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New York is part of the St. John's package for Steve Lavin

The former UCLA coach says his experience in L.A. was good preparation for what he faces on the East Coast, with many parallels. He cherishes his time at Westwood, and Wooden's wisdom and influence.

September 12, 2010|Bill Dwyre

From New York — Steve Lavin has gone coast to coast. Think of him as the Tyus Edney of college basketball coaches.

He is a New Yorker now, the toast of a new town, at least until St. John's University plays its first game. He was hired March 30, and the tabloid city greeted him with prime position on the back page. Pictured on the more prime front was his wife, actress Mary Ann Jarou.

New York's paparazzi thank St. John's for the hire.

Lavin says he is ready, calling his years in Los Angeles as UCLA's coach good preparation for what's ahead.

The basketball is easy. The New York media? Well …

He takes over a program that has struggled for a decade but still plays most of its home games in Madison Square Garden. At 46, he's a good-looking guy with a quick-quip delivery and a 5-foot-2 celebrity wife who is the best point guard in his life. His black hair isn't slicked back anymore, but there is still plenty there to be scalped by a city that keeps bright lights on the young and beautiful.

"It could be tougher here," he says.

UCLA wasn't exactly a walk in the park, even though he had six 20-plus-win seasons, took the Bruins to the NCAA's Sweet 16 four times and Elite Eight once, upset four No. 1 teams and had a 145-78 record in his seven seasons.

But he had a flaw, one shared by 11 of the 12 men who have coached the Bruins. They weren't John Wooden. Ten of them, including Lavin, fell a full 10 NCAA titles shy of Wooden and Jim Harrick missed by nine.

Lavin calls his time in L.A. his "Green Beret years." Tough love, good lessons.

He cherishes those days, lights up with stories about Wooden and says that, no matter what happens, UCLA will always mean the world to him. He says Wooden was a guiding light as he went from the UCLA job to basketball analyst for ESPN, as he turned down the job at North Carolina State, even as he pondered his eventual Aug. 17, 2007, marriage to Jarou.

"He met all my girlfriends," Lavin says, "but when he met Mary, he said she was the one."

Wooden was old, but he wasn't blind.

UCLA also helped with the St. John's job. Lavin says Athletic Director Dan Guerrero went out of his way to back him. Remember, Guerrero was the guy who fired Lavin after the 10-19 season of 2002-03.

"I knew it was coming," Lavin says. "When he told me to come to his office, I said we ought to at least get lunch. We went to Junior's Deli in Westwood, had a nice lunch and I got fired."

UCLA came through again immediately thereafter. Bill Walton took him for a 5 a.m. walk in Marina del Rey and gave him a phone number for ESPN executive Mark Shapiro. Soon, he was a sports commentator.

Now, he has gone from sitting at a desk for the cameras — he calls it his "seven-year sabbatical" — back to parading the sidelines in front of them.

He has taken over another storied program. St. John's is where Joe Lapchick once ruled the NIT, when that meant something. It is where Chris Mullins, Mark Jackson and Walter Berry became stars, where Dick McGuire and his street-smart brother, Al, began their legendary careers, where Ron Artest became, well, Ron Artest.

And it is where Lou Carnesecca coached 526 wins, took St. John's to the 1985 Final Four and kept them in annual contention for NCAA bids. Carnesecca is 85, retired in 1992, and still has an office at St. John's, where fabled Alumni Hall, the basketball arena that remains the site of a handful of games, has been renamed for him. Carnesecca will be part of Lavin's senior advisory group.

"I expect to have coffee every morning with Coach Carnesecca, Gene Keady and my dad," Lavin says.

His dad, Cap Lavin, was a star at University of San Francisco in the early 1950s and will spend much of the season in New York. Lavin just hired Keady, 74, for whom he was an assistant at Purdue and who retired as the Boilermakers' coach five years ago, as a basketball administrator.

Carnesecca has already weighed in.

"When I got hired, we were having lunch with several people in the program," Lavin says. "Coach Carnesecca sat next to me, and, at one point, put his hand on my knee and said, 'You're going to be fine, kid. Just get the best players.' "

Lavin says Wooden would have said the same.

Early next year, Lavin will literally go coast to coast. St. John's will play UCLA on Feb. 5 at Pauley Pavilion, a game put on the schedule about a month before Lavin's hiring. He thinks about it now, about the memories, and about the empty seat that will commemorate Wooden.

"I'll be in the visitor's locker room," he says. "How weird will that be?"

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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