This story originally appeared in the Holiday issue of ESPNHS magazine’s Washington edition.
When you watch Zach LaVine play basketball, you’ll quickly see why Division I schools are knocking down the doors at Bothell in hopes of landing the junior phenom.
Peep his NBA range from the perimeter, the insane balance he displays when crossing over defenders and the mean swag he exudes whenever he steps on the court.
What you won’t see from the 6-foot-2 combo guard on the hardwood is the excruciating pain he feels with each Bothell loss — the Cougars went 4-16 last year. No, that’s reserved for the locker room, where you might find LaVine holed up in the corner with a towel over his head imagining each setback is just a bad dream he’ll soon wake up from.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” says LaVine. “You have to handle adversity well. There are roadblocks you will have to fight through.”
LaVine’s on-court talents and his ability to maneuver through adversity are why he’s being viewed as a beacon of hope for a Bothell hoops program that has long lived in the shadow of the school’s decorated football team. Considered one of the nation’s top recruits in the Class of 2013, LaVine averaged a gaudy 25.9 points per game in his first varsity season last year.
“Regardless of if he wants to be or not, he’s the leader of that team,” says Ed Haskins, coach of league rival Garfield. “Because of his God-given ability, he has to.”
Despite the mounting pressure, the frustrating losses and the allure of transferring to a more successful program, there is no place LaVine would rather be than Bothell.
Growing up less than five miles from campus, LaVine couldn’t wait for his opportunity to don the blue and white of the Cougars. A fervent Michael Jordan fan, LaVine often mimicked His Airness while practicing, only he pictured hitting his game-winning jumpers for Bothell.
However, LaVine’s dream would have to wait. At Bothell, all freshmen take classes outside of the high school building, and the district mandates athletes have to be on campus to play varsity.
Others in his situation might have transferred to play right away, but LaVine remained committed to being a Cougar. He bided his time playing junior high ball at Canyon Park and with the Friends of Hoops AAU squad until his sophomore year began.
“I thought about transferring, but I knew my coach had stuck with me through the process,” LaVine says. “I stayed because of that. He told me everything will be OK and this is the place for me.”
“I knew all along he was coming to Bothell to play,” adds coach
Ron Bollinger. “Zach was loyal. That’s rare these days with these really good athletes.”
LaVine finally got his varsity opportunity as a sophomore but was tentative early on, causing the Cougars’ offense to stall. Bollinger implored his star to shoot more, reminding him that his play was directly connected to the team’s success.
The pep talk did wonders, and LaVine hit his offensive stride nearly two weeks into the season. In a statement game at Garfield, he erupted for 28 points after being held to a single basket at the half.
“We knew he could score, so we tried to make sure to get the ball out of his hands,” says Haskins. “Next thing you know he had like 26 in the half.”
Word began to spread about his game, and fans came out in droves to support the team as LaVine went head-to-head with several of Washington’s elite. One such encounter took place near the end of the season, pitting LaVine against the state’s top recruit, Tony Wroten Jr., in a rematch with Garfield.
LaVine had just garnered Washington Varsity News Player of the Week honors after pouring in 31.6 points in a three-game stretch, but facing off with Wroten, who missed the previous meeting with an injury, would be the ultimate litmus test for the sophomore.
“The game was billed as Wroten vs. LaVine around Bothell,” says Bollinger.
Wroten dazzled, but LaVine held his ground and combatted the trapping Garfield defense with an array of long-distance bombs to keep the Cougars within striking distance.
“I think he had like 32, but we were matching each other shot for shot,” says a confident LaVine.
Late in the tight game, LaVine suffered a shoulder injury on a rebound attempt. In a valiant effort, LaVine returned moments later, but Bollinger knew his star wasn’t 100 percent. So he abruptly ended his night as Garfield pulled away. LaVine finished with 25 points in a losing effort.
“The Garfield fans started chanting, ‘You need LaVine,’” says Bollinger. “It was tough on him. He was visibly upset after the game.”
Following the contest, an impressed Wroten offered words of encouragement to the Bothell star.
“He told me, ’Keep your head up. People will start to see how good you are,’” LaVine says.
Despite facing various defensive schemes, LaVine still managed to top the KingCo 4A Conference in scoring last year. His dynamic debut led to offers from several top college programs, with UCLA, USC, Cal, UW and Washington State among his suitors.
But shortly after the season ended, rumors began to circulate that LaVine would be leaving Bothell for greener pastures. While it would have been easy to abandon ship, LaVine didn’t even consider transferring.
“I don’t know where those rumors came from,” LaVine says. “My friend Danny Wilson said, ‘We really need you to stay and everybody loves you.’
I couldn’t let them down.”
His decision to return could pay big dividends this year. With LaVine and Wilson back and the addition of junior transfers Perrion Callandret and Aaron Wilks, Bothell has a chance to surprise.
“I think we’ll do a lot better this year,” LaVine says “I’m just going to try to go out and kill it and get victories.”
Now that will be something worth watching.
David Auguste is an associate editor for ESPNHS and ESPNHIGHSCHOOL.com. Follow him on Twitter @ESPNHSAuguste or email him at David.Auguste@espn.com.