In Memoriam: L A V

<b>EDITORIAL</b>: Our resident crank, <b>Charles Chiccoa</b>, eulogizes the departed Steve Lavin, providing us his unique take on the Lavin era...

It rained here the day after Lav's last game, but I'll forego the cheap metaphors about fresh mornings and washing away the Lavin era.  As it was with Big Bob, its enough to say that hope lives, that this low-rent circus has finally left town.  Best of all, it's goodbye to that should-I-root-or-should-I-not pathology.  Hey, the Bob and Lav Show made us all a little crazy.

 

Why lie?  The truth is I feel nothing for Steve Lavin.  I couldn't care less "how he went out."  Like the rest of you, I'd seen enough, heard enough, had enough.  Is he a good guy, as the mainstream media (and Earl Watson) keeps assuring us?  Who knows?  I have my doubts.  All this maudlin tripe regarding his last days at UCLA (inspired, of course, by the boy himself) belongs on Oprah.  Athletic Director Dan Guerrero described his breakfast at Junior's Deli on the westside with Steve as almost "surreal," which is to say Lav naturally empathized with his boss as he accepted his own pink slip (I wouldn‘t be surprised if he picked up the check, too). 

 

Lav has always been touchy-feely in the extreme; He can shed tears at the drop of a leaf.  Put him in a Rick Majerus sweater and he could pass for Stuart Smalley with a power haircut.  Nabokov relished this sort of American vulgarity and would've called  Lav's act poshlost or kitsch.  Let's just call it cornball.  Lav and his boyhood buddies, Jim Saia and the departed Steve Spencer, were always too lightweight to support anything remotely tragic... or even sad.  We're talking slapstick here - Soupy Sales meets Abbott and Costello.  Lav was UCLA's first adolescent head coach (come on, you guys, let's put on a show!)  The only victims in this anti-hoop dream were Bruin fans.  And the dirty little secret is... we asked for it.  And got it, Good and hard.  Or have you forgotten Lav's first season: 

 

The entire starting lineup returned from Harrick's last team, which had gone out in the Princeton debacle: Charles O'Bannon, J.R. Henderson, Jelani McCoy, Cameron Dollar and Toby Bailey, with Kris Johnson coming off the bench.  Hot on the heels of Harrick's firing came the opening intra-squad game.  This particular evening was something completely different: Middle-aged men standing and howling obscenities at Pete Dalis for getting rid of Harrick, scuttling the program, blowing a great recruiting class... over a "lie" (though there were rumors, of course, we didn't have the kind of documentation about Jim and his kid, "Headache," that's gradually leaking out of Rhode Island and Georgia).  That crowd was as angry as any sports crowd I've ever seen, and anyone who had doubts that Bruin basketball was something special was disabused of them that night.  There was almost a feeling of dislocation, as if we were entering some kind of  Pauley Twilight Zone.  I remember my heart sank as I watched player after player come off the floor that night after some mental or physical lapse, and there was Lav to greet him, like some valet in the men's room: clap, clap, clap, clap, "Good job, good job."  Uh-oh, one more weak-water "player's coach" drowning his team in a sea of positive reinforcement.  No sand, no substance, no toughness.  It was the first in a series of terrifying early season comedies we would soon become accustomed to.                      

 

After a homecourt overtime loss to Tulsa in the opener, we were then treated to a blowout loss against Kansas, a blowout loss at Illinois, then the "Maples Massacre" on January 9.  From a pre-season #5 to the wilderness in only seven weeks.  At least the Stanford game would punch Lav's "interim" ticket, right?.  Then, of course, the characteristic Lav resurrection, in this case a bounce-back win at Cal two days after the "massacre," then a 14-3 run up to the tournament, featuring an overtime win at Arizona, a home victory over the #6 "Dukies," two wins over SC (one a blowout), and a couple of hair-breath escapes at Seattle and Pullman to ensure a conference championship.  After the Bruins payback, 87-68 win over Stanford, the interim tag had been removed and Lav officially moved in.  There were no demonstrations on Janss Steps.  From #5 to the depths, then, whiplash!, back up to  #7.  The Lav roller-coaster breezed into the Sweet Sixteen, came back from a 12-point halftime deficit to nose out Iowa St. in overtime, then finally faded in the second half to Minnesota and Bobby Jackson, just missing the Final Four.  But Jelani's bruised sternum provided a legitimate excuse, and Bruin fans were solidly behind young Steve, particularly after that memorable tear-drenched press conference on national TV.  He was still quite sincere, not having yet developed into the smooth manipulator he was to become.  The media loved him, WE LOVED HIM, and our only worry was that Lav hadn't yet signed on the dotted line, as his agent (this boy has an agent!) was going over the contract with a sharp professional eye.  He finally signed and we all exhaled.  I was delighted and so, probably, were most of you.  He seemed like a breath of fresh air after that shifty, inarticulate hick.  Hey, Lav could identify with "the kids;" he wore his emotions on his sleeve; he would be a recruiting machine.  You know the rest and its much too depressing to review.

