The name of UCLA's next great big man had always been here. It seems so clear now, looking at it inside the basketball wing of the UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame. Nestled underneath John Wooden's Pyramid of Success, which he wrote 60 years ago, are his 12 lessons in leadership. They've been read countless times by coaches, players and fans yet the meaning of the second lesson wasn't fully understood until this season.
"Love Is The Most Powerful Four-Letter Word."
Kevin Love, UCLA's 6-foot-10, 270-pound All-American freshman center, understands his place in history as he walks around the hall of fame, just outside of Pauley Pavilion. Wearing a black track suit and holding the shoulder straps of his backpack as he moves around the room, decorated in artifacts and championship trophies, Love can already envision his picture and name on the walls right alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Luke Walton, the last great big men to hover over the sun kissed campus in Westwood.
"I want to follow in their footsteps and be remembered as one of the best," says Love, who was already labeled as the greatest Bruin recruit since Walton in 1970 before he ever ran through a single practice. "I have high expectations for myself. I'm a believer in myself and I could see this all happening."
There is a hint of arrogance in Love's quotes when they are read in black and white. Much like his fervent style on the court, which has made him one of the most loathed players in the country by opponents, they can be misunderstood without properly understanding their intent. Then again, there really should be no mystery to Love. He's an open book, willing to offer a Cliff's Notes synopsis of any chapter you'd care to discuss although he's fairly certain what your first question will be.
"Good Vibrations is my favorite Beach Boys song, I also like California Girls," says Love, referencing a query he often gets because of his uncle Mike Love, the lead singer of the Beach Boys. "My least favorite is probably Surfer Girl because it's my dad's favorite."
After being written about since he was in the eighth grade, when he received his first college letter from Marquette at the age of 14, Love is as comfortable with the media as he is on the court. Leaning back against the wall of UCLA's press room, Love is entertaining a dozen reporters huddled around him with their notepads and recorders tucked away.
"Coach Howland told us to forget about classes this week," he says as he raises his eyebrows and nudges a reporter old enough to be his father. "Just kidding. I don't even know what classes I have this quarter. I know my first class is the study of masculinity."
This is something you might have seen professional athletes do decades ago in a bar after a game before an invisible wall was put up between the athlete and the press. Today most athletes do interviews when they are required and leave the moment their obligations end. On a team coached by Ben Howland, whose patience for the media runs as thin as his tolerance for poor defense, Love's ability to become the Tinseltown's media darling is nothing short of remarkable. Then again, it's no accident. There was no way Stan Love's kid was going to be unprepared.
"My dad would be filming when I was a kid, dunking on a little 8-foot hoop and he'd ask me questions after the game," says Love, who practices answering questions in front of a mirror. "He'd ask me, ‘What was it like playing against Larry Bird?' I'd come back with, ‘Well, Larry Bird is a tremendous player and he really shot the ball well today.' We'd practice that all the time. We still have the tapes and it's pretty funny to watch now."
There was a time when Stan Love's imposing 6-foot-9 frame would be around his son constantly, like a mustached shadow hovering over his every move. He gave new meaning to the word tough love the moment his son began dribbling a basketball, which he says took place right around the time of his first birthday. His father would make sure his son shot 500-600 jumpers in the driveway, did fingertip push-ups the way Wes Unseld did them and studied game tapes of the greatest players.
"When other kids were watching Big Bird he was watching Larry Bird," says Stan Love, who recorded nearly every one of his son's games before he left for UCLA. "When he was seven he didn't want the regular birthday or Christmas presents. He wanted these old basketball tapes and he would take them to his room and play them over and over again before he went to sleep."
Indeed, Love's basketball baptism only made him want to learn more, play more and watch more basketball than anyone else his age. Unlike other horror stories of overbearing parents living vicariously through their children, Love genuinely wanted to do what he his father. That doesn't mean Stan Love, didn't step over the line a time or three during Love's development, especially during his time at Lake Oswego High when he had multiple run-ins with the team's basketball coach, Mark Shoff. One such disagreement escalated to the point that Stan posted, "Fire Shoff" stickers in the lobby of the Lake Oswego gym after Shoff failed to start Kevin the day after he had missed school with an illness, per school and team policy. "I was out of line, and I apologized to Mark," says Love.
