Kevin Love grew up preparing to be a star.
“As a kid, even 10, 11 years old, Kevin was the pied piper,” said his father, Stan. “It’s his personality. People just follow Kevin.”
The 19-year-old UCLA freshman center, already Pacific 10 Conference player of the year and first-team All-American, has also become a plain-speaking locker room leader unafraid to criticize veteran teammates for fouling out (Darren Collison) or not passing enough (Josh Shipp). He has even offered Coach Ben Howland advice (more touches, coach, give me more touches).
When UCLA (35-3) plays Memphis (37-1) at 3 p.m. Saturday in the first of two NCAA semifinals in San Antonio, Love will be opposing another specially talented freshman.
Tigers point guard Derrick Rose also arrived to a team filled with talented veterans. Junior guard Chris Douglas-Roberts joined Love on the Associated Press All-American first team -- Rose was on the third team with Collison -- and Joey Dorsey and Robert Dozier were key players on the Memphis team that lost, 50-45, to UCLA in a 2006 regional final.
Besides Love’s impish personality there is prodigious basketball talent, a kind of physical strength that Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim says he hasn’t seen even in an NBA player, a kind of natural basketball “feel” that Washington Coach Lorenzo Romar says he envies, and a work ethic that Love’s personal coach, Chris Dudley, says “would make an average athlete almost great and a great athlete something else.”
And yet Love came to a UCLA team this year that had, besides Collison and Shipp, junior forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who had already started on two Final Four teams, and sophomore guard Russell Westbrook, who was whispered about all summer as a rising star who might be the best player UCLA had and its most promising NBA candidate.
“It’s always a little delicate at first when you bring in the new guy,” Ohio State Coach Thad Matta said.
Before last season, Matta welcomed to Columbus center Greg Oden, who would become the overall No. 1 NBA draft pick, as well as lottery pick Michael Conley to a team with two highly regarded upperclassmen -- junior Jamar Butler and senior Ivan Harris, who had been a McDonald’s High School All-American.
“Kids today are smart,” Matta said. “If you brought in freshmen that were all about themselves it might not work. One of the first things Greg did was tell the team, ‘Look, I’m going to let my playing do the talking.’ The kid can’t help it if he’s on a magazine cover or all over TV. That’s just the nature of life now.”
USC Coach Tim Floyd, who had nationally known freshman O.J. Mayo join a team with a sophomore center, Taj Gibson, who was ready to take over leadership, said he called his veterans into his office before Mayo arrived on campus.
“I told them, ‘Look, O.J. is going to have the spotlight, it’s natural, it’s the new flavor of the day,’ ” Floyd said. “But I told them it was going to be up to O.J. what kind of teammate he was going to be. I think these kids now have been around enough to understand that a really good freshman is only going to help.”
Washington’s Romar, who had Spencer Hawes for one season a year ago, said how coaches deal with a high-profile newcomer doesn’t matter as much as the personality of the player.
“You have the phenom with an arrogant attitude, if the coaches are showing favoritism, if the kid comes in always talking about, ‘I’ll be in the league next year’ and ‘the league’ this and that, if the kid isn’t going to school, and I know that happens, it’s a problem,” Romar said.
“I thought Ben Howland and Kevin Love handled things tremendously well this year. I never felt Love was trying to use this season only to position himself for the NBA. It’s human nature for other kids to resent the new kid who walks in and gets all the attention. As far as I can tell, that didn’t happen at all. And, then, of course, winning helps a lot.”
Love said he and Rose, who became friends on the summer travel basketball circuit, talked about how to win over their older teammates. “You worry about jealousy and fitting in,” Love said. “He’s a point guard so he had to be a leader. I think it really has worked out. At first I tried to be careful too, about what I said. You have to earn respect.”
Howland called the attention Love received this season “off the charts.”
Collison said he knew that would be the case. “I was with Kevin in the summer and got to know him and his game,” he recalled. “He’s got a great personality, plus he’s got the game. He was the new guy. People were going to talk about him.”
Boeheim, who had the seminal one-year wonder in Carmelo Anthony, who carried Syracuse to a national title as a freshman in 2003, said it is up to the coaching staff to quickly deal with any simmering jealousies. “The good thing about athletics is, you quickly see by performance on the playing field,” Boeheim said. “A reputation will be backed up by performance. If it’s not, things sort themselves out.
“What I see from Love and Rose are two players who obviously are good enough to play well at the next level but who are thinking like college kids right now. I see two guys who are part of their teams and not above them.
“That’s why those teams are in the Final Four.”