 

***

 

"STEVE LAVIN AND "COACH K" ARE THE ONLY TWO COACHES TO MAKE THE SWEET 16 IN FIVE OF THE LAST 6 YEARS." 

 

I always want to "reach for my revolver" when I hear this one (Relax, this is rhetoric; I don't own a hand gun, and I'm no fan of Hermann Goring.)  Like so many other reflexive cliches regarding Bruin basketball, this one always marks the source as a tourist, a know-nothing (Jay Bilas, Dickie V, Steve Physioc, and those guys... Call them the out-to-lunchers).  Beside the fact that Coach K has regularly made it a lot further than the Sweet Sixteen, he also doesn't make a habit of getting blown out in the Sweet Sixteen, or blown out in regular season games, or piling up double figure losses during the season, or finishing up the field in his conference, and therefore coming into "the Big Dance" as a decidedly ugly mutt (and lower seed) with little chance of making it to the regional final, let alone the Final Four.  And of course Coach K is bound for the Hall of Fame with a bullet.  Lav is bound for... network TV.  And while we're on the subject of hollow cliches, let's have a go at a few more.   

 

"HE'S WON MORE GAMES IN HIS FIRST FIVE YEARS THAN JOHN WOODEN." 

 

Well, Wooden played less games (and lost less, too) than either Lav or Harrick, but then when Wooden came west in ‘48, UCLA was nothing but a pimple on the backside of the Pacific Coast Conference, which itself was a pimple on the NCAA.  Before Wooden, UCLA was the equivalent of UCI (but without a decent home court), and every coach who has followed him in Westwood has reaped the prestige and recruiting advantage that he handed them.    

 

"IT TOOK WOODEN 15 YEARS TO WIN A NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP." 

 

Yeah, but then he won NINE MORE!!! in short order.  Also, see pimple metaphor above... and the fact that he had to fight the formidable likes of Pete Newell just to win the conference championship and get into the tournament, then climb over the even more formidable Phil Woolpert, Bill Russell and K.C. Jones just to get out of the regionals.    

 

"THE UCLA JOB IS THE TOUGHEST JOB IN COACHING." 

 

Yeah, maybe in the days of Gene Bartow and Gary Cunningham.  This, of course, is the self-serving line that Lav so lovingly cultivated over the years: The spoiled Bruin fan syndrome.  His rote, obviously memorized, routine on Bruin psycho-fan was so exactly unvarying you could recite this rap simultaneously alongside his word perfect performance.  Too bad Larry Brown put the lie to this one, early on, when he resurrected the program only five seasons after the Wizard's retirement.  Bruin fans loved Larry, and for good reason.  He may have lost as many games in two years as Bartow and Cunningham lost in their previous four years combined, and he may not have won a conference championship, whereas Bartow and Cunningham never lost one, but Bruin fans could see with their own eyes that the quality of play was easily superior to the previous four years.  Brown was easily a jump in class over Bartow and Cunnningham. Bruin fans knew it and acknowledged it.  If only he'd been a bit more stable. 

