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SPORTS EXTRA / NCAA TOURNAMENT | BILL PLASCHKE

Harrick and Lavin Get Close for a Day

March 15, 2001|BILL PLASCHKE

GREENSBORO, N.C. — It is the NCAA basketball tournament's most unusual pairing, played across a court of human emotions, no final score in sight.

In the sterile hallways beneath Greensboro Coliseum on Wednesday, memories battled for loose balls. Regrets ran a fastbreak. Apologies were benched.

For the first time since they parted ways five years ago, the current and former UCLA coaches brought their teams to the same gym at the same time.

So close. And yet so cold.

Steve Lavin's UCLA team used locker room No. 2.

Jim Harrick's Georgia team used the same locker room three hours later.

Lavin's team ran drills while he stalked the court in a baggy nylon sweatsuit.

Three hours later Harrick wore the same type of sweatsuit while his team ran the same drills.

Once, during a rules meeting, they were even in the same room at the same time.

They said hello and congratulations.

They said nothing else.

Lavin was asked about their relationship.

"I am very indebted to Jim, but it's always a little awkward, a little uncomfortable," he said.

Harrick was asked about their relationship.

"There is none," he said.

*

They are part of a chain, a legacy, a spirit that wraps our town every March with a sense of wonderment and hope.

Like it or not, they are sons of Wooden, adjoining chairs in the very small row in the center of our town's greatest collegiate tradition.

It would be nice, then, if they were friends.

"Friends?" Harrick said during a courtside interview Wednesday.

He paused. And paused. And paused.

OK, it would be nice if they exchanged more than three sentences every five years.

"I guess there needs to be more water under the bridge," Lavin said.

Fine, how about working on an ability to occasionally coexist for more than 10 minutes in the same room?

"Coach Wooden told me the casualty of our circumstance would be our relationship," Lavin said.

This casualty has cast a shadow over the tradition.

"We need to continue to make efforts to organize our family," said Cameron Dollar, who played for or coached with Lavin and Harrick.

Dollar is an assistant coach at Saint Louis University for another Harrick disciple, Lorenzo Romar.

The list of Harrick alumni includes the head coaches at UCLA, Alabama, Marshall and San Diego, as well as a member of the staff at Stanford.

"They've all had success," Dollar said. "We need to reach out our arms and become a family. We can rank up there with the Rick Pitinos and Dean Smiths in terms of coaching families. We've just never been unified in the public eye."

They all get along except for Harrick and Lavin.

It has been a rift far more bloody than anyone expected, with a finality that could not have been imagined.

After all, it wasn't Steve Lavin who fired Jim Harrick one week before the start of practice in 1996, it was Pete Dalis.

Harrick knows this.

"When you work for Bozo the Clown, you know what's going to happen," Harrick said.

And Lavin didn't hijack the job as Harrick's replacement, it was simply offered and accepted.

"I have no problems with Steve replacing me, I understand that entirely," Harrick said.

So what's the big deal?

Their issues arose shortly after Lavin, who was hired by Harrick as his lowest assistant five years earlier, became the head coach.

Harrick said Lavin initially sought advice, and Harrick gave it willingly.

"He called me every day that first week, crying," Harrick said. "Real tears. The man was crying."

Harrick said, though, that when he called Lavin later in the season, the new coach would not return his call.

"I called him twice and he never called me back," he said. "I understand about wanting to disassociate himself from me, but to never call me back?

"I haven't called since."

Although Lavin didn't want to elaborate Wednesday, in the past he has claimed he felt Harrick betrayed him in a national cable TV interview during that first season.

After Lavin's team won only three of its first five games, Harrick told an interviewer that he was not experienced enough to be named the permanent head coach.

"All I said was, I knew what kind of candidates they were looking at, and how they thought," Harrick said.

Regardless, Lavin felt Harrick was firing on a sinking ship, and he didn't speak to Harrick for three years.

"Looking back on it, I now understand what Jim was going through at the time, and why he said what he did," Lavin said.

After Dalis left Lavin exposed and flapping like old laundry this winter, Lavin understood Harrick even more.

"I really think we should be kindred spirits," Lavin said.

Both men have survived arguably the toughest college basketball coaching environment in the country.

Both men do their best coaching in tough situations.

Harrick has proved this season that he is more than a very good coach, he may be a genuinely great one. In three working seasons since leaving UCLA, he has taken two struggling programs to the NCAA tournament, giving him a resume of four tournament schools.

Lavin has proved this season that he can win with five players who are not All-Americans, and is seeking his fourth Sweet 16 appearance in five seasons.

That is, if UCLA can survive Hofstra today and ensure his job.

Harrick, whose team plays Missouri tonight, probably will be watching. It will be the first Bruin game he has seen in person since being fired.

"I still love UCLA," Harrick said.

"It's a great place," Lavin said.

So they agree on something.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address: bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

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