Mixed emotions as Lavin returns to UCLA

LOS ANGELES -- Here, it matters. Inside the living history museum that is Kami’s Hair Cuts on Gayley Avenue in Westwood Village, Steve Lavin’s return to the neighborhood is a big deal.

As the St. John’s coach walks in the nondescript door and up the staircase, past the picture of himself hanging outside and into the half sports den/half-1960s lair that is Kami’s, Lavin is greeted like royalty.

“Coach, you’re back, so good to see you, so happy for you,’’ says Kami (there is no last name, just Kami, kind of like Cher) as he hugs Lavin.

This is where Lavin -- and judging by the photo-stuffed walls, all of UCLA’s roster and plenty of the famous folks in Los Angeles -- comes to get a trim.

Kami has been in Westwood Village for 42 years, in his Gayley Avenue location for 35 -- and he has the memorabilia to prove it.

Mixed in with smiling Buddha statues and a flower-covered wicker settee is stuff, all sorts of stuff -- jerseys and caps and an old stuffed Bruin with enough dust to vouch for his age and authenticity.

And on the walls, covering every inch of every one, there are pictures -- big ones and small ones, posters and old newspaper photographs.

On one wall, Jon Voight, Lloyd Bridges, Mark Harmon and Hal Linden all smile from old photographs alongside Kami. On another is Bill Walton and Magic Johnson. In the back room is Reggie Miller as a scrawny, thin-armed UCLA freshman.

And scattered throughout are pictures of Lavin -- a poster of him jumping in the air on the court at a game, a newspaper clipping, a picture of him front and center at the wedding of Kami’s daughter.

He’s everywhere.

But honestly, inside Kami’s is about the only place in L.A. that Lavin’s return to Pauley Pavilion on Saturday is meriting much attention.

Two women, a mother and daughter, stop to talk to him inside Jerry’s Famous Deli. They’re in town because the daughter, Susan Rose, is producing a play, In Mother Words, starring Jane Kaczmarek.

Later, as he heads to Kami’s, a man crossing the street sticks out his hand, “Hey Coach Lavin, good to see you. Sorry I can’t wish you good luck.”

It has been nearly eight years since Lavin was let go at UCLA, a lifetime in the constantly moving sports world.

Most kids on campus were in middle school when he was last prowling the sidelines at Pauley. They know him more for his turn as an ESPN analyst than as their school’s former coach.

There is a sign across from the John Wooden Center touting the game, but it simply touts the next two Bruins’ basketball games, with opponents and time. No mention of Lavin.

Inside the bookstore, manager Antonio Villejo stops as he boxes up some packages when he’s asked about Lavin’s return the next day.

“He is? Really? I had no idea,’’ he said. “Honestly, if it’s not Coach Wooden, I don’t think anyone cares. I kind of forgot he was coaching there.’’

The front page of The Daily Bruin carries a story about Lavin, trumpeting his return, but also chronicles a conversation between several UCLA players arguing over whether or not Lavin was on staff when the Bruins won their last national championship in 1995 (for the record, he was, serving as Jim Harrick’s assistant).

The article also promises a villain’s welcome for Lavin -- he has heard rumors of a hair gel sponsorship that will allow all the students to slick back their hair like his. He’s fine with it, by the way. But the students are less certain of such a passionate greeting.

“No, no, there won’t be anything,’’ said junior Tanner Heaphy. “No signs, no posters, none of that. He coached so long ago, it’s not going to get people riled up.’’

It will matter, of course, to Lavin.

First and foremost, it will matter because this breaks now as a critical game for both programs. The Red Storm sit at 13-8 and 24th in the RPI, with splashy wins over Duke, Georgetown, Notre Dame and West Virginia and not-so-splashy losses to Fordham and St. Bonaventure.

The brutality of the Big East, if it breaks favorably, should work in their favor. But building up their résumé with a cross-country victory in February wouldn’t hurt.

Ben Howland’s Bruins might be in a wobblier boat.

UCLA is 15-7, with a less-solid RPI of 47, a win against BYU, a loss to Montana and a less impressive league to bolster those numbers.

Consequently, Lavin has tried to approach this no differently than he has any game. There have been no win-one-for-the-Gipper speeches or even a mention of his connection here, save Justin Burrell remarking as the bus pulled into shootaround, “This place is nice, huh Coach?”

But Lavin acknowledges this is different.

This is where he cut his coaching teeth, starting as a volunteer assistant and moving all the way up to head coach. He has been back before, but only as a broadcaster, a casual observer to the action, not an active participant.

When he takes his St. John’s team into the visiting locker room before Saturday’s game, it will be the first time he’s set foot in the space.

“I sort of can close the circle,’’ Lavin said. “I think I’ve been in every role -- from volunteer assistant, to third assistant, to second assistant, to first assistant, to head coach, to fired coach, to broadcaster to opposing coach. The only thing left is to work the concessions, maybe sell some hot dogs.’’

This, of course, is also where he was fired, a stinging dismissal that came after what looked like a pretty successful run: six NCAA tournament appearances, six 20-win seasons.

But in the eyes of the administration, the roster of talent he recruited should have delivered more success. So he was canned.

It’s a scar that even after a seven-year hiatus from the profession, still dogs Lavin, especially after Ben Howland came in and eventually raised Lavin’s lone Elite Eight with three consecutive Final Fours.

“I remember him because my parents are both UCLA graduates and I’ve been watching games forever,’’ said senior Michael Bromberg. “I like him, but honestly, I was surprised he got such a big-time job like St. John’s.’’

Lavin knows there will always be critics, here and everywhere. He expects a few boos, maybe a snarky catcall or two. But in two hours, it will be over.

In the swift news cycle of sports, the story about his return will be long gone and his job in New York will continue.

He is staying overnight on Saturday to watch Long Beach native Norvel Pelle, an ESPNU top 100 recruit in the class of 2011 and a St. John’s commitment, play in a tournament.

And so with the extra time, he’ll attend two St. John’s alumni functions, one immediately after the game on the UCLA campus and another at the Los Angeles Country Club.

Which is why, when he gets finished reminiscing with Kami, Lavin takes a seat.

He could use a trim.

And nobody in L.A. gives a better haircut than Kami.