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Lavin Is Clearing Hurdles

UCLA: Interim coach says he'll be happier when the season begins.

November 09, 1996|TIM KAWAKAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The big office is only partially cleared out--literally and figuratively--so UCLA interim Coach Steve Lavin is still working out of his cubicle for now, three days since the shock wave.

The Bruins, a preseason top 10 team, open their schedule in 11 days, against Tulsa in the preseason National Invitational Tournament.

With Jim Harrick's sudden firing still echoing throughout the campus, is Lavin, and are the Bruins, ready for this?

"The first press conference was kind of a hurdle," Lavin said Friday evening, after his first full practice running the team. "Then, the Pac-10 media day [Thursday] was a hurdle. Then that night, the intrasquad game was a hurdle. And then, today was another hurdle.

"With each day, I'm beginning to feel comfortable and I think the players are feeling comfortable with me. Obviously, the biggest hurdle is the first game, but these are challenges you just have to deal with.

"I actually think it's a benefit that we have the NIT coming up so soon. Playing basketball is what the coaches know, it's what the kids know."

Lavin took the team through a quick, 90-minute practice at Pauley Pavilion on Friday, saying he wanted to make sure the workout was at a high-quality level.

During Thursday night's intrasquad game, the hyper-kinetic Lavin stressed emotional discipline to his players: No pouts when you're taken out of the game, no glares at the officials, no frustrated jogs back down floor.

"There's going to be even more of a spotlight on the UCLA program," senior forward Charles O'Bannon said, "just looking to see what we're going to do."

Asked what changes Lavin might bring to the team, O'Bannon was to the point: "A lot more running [in practice]."

Last season's team was hardly a model of dignity, and given the turmoil of this season, Lavin said he hopes to lay a calmer foundation built on defense, his specialty, and conditioning.

"What I really kept harping on is putting down some building blocks for our attitude," said Lavin, who has never been a head coach before but was Harrick's assistant for five seasons. "We talked about the fact that, with the talent this team has, when we've lost in the past, more often than not, it's because we beat ourselves by making too many mistakes."

Harrick, speaking on Michael Jackson's KABC radio talk show Friday, said he felt for the 32-year-old Lavin.

"Steve's a great, great young guy, being put in an enormous situation that is very unfair to him," Harrick said. "To take over someone else's personality and character team is very difficult, and you're talking about seven or eight players here, their parents think they're million-dollar players, and some of them are.

"He's got to go to war now against Kansas and Louisville and Duke, and that's just not fair to Steve, under these circumstances."

And Lavin conceded that with the crucial early signing period starting Wednesday, and top recruits saying they will wait until the UCLA situation settles down before deciding if they want to attend the school, the timing could not be worse.

"It's a difficult situation, and I don't think any one person in the situation I'm in could save a recruiting class," Lavin said. "But we're going to do what we can. This program is strong enough to go through some tough times."

Arizona Coach Lute Olson isn't so sure UCLA is going to take a big hit.

"I'd be surprised if the veteran team at UCLA doesn't make this their prime thing, to win this for Coach Harrick," Olson said. "It'll probably be their rallying cry."

Lavin agreed, pointing to his trio of seniors--O'Bannon, point guard Cameron Dollar and forward Bob Myers. Lavin has already said that he is counting on Dollar being an "extension of me" on the floor.

"If you look at the nature of those three seniors, those are some pretty steady people both on and off the floor," Lavin said. "I feel good about the team as far as where they're at."

Still, with all that has hit this program, Lavin says he and the team will naturally go through some early-season stumbling.

"We're prepared for it," Lavin said. "You fall down, you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep working."

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