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Only His Pay Was Restricted

March 12, 1997|MIKE DOWNEY

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — In between "the Tulsa game" and "the Princeton game"--two dates that live in UCLA infamy--came the Arkansas game, for the 1995 national championship. There was an unsung hero from that fine night, and allow me to introduce him to you: Steve Lavin.

I owe him this much, having questioned his qualifications in the past. Lavin was what they call a "restricted earnings coach" that season. Jim Harrick ran the show, and his right-hand men were Mark Gottfried and Lorenzo Romar, who have moved on to be head coaches at Murray State and Pepperdine, respectively.

The "coach on the floor" for that UCLA-Arkansas title game in Seattle--and in the dressing room as well--was senior Ed O'Bannon, who saw the despair in teammates' eyes over the condition of Tyus Edney, the team's point guard. Edney sat there trying to dribble a basketball with his injured wrist, unable even to make it pop back from the floor to his palm.

Harrick very gently told the Bruins to play the game of their lives, to give everything and leave nothing on the court. O'Bannon spoke louder. He huddled the players in a Kingdome hallway and called it "just a pickup game," before running onto the court. At halftime, with UCLA ahead, 40-39, O'Bannon went locker to locker, looking guys in the eyes, saying: "Let's go back out and get it done!"

That helped motivate the Bruins to win the championship, as much as anything.

Now, let me tell you something Lavin did that helped prepare them as much as anything.

Having seen Bill Clinton's favorite team, the Arkansas Razorbacks, on film, Lavin observed that they had a favorite tactic. While on defense, an Arkansas player would lay back, giving an opponent plenty of room to catch a pass, rather than trying to steal it. But then this defensive player would pounce, before the opponent had firmly squeezed the ball. The opponent would relax for that instant, sensing that the Razorback had backed off.

Lavin pressed the issue with every UCLA player. "Keep coming until you have the ball in your hands, then firm up!" he would caution them, demonstrating how to clutch the ball safely to the chest and not expose it. "Those guys are on the fly, and they'll slap it out of your hand. Come to meet every pass."

It was a defensive ploy that Arkansas had used effectively while winning the NCAA championship the year before. Players get lazy during a basketball game, or fatigued. They get sloppy. I have seen so many players over the years, reaching out for an in-bounds pass, barely looking over their shoulder to see where the nearest defensive man was.

The reason what Lavin did was such a factor was that Cameron Dollar had to run UCLA's offense for most of that game--same as he is doing now, with the Bruins opening play in the Midwest Regional here Thursday night. Everybody knows that Dollar is a defensive dynamo, but compared to Edney, he was no ballhandler, then or now.

UCLA is a team with a penchant for turnovers. When they get lazy, the Bruins pay too little attention to safe passing and squeezing the basketball. When one bad night--Tulsa, Princeton--can end your season, and in some cases, your career, then a tip like Lavin's that day can save you from a lifetime's worth of embarrassment, as, say, a loss to Charleston Southern would cause.

This team is Lavin's now, and he is still stressing fundamentals, just as he would at his summer camp for kids.

He says, "You make players do things over and over in practice, hoping it will become second nature. But it's easy to have a mental lapse in a big game. They'll do something the right way 1,000 times in a row, then forget to do it in a game. Even the NBA guys do that."

One play UCLA practiced repeatedly, when Harrick was coach, was an end-to-end sprint with less than five seconds remaining, with one player controlling the ball, daring someone to foul him while he charged toward the hoop. That was what Edney did to save UCLA in the 1995 West Regional game with Missouri. Harrick had seen his own team get burned by, of all teams, the Irvine Anteaters, with that play, and promptly put it in UCLA's repertoire.

Lavin hauled it out last week, when Dollar went end-to-end to defeat Washington State.

There's no telling when a Tulsa game, a Princeton game will come along. When the score was Tulsa 46, UCLA 17 at one point, three years ago, no strategy in the world could work. Ed O'Bannon screamed at the team at halftime that night; perhaps his brother Charles will have to do some screaming of his own, before this tournament is over.

Or perhaps some young assistant coach will offer the team some advice, at just the right time. Lavin would appreciate it.

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