Stan Love kept his video camera and his complaints at home this season, although he didn't have much of a choice. Pauley Pavilion has restrictions against spectators with recording devices and, well, there wasn't much to complain about during Love's freshman season, which ended with him being named the Pacific-10 Conference Freshman and Player of the Year, becoming only the second player to take home both honors. He led UCLA to its third consecutive Pac-10 Championship and 30-win season with a performance that exceeded even the grandest expectations placed upon his broad shoulders. He averaged 17.4 points and 10.9 rebounds per game and scored in double figures in every one of UCLA's game and setting a freshman record with 339, including a single-game record of 21 rebounds against Oregon State.
"He's so skilled and tough, he's the best freshman I've ever coached," says Howland, who was nearly brought to tears when Love committed to UCLA almost two years ago. "He's exceeded my expectations and I had high expectations for him. He is so fundamentally sound."
The centerpiece (some might say, masterpiece) of Love's fundamentally sound game is his outlet pass. Some day there will be how-to books and instructional DVDs dedicated to his perfectly placed full-court laser beam darts that haven't been scene on a basketball court since Wes Unseld, Stan Love's former teammate and the inspiration for Kevin's middle name, Wesley. "Kevin's the best passing big guy ever," says Shoff. "I mean of anybody ever, including NBA guys." Few, including Wooden, would disagree with that assessment as the legendary coach has said Love is the best outlet passer he's seen since Unseld and Walton, which isn't an accident.
"I studied a lot of tapes of Bill Walton and Wes Unseld," says Love. "I've worked on every aspect of my game but I think passing comes the most naturally of all of them. It is something I've worked on but it's something I've been blessed with; being able to see things that other players might not be able to see. It's really an instinctive thing."
How precise are Love's long-range passes? Consider his performance during an open practice in Anaheim before the start of the NCAA Tournament where Love drained a half court shot, a ¾ court shot from the opposite free-throw line and a full court shot, simply flicking his wrist from behind the baseline as if he were hitting a receiver between the numbers. "Sometimes I do think I'm on a football field with his passes," says UCLA guard Darren Collison. "He makes me feel like a wide receiver out there."
YouTube Love's name and you'll get over 20,000 clips, many of them of him passing, ranging from the sublime - his full court alley-oop pass to Michael Beasley which his fellow freshman 360 dunked it while practicing for a high-school all-star game - to the ridiculous - shattering the backboard after a breakaway dunk against Putnam High last year. The most poignant clip, however, may be a highlight package of Love's 26-point, 18-rebound performance against Oregon in Eugene set to the sounds of One Republic's Apologize.
If there was a turning point in Love's career and UCLA's season it took place inside the unruly confines of McArthur Court on Jan. 24, five days after a home loss to cross-town rival USC. It was supposed to be a homecoming for Love and his father, Stan, who had starred at Oregon and is in the school's athletic hall of fame. Instead it was a rude awakening to the hatred of a scorned school that badgered Love and his family throughout the game; calling into question their sexuality and referencing past issues of mental illness and drug abuse by Stan Love's cousin Brian Wilson, a member of the Beach Boys, among other low blows and personal innuendo. After the game, Oregon Athletic Director Pat Kilkenny apologized for the school's behavior.
"When I heard the things that were said to my family, my sister, my mom and my grandma, that was pretty disheartening, it made upset," says Love. "That changed my views on a lot of things. Not just in basketball. I'm just happy to be in a place like Westwood that appreciates the talents of its players, me included. People forget that my dad went to Oregon and I played in Oregon. I'm representing Lake Oswego, I'm representing Portland, I'm representing all of Oregon. I'm trying to do them proud the best I can. "
Love's career performance in the midst of a storm that might have affected other freshman only enhanced Love's role as the leader of a team filled with upperclassman that had already made it to consecutive Final Four appearances. Those trips, however, aren't recognized anywhere at Pauley Pavilion where banners are only raised for championships, not tournament appearances. While it may seem odd for a freshman to scold an older player for a missed assignment or run them through a play, his teammates discovered early on that Love is a born leader whose knowledge of the game belies his age.
"I've always been a winner and that's the only thing I do. I've been on winning teams my whole life from the third grade through high school and up until now," says Love, who has saved his best performances for the NCAA Tournament, notching a career-high 29 points in a Sweet 16 win over Western Kentucky and a career-best 7 rebounds in a second round win over Texas A&M. "I just want to win, and I want to help my teammates win."
Before leaving for San Antonio and the Final Four, Love took one last walk across the court at Pauley Pavilion looking up at the 11 blue and gold national championship banners hanging from the rafters. It was the same walk he had taken virtually two years ago before he committed to the school.
"I looked up at the '95 banner and I imagined what it was like to put that banner up there and have all the fans there," says Love of UCLA's last national championship. "I can only imagine how that would feel."