Thirty-two years old, $70,000 in debt and with uncertain job
prospects, UCLA assistant coach Steve Lavin figured he'd be on
the spot this season. What he didn't expect, after three years
of toiling in outrageously expensive Westwood as a
$16,000-a-year part-timer and two more years as a full-time
assistant, was that he'd be feeling pressure for an entirely
different reason. After UCLA fired coach Jim Harrick on Nov. 6
for lying about his expense account to cover up a recruiting
violation, Lavin was named to coach the Bruins on an interim
basis. Suddenly he's responsible for coaxing results out of one
of the nation's most promising collections of talent.
The Bruins bring back their top six players from a team that
lost to Princeton in the first round of last spring's NCAA
tournament. That ignominious exit notwithstanding, it's easy to
spot the potential in this group: Seniors Cameron Dollar,
recovered from debilitating injuries to both pinkies, and
Charles O'Bannon, who has packed an extra 15 pounds of muscle
onto his frame, are the Bruins' anchors at the point-guard and
scoring-forward positions, respectively. As a freshman last
season, center Jelani McCoy sank two shots for every one he
missed, and 3.3 times a game he swatted away the efforts of his
opponents. Junior off-guard Toby Bailey bottomed out nearly 40%
of his three-pointers despite having to help Dollar with
point-guard duties. That either forward J.R. Henderson or
swingman Kris Johnson will have to come off the bench says much
about a squad so lavishly gifted that any one of six Bruins
could lead the team in scoring on a given night. "We can't hide
the fact that we're talented," Lavin says. "Eight guys on this
team have Pac-10 championship rings, and five of them have
national championship rings."
After he brought Lavin aboard in 1991, Harrick joked that he had
hired "a cream-and-sugar guy"--someone to make sure the boss's
coffee was just so. In fact, UCLA's new mentor is someone who
has been steeped in the game since age five, when his father,
Cap, who played at San Francisco for Pete Newell, gave him a
Wilson Jet basketball.
In his 20s Lavin built a chain of basketball camps on the West
Coast, and his exaltation of defense reflects the three seasons
he spent apprenticing under Purdue's Gene Keady. "Stay in your
stance!" is how the greeting on his answering machine ends--an
invocation of a back-to-basics approach, heavy on conditioning,
that he'll be implementing in Westwood. "That's what this team
needs," says Dollar. "Coach Harrick was really laid-back. He
gave you a lot of room to do your own thing and maneuver."
Last season's underachievement raises all sorts of questions
about this year's team. The Bruins were formidable when they
could hang onto the ball long enough to get off a shot; they
ranked first in the nation in field goal percentage. But they
were too often heedless with the rock, committing more turnovers
than any other Pac-10 team. And there is the matter of attitude.
McCoy can bring da funk, but last season he often went into one,
too. Bailey and Henderson, underclassmen who may test the NBA
waters this spring, could be stylin' for the pro scouts. And
O'Bannon, benched twice last season, once for taunting an
opponent and later for breaking team rules, won't elicit any
flattering comparisons to his brother, Ed, whose leadership
played such a critical role in UCLA's 1995 NCAA title, unless
Charles does a little tinkering with his 'tude.
Given the uncertainties surrounding the team's emotional state,
one player to watch is senior Bob Myers, a 6'6" reserve forward.
A former walk-on, he gradually increased his playing time over
three seasons, and he may be the ideal player to complement the
more ballyhooed Bruins. An injury to his lower back flared up
over the summer, but Myers chose not to take a redshirt year and
vows to play through the pain. He's also an economics major with
a team-high 3.44 grade point average--perhaps just the guy to
counsel Lavin on how to retire his debt.
UCLA's change at the top could even turn out to be a positive,
despite its coming only 14 days before UCLA's opener against
Tulsa last week, a 77-76 Bruins loss. "I'd be surprised if a
veteran team like UCLA doesn't say it wants to win for Coach
Harrick," says Arizona coach Lute Olson. "I think it'll be a
rallying cry." And there is some precedent for an assistant
coach's coming in at the last minute and winning it all;
Michigan won a national title in '89 under Steve Fisher, who
took over when Bill Frieder was fired only one day before the
start of the NCAA tournament.
Stanford coach Mike Montgomery, with one eye on the Bruins'
roster and the other on the conference race, makes UCLA the
favorite in the Pac-10. He says, "They're a dead-pipe cinch."
The man said dead-pipe, not lead-pipe. But then UCLA has the
kind of talent that gets rivals thinking of their own mortality.
COLOR PHOTO: ALTERED POLAROIDS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. SPRUNG FROM PART-TIME DUTY AT POINT GUARD, BAILEY SHOULD SOAR [Toby Bailey]