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BREAKING BIG

Robyn Twomey

Kevin Love squeezes into a private booth with a group of friends and family at the rear of Hana Sushi on Wilshire Boulevard. It's a typically comfortable December evening in Brentwood, but Love is battling a cold, which explains the oversize UCLA sweatshirt. He's also still bothered by the Texas game the night before. Love's first loss as a Bruin hurt, but not as much as what he was doing at game's end—watching from the sideline.

"I've never been on the bench when a game has been decided," he says.

One of Kevin's former AAU coaches starts talking about the politics of basketball in LA, a place thick with star power, heated rivalries and people clawing to get ahead. The conversation soon returns to the Texas game. The defeat toppled UCLA from its No. 1 ranking, but the media focus was on the team's star freshman. Why did he get only six shots? Why was he benched? Why did he play only 24 minutes? "What people don't understand," Love says about the interrogation, "is the pressure on 19-year-olds."

The words are spoken matter-of-factly, more observation than complaint. After all, Love knows he chose this road. If the 6'9", 260-pound center had to spend a year in college before going pro, he figured UCLA was the best place to stare down expectations and overcome distractions. "I love when people tell me I can't do something," he says.

UCLA coach Ben Howland will say little about why he sat Love in the waning minutes against the Longhorns, but the big man admitted that his season-low five rebounds was "unacceptable." It's hard to say what many coaches are thinking in today's freshman-centric, one-and-done game. Timetables are short, and questions need answers: Can your star frosh handle the college game? Can he deal with all the scrutiny? When it comes to Love, here's what Howland will say: "Best freshman I've ever had. He plays like a senior."

Heading into March Madness, Love is the best player on a team that, up until a stumble in Washington, was playing as well as any in the nation. He's picked up Howland's intricate D—jumping out on screens, hitting the right rotations and getting back in transition. And he has posted a string of monster stat lines: a 27-14-4 performance against then-No. 4 Washington State, 18 and 21 boards in back-to-back January games, and 13 total double-doubles.

But for all the gaudy numbers, Love's mastery of the game around the game might be his biggest strength. He was billed as the missing piece on a team that reached the past two Final Fours. He plays in the backyard of many of his relatives and most of his teammates. And each game at Pauley Pavilion is crawling with NBA scouts and GMs, agents and their runners, thousands of frenzied students, and one legendary 97-year-old coach, all keeping a close eye on Love, a self-described 19-year-old kid.

Yet Love has embraced it all—from posing for cover shoots to becoming de facto team spokesman—without alienating his squad. He sees the fine line between confidence and arrogance and knows where to make his stand. When Howland said his star needed to improve his D and conditioning after the Texas game, Love gently questioned the critique without upsetting his coach. When Love thought he wasn't seeing the ball enough early in the season, he skillfully told reporters, "I'm such a good passer I can make players better." After UCLA's emotional loss at home to USC on Jan. 19, four Bruins attended the postgame press conference. When the brief session ended, three left while one was mobbed. "He makes it easier for the rest of us," says sophomore guard Russell Westbrook. "No one resents the attention he gets."

Love was in the spotlight long before he hit Westwood. At home in Oregon, three local TV stations covered his first high school practice. That adoration disappeared when Love chose UCLA over Oregon, where Kevin's dad, Stan, had starred 40 years ago. As a senior, Kevin was Gatorade's National Male Athlete of the Year, but he shared top basketball honors in his home state with South Medford's Kyle Singler. The resentment from Oregon fans was tangible when UCLA visited Eugene last month. Students wore "F— You Kevin" T-shirts, and fans tossed obscenities and garbage at his family. By game's end, Stan, mom Karen, sister Emily and Kevin's uncle, Beach Boy Mike Love, were surrounded by security officials. Kevin's response: 26 points, 18 rebounds and a UCLA win.
"I enjoyed myself," he says.

He's having a great time these days, even as the pressure mounts for his first, and most likely his last, NCAA Tournament. He'll shift to power forward in the NBA, and he knows teams have questions: Can he handle the bigger 4's? Can he keep up with the quicker ones? Can he get off his shot?

Those questions will be answered soon enough. On another night out with friends and family, in late January, he just wants to relax. But he's quickly approached by fans who want handshakes and autographs. Love handles it all like a seasoned pro. When a table is finally ready and his group walks into the dining room, his dad leans over and whispers to a reporter, "Let's not have any questions about basketball at dinner.

"Let him be a normal kid for a night."