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The Whiner of Westwood

January 23, 2004 Columns No Comments

Right and Wrong in the Southland

by Joaquin Mesa

For a while in Los Angeles, Loyola Marymount was the king of the castle. They nestled themselves up on top of the library tower in downtown and they proclaimed to the helicopters circling that it was indeed a town of Jesuits. Never had the city seen so many righteous basketball players, after all, Los Angeles is the home of Kobe Bryant, Elden Campbell, Magic Johnson, and the entire UCLA basketball program (after Big J Wood of course). But, with all good things, Loyola got wind of the Santa Ana breezes and fell hard through the glass ceiling at the library, and onto the basement floor tile. This is when an unlikely hero came to pass in the City of Angels, and they were not an uncommon name.

At one point during the season, UCLA and Pepperdine had lost to UC Santa Barbara, USC had lost to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and Loyola had lost to Portland. Who does that leave a city with? Well, USC proceeded to decimate the short-handed Wildcats at the Sports Arena, and everybody was saying that it was the time of the Trojan. Well, then Arizona State brought USC back to the reality that they couldn’t hold second half leads, and there went that hero. Then, with the urgency of county firings, UCLA has carved out a decent season, even for a team that hasn’t lost a good chunk of its talent to academic ineligibility. Despite losing to UC Santa Barbara and Michigan, UCLA’s only other two loses are to ranked opponents in Kentucky and Arizona, and the Kentucky game could have gone either way. With a 5-1 record in conference play, they are positioning themselves into a tournament birth, something that cannot be said about any other Los Angeles team. Thus, UCLA has climbed atop the Herbalife building in Century City, proclaiming to all that Westwood rocks, and please don’t look up our skirts.

How in the world has UCLA done this, in a year in which two sets of blue chip twins are occupying space at USC, not to mention national recruited Desmond Farmer, and JuCo standout Jeff McMillan? How are they doing this with former NBA head coach Paul Westphal occupying the sidelines at Pepperdine? How are they doing this with a new coach, ineligible players, an out-of-date arena and the most demanding alumni in the country behind the Nebraska folks (for football of course)? How in the heck are they doing this in a league that features Arizona and its semi-professional roster? How are they doing this against Ike Diogu, the man of steel? How are they doing this against the likes of recently successful Oregon and California teams?

Well, it can be summed up in one phrase: Someone finally has taught these guys how to play the game of basketball. I recently watched the Pac-10 game between UCLA and Oregon, and I saw an alley-oop, an almost perfect alley-oop. It was an amazing thing, something that I hadn’t seen for almost ten years. I remember Tyus Edney throwing Alley-oops to either one of the O’Bannon brothers, or to George Zidek, or to Toby Bailey, or to anyone of the bench gimps. I even saw Cameron Dollar do it a few times. I think it might have been Cedric Bozeman to Trevor Ariza, but I was so caught up in the fact that a well-run play had just occurred due to the good play of a UCLA basketball team, that I couldn’t concentrate on the names on the back of the jerseys. All I could think of was how long it took for the Bruin faithful to get rid of Steve Lavin.

Yes, Steve Lavin, the man, the myth, the legend. I’m not crediting Ben Howland as much as I’m crediting Dan Guerrero for getting rid of the now infamous Westwood whiner. For so many years, Lavin got the cream of the crop, the best young players from the Southland, as well as from Kansas, Michigan and other notable places around the nation. He did this not because he was an expert recruiter, as many in the college basketball ranks might believe. He did it because he had the legend of UCLA supporting his cause. Not only had Abdul-Jabbar and Walton graced the Pauley floor, but Reggie Miller and Baron Davis have more recently, and why wouldn’t a T.J. Cummings or a Cedric Bozeman want the same opportunities afforded those players. What they didn’t realize is that they would be playing with Steve Lavin, the man who knew not how to change defensive or offensive strategies in mid-game, the man who couldn’t tell his players that they had made a bad play because he didn’t want to ruin their confidence, the man who left Ray Young in.

It has been less then a year since Lavin has gone, and many players have been through the UCLA program while he resided as head coach. Baron Davis is gone without an NCAA championship. Toby Bailey, Kris Johnson, and J.R. Henderson could never win the championship without Edney, Zidek and Ed O’Bannon, or Jim Harrick for that matter. Earl Watson endured four years of tournament failure. Jelani McCoy could never handle the pressure, so he smoked a little too much dope, and Lavin let him. Now, he backs up somebody in the NBA. Jerome Moiso left after two years of not learning anything from Lavin, and has since been unsuccessful in the NBA. Kapono and Gadzuric stuck it out, and in ratty NBA programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee have shown a little bit of potential, but no real basketball sense. Raw talent doesn’t just succeed, it needs coaching. Anyway, now that Lavin is gone, is looks like the new look Bruins might have a chance. Players like Trevor Ariza will have an opportunity to pick up a little basketball know-how while they are in college.

There is no more stat padding at UCLA. If you have the energy, the hustle, the skills and the heart, you are in. Nothing proves this more then Brian Morrison, the North Carolina transfer who Ben Howland has given good minutes. I don’t think Steve Lavin would have ever made Brian Morrison a good player, heck, he couldn’t do it with Jon Crispin.

Lavin now works at ESPN as a college basketball analyst. His slicked-back hair and his high pitched screech are as annoying as ever, and he never really says much more then any announcer. It’s always something about a team needing to score to win the game, or a team needing to play good defense in order to win a game. No, really, scoring and good defense, you don’t say. I think that everybody in Los Angeles has already forgotten about Steve Lavin, and the only reason I am talking about him is because I am in New Hampshire, and there isn’t as many fun things to do in New Hampshire, so my time is a little bit more available. However, the fact that UCLA is where it is proves just how devastating he was to such a good program. A program he took over after it had won its last national championship. Perhaps it now can look towards its next championship (although maybe not this year).


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