop
to meet those passes!"
Hearing him, Steve nearly broke up, less at the old-time hoops
lingo than at Cap actually thinking he had a solution for what
was unfolding before them. "Dad," he said, wheeling around,
"we've got to do a lot of things. I mean, what are we down, 60?"
On Feb. 8, in their last game before Lavin got the job for good,
the Bruins put a 19-point hurt on the french fry chefs from Palo
Alto in a rematch at Pauley Pavilion, and they didn't lose again
until the NCAA regional final, a streak of 12 wins. Losing by 48
to Stanford had been O.K. because--all hail process!--there's
nothing wrong with falling down as long as you get up. The
equivalent Capism is from A Farewell to Arms: "All of us are
broken by life, but those who survive are strongest at the
Sure isn't "rote and boring," this college basketball coaching
business. During the off-season, through no apparent fault of
the school, UCLA lost a top recruit, Schea Cotton, when the NCAA
disallowed his standardized test score, ruling that he had been
improperly granted an accommodation for a learning disability.
Then two projected starters, McCoy and Kris Johnson, were
suspended indefinitely for breaking team rules. According to
published reports, both players tested positive for marijuana.
Finally Lavin himself seemed to get up out of his stance. Even
though Dalis had publicly given him the job back in February,
Lavin had never signed a contract. To the four-year,
$400,000-per-annum package that Dalis had tendered, Lavin wanted
to add a year and more money. In July, Lavin asked a friend to
look over the contract. The friend happened to be a member of
the most reviled species in college sports, an agent: Arn
Tellem, whose clients include Albert Belle of the Chicago White
Sox and Isaiah Rider of the Portland Trail Blazers.
In Lavin's mind his demands weren't unreasonable. "Six different
coaches in 21 years isn't a record of stability," he says.
Having recruited well, and riding a wave of postseason good
feeling, he succeeded in signing a new contract for at least
$2.3 million over five years. But according to the Long Beach
Press-Telegram, irritation with Lavin in UCLA's corridors of
power was "the worst-kept secret of the fall." Dalis, a
remorseless institutional politician and old-school AD, was said
to be seething.
Dalis denies this. He says it was his idea that Lavin hire a
lawyer, to make sure he understood the school's contract. Lavin
disputes any notion that "I've changed and I've hired this
superagent and I want to create this Pitino-Calipari persona and
there's some big rift in the athletic department."
But more than a decade had passed since Lavin received the
following advice from one of the elders whose counsel he has
sought. "Money has corrupted the coaching profession," Newell
wrote to him back in 1986. "Coaches today, with their salaries,
shoe contracts, summer camps, radio and TV shows, are in the
$200,000-a-year bracket--some well above that figure. What this
simply means is that the coach acquaints himself and his family
to a lifestyle that says 'win or else,' so he does what he has
to do to win.... Being able to live comfortably with yourself
and know you have helped other people is more important than
fame or money."
This fall, freshly turned 33, Lavin spent a Nyquil night
worrying about the prospect of another season begun in crisis.
So he clicked on the TV and happened upon a documentary on Harry
Truman. "He was a complete failure until age 33," Steve says.
"But his entire presidency was crisis management. Real crisis
management. When all that's happened is you've lost three of
your top six players, you realize everything's relative."
Looking on from retirement, Cap scarcely recognizes himself in
the way his son relates to the game. "There's a naive and
beautiful way he loves sports, while I can get ironic and
sarcastic," he says. Nor does he see in Steve much of Newell or
Woolpert, who quit coaching at ages 44 and 54, respectively.
"They argued all the time, chewing their towels. I think Steve
has more fun."
Often Cap thinks back to his conversation with Steve 13 years
ago, the one that was equal parts challenge and discussion, as
the best learning situations so often are. "He was absolutely
right," Cap says of that day when the son persuaded the father
that a teacher of anything, and certainly one of this crazy,
graceful and rugged game, needn't be constrained by limits.
"Steve took to heart that coaching is teaching, only instead of
a blackboard you have a backboard. He found his own way to all
sorts of things that are universal in the game and as rich as
literature and philosophy."
Last April, not long before undergoing a successful heart
bypass, Cap wrote Steve these words:
You chose a career in the game I have been deeply in love with
since 1939, nearly 60 years of experience.... If you decide you
want to stay with it a good long while, say 'til 2039...that's
a hundred years between us.... Like me, you're built to go a
Two long arcs, one in descent, the other just ascending. Only
there's a trick to these long arcs. Gotta stay in your stance,
Steve. Stay in your stance!