by Steven Travers
American Reporter Correspondent
San Francisco, Calif.
February 23, 2001
UCLA COACHES TEAMED UP AS TEENS by Steven Travers
SAN FRANCISCO, Feb. 23, 2001 -- If hard work is a factor, UCLA is in very good hands with Steve Lavin, Jim Saia and Steve Spencer.
Coach Pete Hayward used to get up in the middle of the night so he could be at Sir Francis Drake High School, in the Marin County town of San Anselmo, by four o'clock in the morning.
"He wasn't planning a PE class," says Spencer. "He was figuring a better way to get me an open jump shot." Hayward's nocturnal habits were nothing new to Spencer. "My Dad used to get up at 2 a.m. He busted his butt his whole life for his family, and he was still there to coach us after work." Marin County is well known as a place of liberal affluence - hot tubs, sexual freedom and California kookiness. Marin is not known to be a gold mine of prep sports talent, like its gritty across-the-bay neighbor, Oakland. Nobody ever accused UCLA basketball coaches Lavin, Saia and Spencer of coming from poor neighborhoods, but the image of spoiled rich kids from Marin has no bearing on the reality of their lives.
"My father was an English teacher," recalls Lavin. "He worked his butt off for 43 years, too." The man he refers to is former University of San Francisco basketball great "Cappy" Lavin. The elder Lavin taught English at Drake High, and all three coaches were students of his at one time.
Saia was a shy Catholic kid from the next town over, Fairfax. He grew up rooting for Notre Dame while attending St. Rita's School. At Drake he and Lavin quickly formed a close bond based on a mutual source of fear: Pete Hayward.
"We talked about this when we were 18," says Saia, referring to the fact that Lavin is the head coach, while he is a member of his staff.
"They made a pact," recalls Hayward, "that if one of them ever became a head coach, he would hire the other as his assistant."
Blue-collar traits - like a willingness to work hard in order to make up for limited physical skills - were instilled in these three men by their parents and father figure, Hayward. They had family values before the Republicans made it a campaign slogan, and long before they met a man named John Robert Wooden. Because of Wooden, huge things are expected of UCLA basketball. Lavin is under the microscope of L.A. media and alumni scrutiny.
Life is filled with ironies. One is that three Bay Area kids who rooted against Los Angeles sports teams (Saia blasphemously cheered for the Irish when they ended the Bruins 88-game winning streak) are now enthusiastically carrying on a great L.A. tradition.
While the three are zealous adherents of the Wooden Way - family, work, honesty - they are still handsome men in their 30's. Our interview took place in Santa Monica's happening 3rd Street Promenade, where the steady torrent of young lovelies is a Southern California tradition that does not escape their attention.
"There's so much talent down here," remarks Lavin, not talking about big men and power forwards. He is always on the job, though. "It really helps with recruiting."
"Coach Hayward gave us his most valuable asset: His time," recalls Spencer. "He opened the gym early in the morning, kept it open at night." Drake became a place where great pick-up games could be found, even on the outdoor courts, and players from the East Bay found their way to San Anselmo to participate. The reason for this was Hayward.
"By the time you got to the varsity," continues Spencer, "it was a privilege just to put on the uniform."
In 1982, the team's 34-0 mark broke the state record set by Bill Walton's San Diego Helix High School. They won the CIF Division II title, and this school of predominantly slow white kids developed into one of the nation's top hoop powers in the '80s. Lavin and Saia were integral members of these teams, but not stars.
Ross, Calif., is everything that people think of when they imagine the opulence of Marin County. Bolinas Avenue is the last street in Ross before turning into San Anselmo. It is a pleasant, tree-lined boulevard, but not as tony as the mansions in the nearby Mt. Tamalpais foothills.
Three big families lived next door to each other on Bolinas. The Cole's were a large brood of competitive boys being raised by a strict disciplinarian Catholic father. The Chavez'es consisted of a hutch of athletically talented males, and their father was a teacher. The Lavins were cut out of the same cloth.
The town of Ross should have re-named Bolinas "Testosterone Alley." The wide, round street that runs next to the San Francisco Theological Seminary was converted into a baseball/football field. The kids passed their time with sports, and other pursuits. Steve was the runt of the litter.
"By the time I got older," Lavin recalls, "our parents had gotten together and figured out what kids could not hang out together."
Spencer was raised in San Anselmo and went to Red Hill Junior High, but was a "hired gun" for the St. Anselm's CYO team. The Catholic Youth Organization is big in Marin County. The Catholic schools - St. Rita's and St. Anselm's - bring in the better public school kids to pump up their basketball teams. They are tolerated by the students and parents of the school, but never quite feel at home.
Spencer was one of those kids. Not big, talented but not a superstar, he was the perfect Pete Hayward player. Nobody outworked him. This was an attitude he developed from his nose-to-the-grindstone father, Jim. A few miles away, Saia disdained the social scene of girls and parties that is very much a rite of passage at St. Rita's. He preferred the solitude of the basketball court.
"These two guys aren't the Bobbsey twins from Marin County," he said. "It's important," says Lavin of Saia's hiring, "for people to know that yes, I recommended Jim to Coach Harrick, but it was Coach Harrick who hired him, not me. There was a lot of heat surrounding my hiring. There was resentment when I brought in Steve and Jim. These two guys aren't the bobsy twins from Marin County. They are experienced college basketball coaches, and they have paid their dues over many years."
Ever since that hiring, Lavin and his staff has worked next to the border of a city called called Oblivion. Every time the townsfolk of Westwood showed up, pitchforks in hand ready to boot them to the other side of the tracks, UCLA has responded with a big victory.
The latest of these wins came a few weeks ago when the Bruins' upset number one-ranked Stanford at Maples Pavilion. The "cardiac kids" of college basketball are now 18-6, in second place in the toughest conference in the country (11-2), and ranked 15th in the nation.
A few weeks ago, when Rick Pitino quit as Boston Celtics coach, he was all but anointed the UCLA job.
"It got to where my secretary was answering the phone, 'Rick Pitino's office,'" quipped Lavin.
Right now, things are again looking good for Lavin. He has a maturing, talented team that figures to make it to the Sweet 16 and beyond. Steve is the kind of grounded guy who has his priorities in order, and this has served him well dealing with the pressures of what he calls the "media Mecca" of Los Angeles.
"Keep praying," Lavin's father tells him, "and don't stop rowing."