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A Lav-ish Reunion

Former UCLA men’s basketball coach Steve Lavin will return to Pauley Pavilion this Saturday when the St. John’s Red Storm take on the Bruins. This is Lavin’s first coaching job since being fired.

Credit: ST. JOHN’S ATHLETIC COMMUNICATIONS

By Eli Smukler

Feb. 4, 2011 1:28 a.m.

The legend of the UCLA basketball team is a great machine.

Fueled by the perfection of John Wooden and his impossible string of championships, the machine has landed some of the game’s greatest players, attracted fans from all over the nation and achieved a spot in basketball history chiseled in diamond.

But any depiction of the machine would be incomplete without the story of Steve Lavin.

As the program’s head coach from 1996 to 2003, Lavin led the Bruins to five appearances in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 and missed just one postseason in his seven-year tenure. He also recruited and brought 10 eventual NBA players to Westwood.

Lavin was energetic on the sidelines, clever and forthcoming with the media and paid respects to Wooden and the Bruin legacy at every opportunity.

Yet, on Saturday, when Lavin returns to Pauley Pavilion as the coach of St. John’s, UCLA’s opponent, he is expected to receive a villain’s welcome.

When Lavin was fired from UCLA eight years ago, he had garnered the reputation of a coach who always underachieved despite the tremendous talent at his disposal. In the interim years, he worked as a college basketball analyst for ESPN and to this day does not shy away from discussing his dismissal.

“I understand that anything less than a Final Four or a national title at UCLA is a failure,” he said.

Most of UCLA’s current students weren’t even in high school when Lavin coached here. Of course, that includes all the members of this year’s basketball team.

“Do you guys put any weight on the fact that Steve Lavin is returning?” a reporter asked after the Bruins’ most recent victory.

“Huh?” mumbled Joshua Smith, UCLA’s 18-year-old center.

“Nothing against him,” Smith added. “I mean, I think he was here when they won their last championship.”

Indeed, Lavin was an assistant coach on the Bruins’ 1995 title team, but junior guard Malcolm Lee, still unsure, leaned over to his teammate.

“Was he?” Lee said.

“Yeah,” sophomore forward Tyler Honeycutt shot back, quickly looking to the media for confirmation. “Know your history.”

It’s safe to say Lavin’s legacy will not distract UCLA’s players on Saturday, but the same cannot be said for those in the crowd old enough to remember what he meant to the program.

The arrival

Lavin fell into the job rather than being hand-selected for it. Just a year and a half after winning UCLA’s first and only non-Wooden championship, coach Jim Harrick was fired for lying about the attendees of a recruiting dinner.

After spending five years on Harrick’s bench as an assistant, Lavin, just 32 years old at the time, was then handed the reigns to the No. 5 team in the nation.

In Lavin’s coaching debut, the Bruins, still wrought from the sudden departure of their former leader, lost to unranked Tulsa in overtime at Pauley. But by the end of the 1996-1997 season, Lavin had turned his team around, winning the final nine games heading into the NCAA Tournament and finishing in the Elite Eight.

It was the farthest Lavin would ever go as the UCLA head coach.

As the years went on, Lavin proved a great recruiter and was becoming known as a “player’s coach.” Rico Hines certainly saw it that way.

Hines was Lavin’s first UCLA recruit, eventually serving as the team’s captain in the last three of his five collegiate years.

“I like how he communicated with us,” said Hines, recalling his days as a player. “He was always fair.”

After a stint playing and later coaching in the NBA, Hines returned to the college ranks this year to be an assistant for Lavin at St. John’s.

“He always told me, when I was playing for him, that one day we’d be coaching together,” Hines said.

In 1998, Lavin signed the first of two top-ranked recruiting classes for UCLA, which included six-foot-10-inch current NBA player Dan Gadzuric as the centerpiece of the year’s freshman class.

However, despite having a roster chock-full of future stars like Baron Davis, Matt Barnes and Earl Watson, Lavin’s team lost in the first round of the 1999 NCAA Tournament to the University of Detroit Mercy.

That loss was the foundation for the underperforming moniker that Lavin still carries to this day with many Bruin fans.

The departure

At the start of the 2002-2003 season, UCLA was coming off three-straight Sweet 16s and was ranked No. 14 in the nation, but the Bruins’ monumental collapse that year was Lavin’s undoing.

The team lost both its exhibition matchups at Pauley Pavilion, usually considered easy wins. From there it only got worse. UCLA lost to San Diego and Northern Arizona at home: embarrassments. Then, the Bruins lost 10 straight Pac-10 games: unacceptable.

The UCLA faithful, who had experienced only winning seasons since 1948, were not having it. Students started a website called LoseLavin.com. Boos were a common part of the Pauley soundtrack.

One of the season’s most bizarre moments came in February of that year. In a weekly press conference, a Daily Bruin reporter asked Lavin who he thought would be a good fit to replace him. Of all the coaches in the country, Lavin might be the only one who had no problem listing off several worthy candidates.

That he responded to such a question made national headlines, but it was the epitome of Lavin’s personality.

“With Lav, he’s such a good-natured guy,” Hines said. “He’s such a positive dude. He’ll find the positive in it no matter what.”

One of the men Lavin had suggested during that press conference was Ben Howland.

The return

The coveted J.D. Morgan Center office of the UCLA men’s basketball coach is large and luxurious, but also a bit warm.

Upon entering, Ben Howland apologizes for the heat, but considering that the rest of the country is wrapped in a smothering blanket of snow and ice at the moment, the few extra degrees in his Los Angeles office doesn’t seem that bad.

“I felt very fortunate to get the coaching job,” said Howland, reflecting on the day in 2003 when he got the call.

As a Southern Californian and a basketball junkie, Howland found himself living a dream come true. At the time, the former Pittsburgh coach was one of the rising stars in the coaching profession.

Often credited with resurrecting the program at Pitt, Howland led the Panthers to two Sweet 16s, the program’s first Big East Tournament championship and won multiple National Coach of the Year awards.

His patent was making his players go through a hard-nosed defensive curriculum. Many saw his coaching style as the opposite of Lavin’s, who once scouted high schoolers while working out on an exercise bike.

After the disappointment of the Lavin era, Howland was treated as a savior for returning the program to both national prominence and Pac-10 dominance.

Eight years into his tenure, Howland faces an uphill climb. Despite three straight Final Four appearances, the UCLA coach is trying to avoid becoming the first since Wooden to miss the NCAA Tournament two years in a row.

With roles reversed, it’s now Lavin’s turn to be the rising star. His St. John’s team shocked No. 3 Duke at Madison Square Garden just last week. Going through a Big East schedule nearly unprecedented in its difficulty, Lavin and his staff have had little time to imagine what Saturday’s reception will be like. Rico Hines recalled some of the contentious returns he’s seen in the NBA.

“As far as the reception, I have no idea,” Hines said. “You’ll never know what the fans will do. The bottom line is you just play a basketball game and try to get a win and move forward.”

Lavin joked that he had high expectations for the UCLA student section.

“We’re talking about a high SAT group, so something witty or clever for whatever signage they bring,” he said. “So, (something) spirited and obviously supporting the home team.”

Lavin has already had an impact on UCLA’s legacy. Saturday’s reunion will give him one more chance.

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