Never at a loss for words, under the klieg lights or in a recruit's living room, Steve Lavin—back in the big city—still must answer one very important question
This is an article from the Jan. 10, 2011 issue
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.
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.'"
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?
His answer wound far and wide, and he mentioned his father and some lesson from his past, and John Wooden, of course, and he never really got around to answering. But one interpretation, as he never actually uttered the word, but one to which Lavin would not object, is this: