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UCLA Must See It Lavin’s Way

This being a Steve Lavin column, before sweating the details, we detail the sweat.

Just curious, but does the UCLA basketball coach know he looks like a guy who keeps fumbling his coffee? The victim of an upper-deck water balloon? A guy whose players dumped him with Gatorade at halftime?

As one caller to a sports radio jungle recently noted, does Lavin understand that stick deodorant goes under your arms and not on your hair?

“I get calls all the time about how much I sweat,” Lavin said. “People telling me I’ve got to wear a white shirt, because sweat doesn’t show so much with white. People telling me I’ve got to wear a cotton T-shirt underneath.”

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As he said this, he looked down at the shirt he had just worn during a loss to California.

It was blue. There was nothing underneath. Puddles everywhere. He shrugged.

“This is who I am,” he said. “My players are working and sweating. I’m working and sweating.”

This is who he is. A coach unwilling to compromise for the sake of an image. A coach unwilling to change for the sake of a job.

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An interim coach who should be hired as the Bruins’ permanent one.

Now.

That is, if UCLA is who it says it is.

Jim Harrick was fired because of questions about honesty and integrity.

Lavin--unafraid to bench starters for being two minutes late to practice--has decorated the locker room in both.

Harrick was fired because of the Bruins’ increasingly dilapidated image.

Lavin has restored it such that he is receiving thank-you notes from the likes of Keith Erickson and Lynn Shackelford.

So far, none of it has come at the expense of winning. With eight conference games remaining, including this afternoon’s duel with Stanford at Pauley Pavilion, the Bruins are still tied for first place in the Pacific 10.

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Not that Larry Brown dreamers don’t have a holster full of numbers.

A program-worst 48-point loss to Stanford in their first meeting. An overtime loss in Eugene, on a basket by a guy named Henry. Not one significant nonconference victory.

But if the UCLA administrators walk their talk, they will point to other numbers:

Nineteen games, and not one pelvic thrust after a dunk.

Nineteen games, and only two technical fouls, none on the coach. Last year’s team was assessed 11.

Nineteen games, and half a dozen high school stars who are ready to sign if Lavin remains coach. This includes local star guard Baron Davis, who has told friends as much.

Nineteen games, and five benchings of starters for team infractions.

Nothing has caught the eye of administration, alumni and recruits like that last one.

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Don’t know about you, but if I were an inexperienced gym rat given a one-season tryout with a legendary college team filled with young stars with national championship resumes . . . I might issue just one directive.

Save my butt!

The players would not be students, but co-conspirators. I would not try to teach them, but use them, allowing them to do anything they wanted as long as they won enough so that I could get a long-term deal.

Then at the news conference announcing my new contract, I would stand up and say, “Now that I’ve been given my mandate, things around here are going to change.”

Not Lavin. He’s saying that stuff now.

He is a six-month temp acting as though he has a six-year contract.

He’s sacrificing peace for discipline, implementing a system in which UCLA kids are finally learning such fundamentals as passing, rebounding and defense.

His bosses should make him the permanent coach on guts alone.

The defining moment of his debut season may have occurred a couple of weeks ago during a practice, when star J.R. Henderson refused to adopt an intense pose while acting as a decoy during a screen drill.

When Lavin saw him merely standing there with his arms at his side, he ordered him to back off and watch assistant coach Michael Holton display the proper technique.

“I’m not anybody’s puppet,” Henderson complained.

“Oh yeah?” Lavin shot back. “Then you’re not also part of this team.”

Henderson was thrown out of practice, then kept out of the lineup at the beginning of the game--and the beginning of the second half--against USC.

So the players hate him, right? Well, not enough to leave the program for the NBA. Could they be quietly glad somebody is finally unafraid to pull their strings?

Toby Bailey said Thursday that, “I’m coming back next year. I want to finish my education. I’m here.” Sources say the other two top undergraduates--Henderson and Jelani McCoy--also want to return.

Not that any of them have been playing well enough for the NBA, but that hasn’t stopped some fools.

“I’ve got to do the things I believe in, whether I’m here three months or 30 years. . . . Otherwise I drive myself nuts,” Lavin said. “What I need to do, what these players deserve, is myself. I need to be myself.”

It is the Bruins’ good fortune that this personality combines some of the basketball acumen of Bob Knight, with the on-court demeanor of a less-profane Bob Huggins, with the drive of anybody who has ever wanted something so badly he would do it for nothing.

After UCLA’s loss to Cal on Thursday, Lavin was planning to drive to his Marina Del Rey apartment, pop a game videotape in the VCR, a frozen dinner in the microwave.

“Swanson’s are good,” he said.

In a parking spot near his apartment sits his aging Toyota Camry. He no longer drives it because, as coach, he has been given access to a more luxurious car.

But he will not sell it.

“Because I don’t know what will happen,” he said. “I can’t take any chances.”

For UCLA administrators, the easy thing would be to wait.

Wait and see if the Bruins win the Pac-10 title. Wait and see if they win a first-round NCAA tournament game. Hire Lavin then.

But that would also be the dishonest thing.

Uh, fellas, you just fired a guy one year removed from a national championship. If this were only about winning, Jim Harrick would still be here.

It would be easy to hire Lavin after a tournament game in March. It would be hard to hire him now. But think of the message it would send.

The UCLA program is committed to winning championships the right way, even if it means initially losing championships to do it.

Lavin is already busy sending that message to his players--he recently transformed a mimeographed list into a hard plastic board that he hung on the locker room wall.

“Bruin Attitude” it read.

Below are listed 23 of Lavin’s rules, beginning with “Go to class,” continuing with, “No cussing,” and “No pointing fingers,” and “No poor body language.”

Lavin absently tugged at that board the other night and it didn’t come down. Didn’t even move.


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