UK Men's Basketball

St. John's has seasoned veteran ready to step in for Lavin at Kentucky

Mike Dunlap
Mike Dunlap

His ongoing recovery from prostate-cancer surgery means Coach Steve Lavin will not accompany the St. John's team for Thursday's game at Kentucky. Believe it or not, assistant Mike Dunlap, who will lead the Red Storm at UK, has experience in picking up the reins for a team suddenly absent its head coach. He helped guide Arizona through the 2008-09 season when Lute Olson abruptly retired in late October.

"It's fascinating," Dunlap said Tuesday, "and it's unfortunate to have to deal with."

In both cases, health concerns forced college teams and administrators to quickly adapt. At Arizona, Olson suffered a stroke earlier in the year and retired on Oct. 23, 2008. The school made another assistant, Russ Pennell, its interim coach, and Dunlap the associate head coach.

"That experience helped me a lot in terms of being pretty nonplussed," said Dunlap, who also ran a couple of practices as an Oregon staffer in 2009-10 when Coach Ernie Kent underwent minor surgery.

Dunlap called himself "a process guy."

The best approach is to stay on-task and busy with the day-to-day routine of getting better as individual players and as a team.

"You hit those marks," he said. "Come in early, and leave late. Do your job. Really stay focused on practice, the film, the scout. By the time you're done with your chores, there's not a lot of time to speculate on stuff."

Dunlap, 53, noted how Olson's late-October retirement made for a "tumultuous" 48 hours. "After that, we put a strategy together and followed it and got rewarded for that," he said.

Though a 12-seed, Arizona advanced to the Sweet 16 of the 2009 NCAA Tournament, where the Wildcats lost to Louisville 103-64.

"What I learned is, build a strategy, communicate with your superiors every day, and just go about your job," Dunlap said.

Rather than be a distraction, Lavin's cancer has united a St. John's team  with five freshmen, two junior college transfers and only one player with any Division I experience: 5-foot-11 Malik Stith. "They want to perform well for him," Dunlap said.

As for off the court, Dunlap said, "We haven't had one hiccup. They've tried to help us in that way."

Lavin, 47, underwent prostate surgery on Oct. 6. He coached in four of St. John's first five games, then realized he had returned too soon.

"My hope was, with each passing game, you kind of get your coaching chops back," he said Tuesday. "Instead, with each game, I had a clearly diminished level of energy or fuel in the tank."

A "high-energy" presence on the sideline, by his own admission, Lavin discovered that even the customary in-game duty of yelling at the referees became an ordeal.

"Because of the surgery, when you scream, it creates kind of discomfort and pain," he said.

The diagnosis was not a complete surprise. His father, Cap Lavin, was in his early 60s when doctors discovered he had prostate cancer. Plus, annual screening suggested a growing risk that the son had the same disease.

"I wasn't shocked," Lavin said. "Yet it's still not news you're eager to hear."

Reaction from the sports world rolled in. Lavin said he heard from plenty of coaches, including Jim Calhoun of Connecticut, Jim Boeheim of Syracuse and Cincinnati Reds Manager Dusty Baker. Emails. Phone calls. Text messages.

"Helpful and overwhelming and humbling," Lavin said of the support. "But there were certain periods I had to put it aside. It'd start to make the decision (on treatment) even tougher because you think you have clarity" and are "ready to move forward."

Then someone trying to be helpful would tell Lavin about how surgery was the best option. Or radiation. Or some other approach.

There was no consensus from doctors on the best way to treat the cancer.

"Like Republicans and Democrats, or different forms of religion," Lavin said of the conflicting advice he heard from doctors. "The conviction and passion is such, they present compelling arguments."

Lavin chose surgery, performed by Peter Scardino of the famous Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan.

A recent checkup showed that Lavin is cancer-free. But he needs more time to fully recover from the seven-hour surgery.

Dunlap noted the importance of Lavin's presence most days. But Lavin must limit his involvement in practice. Mostly, he sits with special assistant/adviser Gene Keady, his mentor and a Hall of Fame coach, at courtside and takes notes.

"I inevitably wander onto the court to make a point or demonstrate in a more deliberate manner," Lavin said.

Trying to turn his recovery into a plus, Lavin said it gives him more time to recruit and attend fund-raisers than his competitors. He likens it to his seven seasons as a commentator for ESPN, a way to gain new insight into college basketball.

"So it's a learning experience," he said, "and a growing experience instead of wallowing in self-pity."

Lavin, who made a name for himself as UCLA coach (1997-2003), expressed regret that he will not be able to coach at Kentucky. As a coach and working for ESPN, he had "pretty much hit my checklist" for experiencing the iconic college basketball venues.

Instead, he'll be home watching the telecast.

"I wish I could go down and watch the game there," he said.