 

Farmer, Hazzard, Harrick and Lav all lucked into the job for one reason or another and all of them proved to be disastrous hires based on nothing more than unreasonable hope.  (The last banner seems to have won Harrick some support, but then a playmaker like Tyus Edney and a competitor like Ed O'Bannon can disguise a multitude of coaching deficiencies).  Unless his tireless jibber-jabber cons some credulous AD into turning over his program to Lav, expect to be hearing that froggy, machine-gun voice on some network or other for the foreseeable future.  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the new and improved  Dickie V.  "Plunk your magic twanger" Stevie (I'm dating myself here, so for the benefit of LPL, Ranier Wolfcastle and other younger BROs, the mysterious "twanger" belonged  to the gravel voiced "Froggy the Gremlin" on the Buster Brown kid's show of the Fifties.  Could ol' Cap have been moonlighting at the time?)

 

 "YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO LEARN FROM YOUR MISTAKES AT UCLA LIKE YOU COULD AT OTHER PLACES... AS FOR STEVE, I THINK HE HAS DONE A TREMENDOUS JOB.  HE HAS LEARNED FROM HIS MISTAKES." - Pete Newell

 

Well, Pete's a friend of the family and a longtime member of Team Lavin.  And, of course, a Cal Bear to boot, who ultimately lost his domination of the conference to UCLA (perhaps Lavin is Pete‘s revenge).  What "other places" can Pete be talking about?  Certainly not North Carolina, or Kentucky, or Indiana, or Kansas (after Roy Williams), or Duke (after coach K).  And UCLA has a more exalted tradition than any of those programs.  Also, Lav never learned from his mistakes; He kept foolishly embracing them.  This season, all the chickens came home to roost.                                                                                     

 

"HE'S ENDURED ALMOST CONSTANT CRITICISM EVERY SEASON FROM ALUMNI AND STUDENTS STARVED FOR ANOTHER BANNER TO HANG IN PAULEY PAVILION." - the Associated Press

 

Yes, and for all kinds of good reasons.  Of course they'd like to see another banner, but I don't know a single Bruin fan who, at any point during Lav's tenure, would not have settled for a well coached team and then let the fates decide.  He certainly had enough quality personnel to be at least respectable, but by wasting that talent he obviously forfeited the chance to waste a lot more.    

 

***

 

What exactly is the Steve Lavin way to play basketball?  Lav has been into the basketball camping shuck for years, and perhaps the simple answer is that his coaching talents lie on the more elementary levels.

 

Clap, clap, clap, clap, good job, good job.  Little kids and middle class adolescents who'll never play on the D1 level like hearing that stuff.  It helps them to relax, play a little looser, have more fun.  It makes them feel good about themselves.  And there's no pressure to perform (or to coach).  The kids are getting their money's worth and everyone goes home at night happy, happy.

 

As a high school player at Sir Francis Drake HS in Marin County, Lav was apparently a grinder, taking  charges, making the extra pass, that sort of thing.  Drake was a huge power in Lav‘s time, going 65-1 from '80-'82.  It doesn't take much imagination to picture him as the Rico or Sean Farnham of Drake.  At San Francisco St. he won the scholar-athlete award, which might have tagged him as natural coaching material: Another stereotype shot to hell.  Consider someone like Pat Haden, a Rhodes Scholar!, then compare him to such truly "heady" quarterbacks as Sonny Jurgensen and Bill Kilmer, both of them a couple of Jeff Spicoli party dudes (in high school a friend of mine witnessed Kilmer being assisted out of the Hollywood Bowl, apparently dead drunk, the night before a Bruin game).  Yet Haden's football IQ could never match the party dudes, which is to say that academic intelligence has little or nothing to do with what we euphemistically call, in sports, "decision making."  Even a relatively complex game like football won't overwhelm the average jock intellect.  These games are not advanced calculus (nor are they as mindless as darts).  Today, most kids have been playing their sport on an organized basis for many, years, even before entering high school.  With this much repetition and time spent on one game, intelligence and what we like to call instinct or "a feel for the game" are almost indistinguishable.  And it always follows that players become coaches.  Even (or especially) an ability to fluently express yourself can fool us into believing a coach will be able to easily translate his knowledge of the game in a useful way.  But then think of all the basketball coaches who are frighteningly articulate, to the point that they suck all the air out of any room they might enter, someone, for instance, like the late Jim Valvano.  They're assured, they're jargon-masters, they've got stats coming out their ass.  They can be charming and they can make you laugh.  But how many of them talk a better game than they coach?  Which of course brings us to substance.

