Steve Lavin underwent nearly seven hours of surgery for prostate cancer in October, knowing that the college basketball season was just around the corner but counting on his energetic ways to carry him to a recovery full enough that he could coach this season.
He wanted to be on the court as St. John’s tried to build on the momentum it achieved last year when the Red Storm qualified for the NCAA tournament after becoming perhaps the biggest surprise of the Big East Conference season.
But four games into this season, after coaxing his team back from a 16-point deficit to a win over Lehigh, Lavin said he found his “gas tank was empty, like I was pumping on the accelerator and there was nothing there.”
He tried to fight his way through it, but he continued to struggle in St. John’s next three games. Finally, in mid-November, his doctor ordered him to step away, requiring an extended leave of absence.
Lavin, 47, is said to be cancer-free, but he has been warned about pushing his body too hard after two biopsies and a major surgery in a 15-month span. A premature return, doctors cautioned, could lead to a setback further delaying a complete recovery.
Prostate cancer annually affects approximately 220,000 men and kills nearly 30,000.
During a recent interview at a SoHo coffee house, the former UCLA coach discussed his situation and his future. “I can still manage the program, attend practices, travel to recruit and text the coaches and players after games — this iPhone is like an athletic office,” he said. “But I can’t be there in the games.”
Staying away hasn’t been easy. “Coaches by nature have that ‘Braveheart’ attitude. It’s difficult to take a step back,” Lavin acknowledged. But he has a wide network of support, including that of Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski.
“Coach K called and we discussed miscalculating our own strength,” Lavin said. “He said to me, ‘Our game is energy. What we do is based on energy.’ To not have that is debilitating, counterintuitive to our nature.”
Krzyzewski was speaking from experience, having been forced into a leave of absence in 1995 while recovering from back surgery.
Lavin had hoped he would be ready to return to the team for the start of Big East Conference play late last month. Then he took aim at Jan. 15, when classes at St. John’s are set to resume. But now he’s saying only that his status will be revisited at some point later this season.
The gleam in Lavin’s eyes when he discusses his basketball team reveals a deep-seated yearning to be with it. After all, he already has one big comeback to his credit.
After being fired by UCLA in 2003, Lavin spent seven years in television as a college basketball analyst, barnstorming the country with veteran play-by-play man Brent Musburger while increasing his coaching acumen by observing the game’s top programs.
“I’d get in the night before, watch practice, sit in on staff meetings as they broke down film, watching every game courtside,” Lavin recalled. “Gathering that intel . . . there’s value in distance. You see the game in a wide-angled lens.
“To me, it’s why teachers take sabbaticals. When you’re coaching, you can’t study the game as much as you want to with the recruiting, donors, crisis management, media commitments.”
When St. John’s signed Lavin to a six-year contract in the spring of 2010, he inherited a team loaded with seniors who were used to losing. Privately, the coach predicted it would take three years for the Red Storm to be consistently competitive in the mighty Big East.
But Lavin’s style meshed with the players’ will to win, and they swept through their Big East schedule in February, beating Pittsburgh, a Connecticut team that went on to win the national championship, and winning on the road at Villanova, Marquette and Cincinnati.
St. John’s did better than just compete. The Red Storm finished 12-6 in conference play and earned an NCAA tournament invitation while enjoying the nation’s largest increase in home attendance. Then, Lavin followed that up by securing the nation’s third-ranked recruiting class, behind only Kentucky and Duke.
Suddenly, that bad ending at UCLA took on new perspective.
“I take pride in the battle scars, they lead to wisdom,” Lavin said. “You have to see the composite view, see the blessings that reveal themselves.”
Lavin says that now with actual scars. It was in August 2010 that doctors, alarmed by test results, ordered a biopsy. At first, Lavin was put on a diet and exercise regimen as his physicians took a watch-and-wait approach.
But then a friend, famed horse owner Michael Repole, a St. John’s graduate, introduced him to Dr. Peter Scardino, head of surgery at the Sloan-Kettering Memorial Cancer Center in New York. Scardino began monitoring the coach last May and in August recommended surgery.
Dr. Jean DeKernion, a doctor friend of current UCLA Coach Ben Howland, endorsed Scardino’s advice, helping to convince Lavin to treat his cancer through traditional methods.
Howland was sitting next to Lavin inside the gym at St. Anthony’s High in New Jersey — both watching blue-chip prospect Kyle Anderson — when Howland dialed DeKernion and handed Lavin his cellphone.
“Six degrees of UCLA,” Lavin cracked.
Following surgery in October, Lavin spent six days in recovery and tried to go back to work.
During early-season games, he seemed fairly normal, barking at officials as he charged around the bench area, stressed out as always.
He felt different, though. “At no point was the energy recovering,” Lavin said. “You’re always tired during the season, but the difference here was there was no regeneration between games.”
Scardino advised Lavin to shut it down, to let assistants Mike Dunlap, former Purdue coach Gene Keady and ex-UCLA player Rico Hines direct the games.
St. John’s is 7-7 after losing to No. 11 Louisville on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden with Lavin watching from an arena suite.
In a statement, St. John’s said university administrators have “made it clear to Steve during this entire process that his health is our utmost concern. . . . We fully expect that Steve will be the St. John’s coach and part of the St. John’s family for many years and in order to ensure that, his full recuperation is the number one priority.”
Whether Lavin will return this season or sit it out entirely has not been determined. He can debate the situation from either side.
“There really is a strong argument for both,” he said. “If we’re doing good in February and I get a second wind, a clean bill of health and I’ve suffered no setbacks, it’s worth keeping that door open. But if I’m not feeling up to the heavy lifting of coaching, I can stay in this GM role.
“Health has to be the priority. For now, I’m grateful for being cancer-free. I’m celebrating that, and am focused on that. Without your health, nothing is possible.”