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Life on the L.A. stage

Stan Love remembers it like it was yesterday, he and his cousin Brian Wilson, of the Beach Boys, sitting in the stands together watching a basketball game, eyes focused on Love’s prodigiously skilled son, Kevin.

“Brian just kept turning to me and saying, ‘Wow, he’s good, he’s really, really good,’ ” Love recalls, speaking of the 2006 game at Pauley Pavilion, played when Kevin was still in high school. “And I kept saying, ‘You know what, Brian, you’re right, he is really good.’ ”

The moment might have been a small one, but to Stan Love it was deeply meaningful. Through basketball, his son was helping close a fissure in a fractured family, a family important in these parts because they’ve helped define us.

Kevin, we know, is at UCLA now, leading his team to the Final Four. If all goes well over the next few days, Stan will watch his son lead the Bruins to a basketball national title. There will be confetti, the cutting of nets and wild celebration.

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A member of the Love family will have played a role in making people here puff their tanned chests and feel . . . well, frankly, feel proudly Southern Californian.

It figures.

For generations, the Loves and their extended family have been at the center of much that makes Los Angeles what it is, for better or worse.

This is a clan that was part of the vast, Depression-era migration that helped give the culture here a Midwestern flavor, witnessing first hand the waves of racial change that roiled South L.A. in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

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It’s the family -- Stan’s brother, Mike, and three of their first cousins -- that formed the nucleus of the Beach Boys: the band that helped convince the world every Los Angeles neighborhood was bordered by a sandy beach stuffed with surfboards and bikinis. It’s a family, with Stan Love stuck in the middle, that struggled against something deep in the fabric of this place -- excess, indulgence and the madness that can come with fame in L.A.

Now we have Stan’s son Kevin, a precocious freshman, the Bruins’ best player, a kid with a chance to make a lasting mark on another of our most precious possessions: UCLA basketball.

“It’s pretty cool when you think about what this family has done here,” says Love, 59 and fit, sitting at a Westwood restaurant this week. “The Southern California vibe is definitely part of what we are about . . . with the band and everything happening now, I guess you could say we’ve given something back.”

He searches his memory, winding through the narrative of his family here -- from Bruins basketball to his mother’s family, so poor when they arrived here from Kansas that they couldn’t afford an apartment and lived, of all places, on the beach.

“When I was a kid,” Love says, “I watched the city change.” His father, a sheet metal worker, had settled the family in Inglewood, a bona fide suburb in those days, a place where Stan would grow tall and lanky and became a basketball star. As a freshman at Morningside High in the mid-'60s, Stan recalls that the school was populated mostly by white kids from working-class families supported by the light industry that gave South L.A. an economic backbone then.

But as happened in many other parts of L.A. in the ‘60s, when blacks began moving in, whites began moving out. In a flash, black students became a majority. There was discord and fighting.

Basketball shielded Stan Love from trouble. It was “transcending,” he says. “I found I could go to a lot of places I normally wouldn’t be able to go to because I was a good athlete. . . . I was so driven. And my drive was to match up to my brother, Mike. By then he was a singer, a Beach Boy, a band guy. My whole thing was to be as successful as I could . . . to get out from his shadow.”

Love would leave town to star at Oregon, then become a first-round NBA draft pick and have a short, journeyman’s career, including a stint with the Lakers.

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When he finished playing in 1974, he quickly found a job as an assistant -- a minder, really, for his cousin Brian Wilson. Wilson, raised near Inglewood, was the Beach Boys’ visionary. He wrote or co-wrote most of the songs, everything from “California Girls” to “Surfin’ USA” to “Good Vibrations.” By the time Love began working with and watching over his cousin, Wilson had long struggled with well chronicled mental problems and addiction, much of this brought on by fame.

Love found himself witnessing another L.A. era. “The culture was so loose,” he remembers. “It was just out of control, just the flavor of the time. Back then there was a real bad cocaine problem . . . people were doing a lot of drugs, and a lot of people ended up getting hurt.”

He grows taciturn, reluctant to speak in depth of those times and the excesses. Not now, not with so much good going on. They “are nightmares I try to forget about,” he says. When the conversation turns to Wilson and what they went through together, he grimaces.

“It really hurts. You have to know what Brian was like before. He was good looking, smart, could do it all. Then the troubles began. . . . See, he is a real generous, real sensitive kind of guy, the kind of guy who had a hard time because he couldn’t say no, the kind of guy who could be taken advantage of.”

By the early ‘80s, Stan had lost his role as Wilson’s assistant. He was replaced by a psychologist who involved himself so deeply in Wilson’s affairs that some said the Beach Boy was being controlled. Among the Loves and their cousins, once as tight a family as can be imagined, deep acrimony grew. From that strife came fistfights, bitterness and court battles.

“Looking back on it,” Love says, “the Beach Boys, well, that was probably the worst thing that ever happened to us.”

Love, his wife and their kids eventually moved to a Portland suburb, fleeing the glitz and anger.

Kevin followed his father’s path. His basketball has, at least in part, helped ease a family wound. Stan Love and Brian Wilson don’t talk much these days, Stan says, but they are cordial. He recalls with pride that moment at Pauley. Brian hadn’t seen Kevin in years, but there he sat, eyes glued on his cousin’s talented son, astonished at how much he’d grown, at how good he was.

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So good that, when the NCAA tournament ends on Monday, there’s a fine chance Stan’s son will have helped UCLA walk off with another national title.

And if Kevin Love accomplishes this feat, we’ll cheer wildly, thankful that another member of a most uncommon family has added to its distinctly Southern Californian legacy.

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Kurt Streeter can be reached at kurt.streeter@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Streeter, go to latimes.com/streeter.


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