March 17, 2011 in Sports

Blanchette: Lavin leaves them loving basketball again in N.Y.

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Dan Pelle photo

St. John’s coach Steve Lavin, right, greets TV broadcasters on Wednesday.
(Full-size photo)

DENVER – You gotta love the Lav.

OK, maybe if you’re emotionally epoxied to UCLA basketball and still can’t forgive the seven national championships that didn’t get won when Steve Lavin coached the Bruins, you don’t love Lav. In fact, barely a month ago, a screed titled, “Why We Hate Steve Lavin” went up on one of those UCLA fan sites.

And why not? After all, it’s only been eight years since he worked there.

So, yes, there is a faction out there that disdains him as the devil (at worst) or the Eddie Haskell (at best) of college basketball.

But some of us always got a kick out of Eddie Haskell.

And there are others, like Gonzaga coach Mark Few, who fondly describes Lavin as “warm and genuine,” and that has to count for something, especially given that the Zags are the next antagonists in the Steve Lavin Redemption Tour at St. John’s University – tipping it off against the Red Storm tonight in the NCAA tournament.

If Lavin really is the lightweight his UCLA haters insist he is, then he should be easily exposed in the crucible of New York City. To this point, however, it’s been one big valentine.

The Red Storm beat no fewer than five teams while they were ranked among the top 15 in the nation this season, including notable takedowns of Duke and Pitt, both No. 1 NCAA seeds. And, with Lavin steering, St. John’s is back in the bracket for the first time in nine years, an almost criminal absence for one of the game’s rootstocks.

But there were also embarrassing stumbles in the boroughs against St. Bonaventure and Fordham, and that Lavin inherited nine seniors left behind by the fired Norm Roberts should be duly noted – and has been, with gratitude, by Lavin himself.

This is the life of Lav – a “magic carpet ride,” he likes to call it, with lots of qualifying baggage.

“A lot of times,” said Bill Raftery, who will call tonight’s game for CBS, “when you’re good on your feet – which he is – and have an outgoing personality, people aren’t so sure you know what you’re doing. They may not think you have substance.”

And sometimes Lavin gives them reason to think that.

Take the case of his 2007 wedding to actress Mary Jarou. Lavin, who forever genuflected at the altar of UCLA legend John Wooden, asked the Wizard, who died last year, to be his best man.

The affection was no doubt real, but … really? Doesn’t that feel like another thing to add to a resume? Besides, what kind of bachelor party does John Wooden throw? What do you tell him? “Bring the rings and the Pyramid of Success, big guy.”

Didn’t really matter. After the invitations went out, Lavin and Jarou decided too many guests had accepted and would overwhelm the resort, so they eloped to Europe.

This and other foibles were rather gleefully recounted in a New York Times essay shortly after Lavin’s hiring at St. John’s. Included among them was an anecdote from a 1999 game against Gonzaga, when Lavin purportedly asked an assistant just before tipoff whether GU played man-to-man defense or zone.

And yet Lavin did take UCLA to five Sweet 16s after being thrown into the job when the school fired Jim Harrick for, well, being Jim Harrick.

“People forget how good he was,” Few insisted. “It’s all because of how he got the job. People thought he didn’t deserve it, and in reality he more than proved he deserved it. He should still be coaching there.”

And yet where he landed was arguably a step up – an analyst’s gig with ESPN, in which he performed better each passing season. Few said he tried to talk Lavin out of returning to coaching. But last year he tried to get involved with DePaul before St. John’s athletic director Chris Monasch turned to him after overtures to others were spurned.

Lavin advertises himself as a better-prepared coach now “not only being able to draw on the 15 years at Purdue and UCLA, but the seven years away studying the game from a different perspective, a wider-angle lens.”

One notable change: Instead of the buddies he filled his staff with at UCLA, Lavin has lured assistants with gravitas – well-traveled Mike Dunlap and, as a special advisor, his old Purdue mentor Gene Keady. The result, at least for now, is that college basketball has a buzz again in the big city as it did when Lou Carnesecca’s sweaters dolled up the sidelines.

“You can tell the excitement when you’re back there,” Raftery said. “Everybody felt that if the Big East was good, it would be better if St. John’s was good – if they were relevant. He’s sort of Louie-ized New York again.”

And so they love the Lav. But then, it’s still the honeymoon.

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