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Father Figure : To George Raveling, winning is temporary, and so is losing. What lasts are the men he molds on his USC teams.

March 13, 1994|Patrick Goldstein | Patrick Goldstein, a frequent contributor to The Times and Rolling Stone, is a senior writer at Premiere magazine

IN THE LIFE OF A BASKETBALL TEAM, THERE IS A TIME TO plant and a time to reap. And then there is a time to motivate.

"Fellas, this is the team that laughed at us last year," George Raveling drawls, his Philadelphia parochial-school accent heading south into storefront-preacher territory. "It's our turn to laugh tonight. This is our house."

Framed by a locker room full of inspirational slogans ("I'm One Mean Trojan--You'll Feel the Pain!"), the 56-year-old USC men's basketball coach is pacing around his seated players, sweat already starting to soil his crisp white turtleneck. A big, voluble man, he's pumping up the volume, preaching his pregame sermon as his Trojan team prepares to take on Arizona State University, a rugged conference rival.

"Let's get the house rockin'!" Raveling hollers, his broad, 6-foot-4-inch frame looming over his players' heads. "Let's get 'em excited! Let's fire this crowd up ! This is our house! Nobody's gonna be laughing and pointing at us!"

The pep talk pays off. Charged with emotion, USC starts the game off on a 9-0 run. By halftime, the team has a comfortable 41-31 lead, thanks to Lorenzo Orr's unerring shooting and Mark Boyd's tenacious rebounding.

In the locker room, the team is sky-high, whooping and shouting, stoked on adrenaline. Twenty more minutes of winning basketball and they'll be 4-1 in the Pac-10. It would be a sweet spot for any team, but especially for perennial underdog USC, whose men's basketball program has languished for decades in the shadow of UCLA, the colossus that once beat its cross-town rival 19 times in a row.

But talk of a Trojan dynasty will have to wait. USC's sizzling first-half play in the Jan. 20 Arizona State game turned out to be the high-water mark of the season. Twenty minutes later, at game's end, the team was back in the locker room, heads hanging down, tears welling up in some of the players' eyes. Led by a stocky, sharpshooting guard named Stevin (Hedake) Smith, Arizona State turned the second half into a rout, outscoring the Trojans 56 to 21. With Trojan point guard Burt Harris on the bench with a leg injury, backup guard Damaine Powell was forced to guard Smith. Overmatched, Powell had a dreadful game. Smith made 10 of his final 15 shots, including seven three-pointers, as ASU cruised to victory.

In the locker room after the game, there is stone-cold silence. Slumped in a chair, Powell sits by himself, the team avoiding him like the plague. Only Mark Boyd, the team's senior leader, makes a point of coming over to give him a hug and a hushed pep talk. For several agonizing minutes, Raveling stands in front of his players, staring at them, rocking on his heels, wrestling with his emotions. Everyone, especially the team's freshmen, seems stunned by the finality of the defeat.

When Raveling finally speaks, his voice is low and sorrowful, a weary father trying to console his grieving sons. "We had the game right where we wanted it, but we couldn't play as a unit," he says. "We're all going to have to look inside ourselves and see what we can do to improve." After a quick glance at Powell, the coach continues: "It's not gonna do any good to blame one individual. If you want to blame someone, blame Rav. That's what I get paid for."

After a tough loss, some coaches scream obscenities, pound lockers and throw chairs at the walls. Others sulk and pout, snapping at reporters and shooing their players into the showers. But when the team gathered for practice the next morning, Raveling told them how much he believed in them. Before anyone knew it, tears were streaming down his cheeks.

"Coach was very emotional," Mark Boyd recalls. "He started crying, right in front of us. He said he felt terrible, not because we lost but because only one person had taken the initiative to go over and talk to Damaine. He knew that if someone else had been the one to have a bad game, Damaine would've been the first to come over and comfort them."

Boyd falls silent, trying to properly express the moral of this story. "Coach wasn't mad about losing," he says finally. "He was upset that we hadn't helped each other out as a team."

ONE OF GEORGE RAVELING'S FAVORITE QUOTATIONS IS FROM JAMES BALDWIN, who wrote: "These are our children. We will all profit by or pay for whatever they become."

Every so often, a fortunate son like Harold Miner or Duane Cooper will go on to play in the NBA. But for most of the coach's surrogate children, basketball provides only a momentary glimpse of the spotlight. In Raveling's eight years at USC, only four Trojans have played in the NBA. Even Miner, the most successful, doesn't start anymore. So far, no one has lasted more than three years.

To Raveling, the lesson is clear. Many of his players will struggle to find another career path. As Raveling likes to say, "Athletes live a life of illusion."

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