Zach LaVine waited anxiously on the UCLA bench in the opening minutes of an exhibition game against Cal State San Bernardino.
“I tried not to seem like I had jitters or anything, but it’s human nature,” LaVine said. “My hands got a little sweaty.”
After having just a little over five basketball minutes to contemplate his first-ever game in Pauley Pavilion, the freshman guard checked in to start his career.
His acclimation to college basketball was about as gradual as walking off a cliff.
Just a minute after entering the game, LaVine was in flight, hauling in an alley-oop pass from sophomore guard Jordan Adams to slam home the Bruins’ most emphatic dunk of the game. In his second game, against Cal State San Marcos, LaVine woke a drowsy crowd of just over 4,000 when he poked away a Cougars’ pass toward the end of the first half, sprinting up the floor and throwing down a resounding right hand.
To Bothell High School basketball coach Ron Bollinger, this is nothing new. He saw LaVine’s off-the-charts athleticism when he started for Bothell as a sophomore (the school doesn’t have freshmen), just as he did when LaVine was a second-grader attending the high school’s summer camp.
“He just moved different than the other kids,” Bollinger said. “He has unbelievable balance. That’s what separates the good from the great, and that’s one thing that I think gives him great potential.”
In his spare time, a young LaVine primed himself for a career in artistry above the rim. He replicated hours of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant footage, attacking a 7-foot rim day-after-day. But it wasn’t long before he was cleared for takeoff three feet higher.
As a 5-foot-10-inch sophomore, LaVine started his high school career off with the same thunderous steal-to-dunk combo, and against one of the best teams in a talented Washington 4A basketball league.
“Everybody in the gym just went, ‘Whoa!’ Little 5-foot-10 guys aren’t supposed to dunk like that,” Bollinger said.
The dunks, complemented by a smooth three-point shot, kept coming. A wiry, 5-foot-10 frame kept growing but never lost its 47-inch vertical jump. For LaVine, who soon became a consensus four-star recruit, the offers kept coming as well. Coaches made phone calls and sent more mail than he knew what to do with. Bollinger said Washington coach Lorenzo Romar was “at almost every game.” Many tried to complicate the recruiting process, but for LaVine, it was simple. It was all about what felt right.
“People say they think about it for a long time, but I literally just woke up one day and said, ‘I should commit,” LaVine said. “I wasn’t tired of it, but it was a lot of recruitment. Getting recruited by 25 schools is a lot. Getting 15 calls in a day, it puts a pounding on you sometimes.”
LaVine liked UCLA assistant coach Scott Garson and coach Ben Howland enough to verbally commit after his junior Amateur Athletic Union season in June 2012. He was happy, having committed to a storied Pac-12 basketball program in an area close to some of his relatives in San Bernardino. By giving his word of commitment, LaVine shut the door on any potential drama surrounding his recruitment.
But in the recruiting world, more drama sometimes earns more fanfare. LaVine, just like Adams a year before him, was overlooked for a spot in the McDonald’s All-American game, something he said still gives him a little extra motivation.
“I feel like I should have been a McDonald’s All-American and ranked higher, but it’s college now,” he said. “I feel like my talents will still show and now it’s like, ‘I can show you why I should’ve been a McDonald’s All-American.’”
A potentially more serious issue – UCLA’s March firing of the head coach who recruited him – was solved in a matter of days thanks to a phone call from coach Steve Alford.
“I really didn’t know if coach Alford – because he never recruited me before – if he wanted me or not,” LaVine said. “The next day he called me and said, ‘We still want you, don’t go anywhere.’”
LaVine stayed put. Alford said the 6-foot-5-inch, 180-pound guard still needs to fill out a bit, as do most freshmen, but glowed when asked about LaVine’s game.
“(He’s) very, very fast. Very athletic. One of those quick-twitch muscle guys,” Alford said. “And as he learns and gets the experience at the collegiate level of just how to use those abilities, I think you’re going to see someone that’s really special.”
Much of the UCLA community found about LaVine’s special talent – dunking – in the form of a BallisLife All-America dunk contest video that was released on YouTube in May. In a nondescript Long Beach gym, LaVine displayed his above-the-rim prowess against some of the best Class of 2013 recruits in the nation and won the whole thing, sealing the deal with a reverse between-the-legs jam.
When the time is right, it’s a dunk he hopes to use this season.
“If I have a breakaway against Arizona – this year if I have a breakaway, I’m going between the legs,” LaVine said. “The world will definitely see a lot of top-10 dunks. Hopefully a lot of flashy, electric dunks in the open court.”
Until he gets that chance, Washington’s 2013 “Mr. Basketball” said he is just soaking in his new surroundings, where he said students have been friendly and occasionally recognize him, even though he won’t play in his first official game until tonight.
Thanks to a fan, he has even warmed up to a new nickname: “Young Hollywood.” His Twitter handle is now @YungHollywood14 and he said he hopes to give fans and opponents alike a style of play worthy of bright lights and flashbulbs.
“It just stood out to me. I’m a young kid, first year at UCLA and I’m in Hollywood. Might as well put that on there. It’s catchy,” LaVine said. “I want everyone to feel excited with how I play and how our team plays. We’re in Hollywood. We’re in the mecca of basketball.”
LaVine’s goal is to go to the NBA, but he isn’t worried about when. Kinks like shot selection and more consistent defense can be drilled and coached over the course of the season, but he has the instinctive aggressiveness and natural spring that can’t.
For now, the college basketball world is LaVine’s hoop, and he’s trying to dunk.