Shortcomings of Lavin come as a coach, not person

Shortcomings of Lavin come as a coach, not person

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It was Nov. 8, 2000 and Steve Lavin was in New York, one day before his Bruins would open the season in a two-day tournament that featured Kansas and Kentucky.

It also was the longest day of my life. You see, my wife of 17 years, Teresa, passed away that morning after a 2 1/2 -year battle with cancer.

So the start of Steve Lavin’s fifth season as UCLA’s basketball coach was the last thing on my mind when I came home that evening and noticed the answering machine blinking. I hit the button as I took off my jacket and was surprised to hear a familiar voice.

I remember the message going something like:

“Jim, it’s Steve Lavin. Just wanted to say how sorry I am. I didn’t know Teresa, but from what you say about her, I’m sure she was a wonderful person. I wish I’d gotten a chance to meet her. Just wanted you to know the Bruin family is thinking of you. Our prayers are with you.”

That is the Steve Lavin I’ll remember long after he is fired, presumably today, by Athletic Director Dan Guerrero. Lavin is a good man, a caring person with great passion for people and life, who has been the epitome of class during his seven years as UCLA’s head coach.

Lavin undoubtedly had a lot on his mind and plenty of NIT obligations to fulfill as he prepared the Bruins to face the then- No. 7 Jayhawks. And he surely didn’t need me to further his career.

He didn’t have to make that call. He did it because he is a compassionate, respectful person who was concerned about a friend who just happened to be one of the reporters who regularly covers UCLA basketball.

There were many other times over the years when Lavin went out of his way to share the good and bad times with me and countless others.

Incredibly, from my standpoint, some of our best conversations came at the team hotel after some of his toughest road losses.

Win or lose, he was a fun guy to have a beer with, someone who was obsessed with life but not with basketball. He listened to everyone and never let his troubles or an exalted sense of self remove him from the masses.

Lavin never hid during the tough times, never gloated during the best times. He wouldn’t point fingers when the losses piled up, but he tossed around the credit freely when big wins took the Bruins to the Sweet 16.

He didn’t always have the answers, but he would always answer a question. He had the slickest hair in town, but he was never Mr. Slick.

He was victimized by the irrational need of UCLA alumni and the athletic department to win BIG. He was victimized by a media circus that turned every losing streak into a potential job crisis.

And yet, Lavin never played the role of victim. He seemed on the verge of losing his job a half-dozen times, but he never lost his cool.

And then, when the Bruins came up short this season and it became clear there was no way Lavin would be retained, he rose above it all. Rather than lash out at those who refused to cut him any slack, he accepted that the price of failure was the loss of his job.

There was no hint of bitterness. Lavin expressed his gratitude countless times just to have had a chance to be part of the great UCLA legacy.

It was extraordinary, really. Although I didn’t totally agree with the way Lavin seemed to embrace the finality of this season, there’s no denying he handled the decline and fall of his UCLA career with astonishing grace.

And, make no mistake, it is time for UCLA to end the Lavin era.

In seven years, the Bruins made it to the Sweet 16 five times (once advancing to the Elite Eight). But they also finished sixth in the Pac-10 each of the last two years after finishing third three times and fourth once the previous four years.

A disturbing pattern emerged during the Lavin era. In every single season, the Bruins stumbled through November and December before they would find themselves, either in January, February or sometimes as late as March, and begin to play decent basketball.

It was as if the Bruins couldn’t figure out how to play the game until the games themselves reinforced the lessons that weren’t being learned in practice. Lavin deserved credit for always persevering and eventually getting the Bruins to play well, but it was usually a wild ride getting to March Madness.

In retrospect, it seems clear that Lavin got the job before he was ready. Made the interim coach at age 32 when Jim Harrick was fired suddenly, Lavin was named permanent head coach later that season.

It seemed a good choice at the time. Lavin’s intuitive feel for the game and his charisma/leadership qualities were obvious as the Bruins won a Pac-10 title and came within one game of reaching the Final Four.

The ensuing years have proved that Lavin indeed does have greatness in him. His Bruins could beat anyone on a given day. Even in his worst season, Lavin inspired the Bruins to put together a late- season run and beat No. 1 Arizona Thursday at Staples Center.

They’ve also proven, however, that Lavin still has something to learn. Maybe he just needs that strong older assistant he never hired. Or maybe he needs more time at a lower-profile university to learn the basic lessons the Lute Olsons and Mike Montgomerys of the world mastered long ago.

I really don’t know.

What I do know is that Lavin has many of the qualities you look for in a great coach, even if the package isn’t yet complete. What I do know is that Lavin the man proved he was a winner just to survive seven of the most turbulent years any college basketball coach has ever endured.

What I do know is that it’s a shame such a good man had to take so much abuse over something so silly as basketball. He may or may not know it, but he’s lucky it’s over.

Copyright Copley Press Inc. 2003

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.