 

What difference does it make what you say, if what you say is banal, trivial, lacking sensibility and not very helpful to the task at hand.  Lav can probably tell you who was runner-up to the "Tall Trees," and "The Fiddlin' Five,"  He can likely diagram a dozen zone defenses and a dozen ways to attack each zone.  I'm sure he can quote from a shelf full of motivational books, certainly from Esalen guru, George Leonard, whose  "Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment," was credited for Ray Young's miraculous turnaround.  He was a grinder (or at least was at one time), and it seemed like nothing discouraged him. This surely explains his fatal attraction for the likes of Rico, Farham and Walcott.  Even though they may be in over their heads, they're mentally indomitable. Even an abrupt tongue lashing from Bobby Knight, while stalking the Indiana program, couldn't make young Lav back off.  He's the Richard Simmons of the basketball world.

 

How helpful is it to a player for a coach to tell him he "needs to rebound," or "play physical," or "keep this guy off the boards," or "limit that guy's touches," or "give me 40 minutes of solid basketball," or "35 seconds of D on every possession."  When I was at LACC we played the UCLA freshmen, featuring Freddie Goss and Gail Goodrich, the CIF and City Players of the Year, respectively.  I was 5' 8" and 140 pounds, basically a good three-on-three halfcourt player, nothing more.  Goss lit us up for about 10 points in the first five minutes, so the coach tells me, "I want you to go in there and STOP GOSS!"  Right coach.  This is not coaching, it's cheer leading.  The Lav way is something like a writer who tells you things rather than makes you see.  Good coaches prepare through repetition until it becomes second nature and you can repeat it at high speed and under pressure.  In basketball, it's how quickly you move the ball without turning it over, how many good shots you get, and how many bad shots you make your opponent take.  Then remember how slow and inefficient Lavinball looked (the notorious windshield wiper offense).  It's the same principle as tennis: you move your opponent back and forth, in and out, faster and faster, until it seems like you've got him on a string.  Lav's halfcourt game, no matter what he chose to call it at any given time, was typically a few slow, purposeless seconds of noodling on the perimeter until someone finally went one-on-one (sure hope it drops).  Its hard work playing this way, since in Lavinball there are few easy baskets.  Unless he had a defensive rebounder like Gadzuric (and even then) you seldom saw anyone cleaning the defensive board and outletting effectively (TJ, for instance, has always held on to the rock as if it were gold).  Unless he had a ball handler and playmaker like Baron Davis you seldom saw a cleanly run fast break since Lav's teams couldn't dominate their defensive board and since he allowed loose, playground-style ballhandling by whomever fancied himself the next Magic, trying to go end to end.  Toby Bailey and Earl Watson would've broken Trevor Wilson's record for turnovers if such stats were either kept or made available.  Defensively the Lav approach, with Baron and Earl, was to slash away and don't worry about fouls because "I didn't want them to lose their aggressiveness."  The predictable result was losses due to too many minutes on the bench by key players.   And after Baron and Earl left there was no defense to speak of. 

 

***

 

Numbers sometimes lie, sometimes don't tell the whole story, but in Lav's case they're pretty accurate: 145-78, and a .650 winning percentage.  If you figure that the modern era of Bruin athletics begins with the coming of Wooden and Sanders, in the roughly post WW II period, that puts Lav second only to Hazzard as the worst coach of the modern era, though I suppose you could make an argument that Lav is the worst, since he had much better personnel than Walt.  But then you can't leave recruiting out of the equation, especially on BRO.  Put it this way: Lav could have recruited more than just Reggie Miller and Pooh Richardson (imagine having to start Jack Haley for two years!), and Walt could have done more with Lav's material.  Could be a distinction not worth making.     

 

Guerrero said, "We want a program that offers a level of consistency, gives us an opportunity to get to the Final Four and competes for a national championship.  I want fundamentals, discipline and defense." Anything there we've seen recently? 

 

When Lav fell into the job he was unknown, and he had some pretty sizeable debt.  He leaves with a modest fortune, some security, and fame.  He'll return home and no doubt recharge his built-in energizer battery with some of  that good ol' Marin County "Human Potential" home cookin'.  Lav will be fine.  Its the damage to the rest of us I worry about.

 


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