In his infancy as a head coach at UCLA, many critics wondered about Steve Lavin's grasp of X's and O's and questioned whether that was a strength for him. In fact, of all the letters in the alphabet, X's and O's have to be the ones Lavin knows best because you can reverse them or turn them upside down, and they still look the same to him.
You'd never know it from listening to Lavin's bottomless flow of verbiage, metaphors, analogies, humor and cultural and literary references he employs to make his points, but words and letters were his weakness as a child in elementary school. The story of Lavin's evolution as the 32-year-old coach who took over at UCLA for a successful seven-year run, segued seamlessly to a seven-year broadcasting career at ESPN and then returned to coaching to guide St. John's to its first NCAA berth in nine years, really begins with his grasp of X's, O's and all the other letters of the alphabet.
In his early school years, Lavin recently revealed, he suffered with a severe learning disability from dyslexia and dysgraphia.
"The dyslexia part was sequences of symbols, numbers or letters, and then, dysgraphia is they were upside down," Lavin explained recently. "Some people have one or the other. I had both. I have to spell check a lot and use Google and double check. So I come up with some pretty interesting words or hybrids of words.''
Lavin said he still has some trouble processing telephone numbers.
"I have to call 411 nine times,'' he said with a laugh. "Fortunately, on the scoreboard, I've had it right. We haven't ever reversed it on the scoreboard or I'd be in trouble: 'Oh, we're up six!' "
By the time he reached junior high and high school, Lavin managed to work his way through those learning difficulties to the point that his native intelligence finally was reflected in his grades and he became an accomplished writer. At one point, he even contemplated becoming a sportswriter until he found his true calling in basketball.
But while the letters and numbers line up correctly for him now and reading no longer is a problem, some difficulties remain.
"I like typing and using the iPhone because I don't have to write as much," Lavin said. "The letters interfere with the creative flow."
There it is. The perfect description of how Lavin really operates: "Creative flow."
It encompasses not only his word power as an adult, but his ability to learn from others, such as the mentors and trusted assistant coaches he surrounds himself with, and then, most of all, his ability to communicate his message to his players. The end product is the coaching job Lavin and his staff did to develop St. John's (21-11) into the dangerous team that will play its first NCAA Tournament game in nine years against Gonzaga (24-9) Thursday night in Denver.
A people person
As John Lavin, 55, the oldest brother in the family, sees it, Steve is doing what comes naturally. "There are people who were born to teach, who have that passion for teaching," John said. "He was always really interested in people. When he was really young, he would take off early in the morning out of the house and walk up to the post office and say hi to people. Even before all that other stuff came out, his personality was there."
There were times in grammar school, Steve said, when he would wander away. "They'd find me out by the freeway with the guys who were paving the roads and stuff," Lavin said. "Someone would bring me home."
Home in the San Francisco area, as Lavin describes it, was like "a Renaissance kind of thing." His parents, Cap and Mary, were highly educated, cultured people who worked at conveying those values to their six children, the youngest of whom was Steve. After a basketball career at the University of San Francisco that earned him a place in the school's Hall of Fame, Cap went on to become a teacher of English literature, poetry and philosophy, and he developed a writing program at Cal-Berkeley.
The family went to film festivals in San Francisco, everything from the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin to Humphrey Bogart and Fred Astaire. There were jazz concerts with singer Tony Bennett and pianist Bobby Short, and Lavin recalls they played a word game called "Perquacky."
Lavin naturally aspired to follow the role model established for him, and when he struggled in grade school, it was crushing. Describing the experience of being placed in a learning lab, Lavin said: "You figured out that you weren't being separated for advanced placement courses. It was because you had to go back to the basics."
Mary Lavin said Steve told her: "Letters floated around. He didn't want to go to the board and do math problems or write things down. He hated being selected out. But he was definitely bright, and he worked it out on his own."
"Boys get it more often than girls,'' she said, "but they usually outgrow it.''
Even as an educator himself, Cap Lavin admitted it was difficult to understand what was going on with his youngest son because so little was known about learning disabilities at the time. "He'd describe it, and I thought he was exaggerating," Cap Lavin said. "But he really articulated it well. There was no doubt in my mind it was a reality and presented a real difficulty. He had some good teachers, and I think he not only adjusted to it but transcended it.
"He was able to become more of an original thinker. Even though he can mix a metaphor with the best of them. I think those things were enhanced by his learning difficulties . . . It also helped him develop a sensibility and understanding of his students. He's a very kind person."
Steve Lavin said he had some special teachers who helped him find his way through his learning difficulties, and he had the support of his parents.
"They said the challenges you're having academically in the grand scheme of things won't impede you from anything you want in life," Lavin said. "They really empowered and built confidence in the home and kind of breathed that faith into you."
In his first season at St. John's, Lavin restructured the basketball program in terms of playing style with the help of a staff he assembled based on the way his father might have recruited an accomplished faculty. Despite the Red Storm's success, the question of Lavin's facility with X's and O's has trailed him from UCLA.
After a last-second win over No. 3 Pitt at the Garden, forward Sean Evans drew a laugh from reporters when he was asked what strategy Lavin imparted during a timeout in the final minute. In his excitement, Evans blurted that Lavin "doesn't really coach. He's talking about where you're going to go for dinner."
But later, Evans explained he was misinterpreted.
"It's not that he doesn't coach," Evans said. "It's just that in certain pressure situations when you would think he'd lock you in so much that you get tense, he makes it smooth, comical, throws a joke in there so everyone can relax.
"He keeps you calm. You've got to have the X's and O's, and you've got to have your people-person side. He's got a combination. That's what makes him a great coach."