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Lavin's Style: Flak in Black

BILL PLASCHKE

December 04, 1998|BILL PLASCHKE

Anybody see UCLA take the floor in a tropical basketball tournament last week wearing uniforms just taken off the grill?

Anybody watching the Bruins play Maryland need a couple of minutes to figure out which team was which?

Anybody notice how quickly a 79-year-old blue can fade to black?

One person did.

"Let's just say I was very, very surprised," John Wooden said.

Steve Lavin sees it one way.

To him, the program is about the players, and there is nothing wrong with small changes that make it more fun for the players.

Many in this town see it another way.

Less than two years after being hired to restore tradition, the UCLA head coach is changing the school colors?

Before we all choke on our popcorn about last week's unveiling of new black jerseys and pants, a few things should be understood.

The alternative uniforms will only be used for three or four games, all of them on the road.

"We would never wear them in Pauley," Lavin said. "That place is sacred. We respect that. We're talking a very small percentage of games, all of them away from home. We don't think that's being unreasonable."

And it isn't as if Lavin decided on this one morning while slicking back his hair.

The change has been examined and discussed for several months, approved by all higher levels, made with an understanding of its ramifications.

"I knew exactly what kind of response we would get from fans and alumni," Lavin said. "But I was hoping that once people realized the context, they would be fine with it."

And in two years, not once has Lavin even considered spray-painting the floor or changing the fight song to something Baron Davis saw on MTV.

The players are clean shaven, they can't wear T-shirts or jeans or tennis shoes on the road, they are suspended for missing class, there are even rules against cursing.

Plus, uh, they've won.

"I have great reverence for our history, and the people who came before us," Lavin noted. "I would never do anything to disrespect that."

That said, one other thing needs to be understood.

Lavin should put the uniforms back on the hibachi and leave them there.

It shouldn't matter that the players love them.

UCLA basketball has always been bigger than the players.

Too bad if schools like Duke claim black uniforms help in recruiting today's fashion-conscious athletes.

Since when does a color that won 11 national championships not recruit itself?

But don't listen to me, a stiff who can't even match his socks.

"I hated those things," Mike Warren, former Bruin guard, said of the black togs. "I turned on the game and thought it was a funeral procession."

Warren said he can understand the change, however, because Lavin is still relatively new and lacks longtime Bruin connections.

"If I had been in his position, having the kind of history I've had at UCLA, I would have resisted doing it," he said. "But Lavin really isn't part of that tradition.

"I don't begrudge him. It's a new day. He has to set his own standards. But I definitely didn't like it."

This being essentially Lavin's first year in complete control--the stars are his recruits, the program is now fully in his image--there indeed may be a message here.

Some Bruin alumni and friends may be worried it's an ominous one.

Said Warren: "Have you talked to Coach?"

I told him I was speaking to Lavin shortly.

"No," Warren said, "I said, have you talked to Coach?"

He meant, of course, Wooden, which made me look as silly as a guy who would change a classic uniform.

The former coach was gracious, but curious.

"I don't know what the reason is," Wooden said of the black uniforms. "Surely, there must be a reason, although it's no longer my position to ask those questions."

Lavin compared it to Halloween.

"You know how when a little kid gets into a Batman costume, everybody thinks it's funny?" he said. "But to the little kid, it's one of the biggest deals of his life?"

Lavin said this is that.

"You have to remember, even though this is a big business, this game is still for the kids," he said. "These kids are 18 years old, and a black uniform is a big deal to them, a lot of excitement, a nice reward, so for a couple of games, why not?"

Lavin said his teams have been bugging him about the uniforms for a couple of years. When he saw Duke occasionally wearing black, he decided it was an option.

This fall, he surprised them by bringing out models of two black uniforms. They voted for the one they wore last week.

"We've been talking to him about doing it, but we never thought he would," sophomore guard Rico Hines said. "We don't want to knock out tradition, we just wanted a little change every once in a while.

"It's a real '90s look."

On the back of a timeless program.

Which is like putting fringe on a blazer.

Or the New York Yankees in periwinkle.

"What happens if the players wanted pink and blue?" asked Keith Erickson, another former Bruin. "Would they have those uniforms too?"

Erickson sighed.

"The colors of the school, well, they're not black," he said. "The colors are blue and gold."

It's that simple, really.

The only common denominator among all those championships.

The only thing that hasn't changed for all these memorable years.

In a basketball program that can still cross partisan lines and captivate a city, they are colors worth protecting.

For those who love black, there is always Providence.

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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