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February 19, 2008

Fame hasn't spoiled UCLA's Kevin Love

LOS ANGELES Eight months into his career as a UCLA Bruin, and Kevin Love can't even get a burrito.

At least not without an interruption.

Last week, as Love made his way to Rubio's Baja Grill, the freshman center was approached by a pair of fawning coeds at the Ackerman Union.

"Oh my God Kevin Love!" one of them said. "You are such a good basketball player!"

KEVIN LOVE FILE

Name: Kevin Love
Age: 19
Class: Freshman
Hometown: Lake Oswego, Ore.
High school: Lake Oswego
Height: 6-10
Weight: 260
Position: Center
Season averages: 17.3 points, 11 rebounds, .9 blocks
Season superlatives: 27 points vs. Washington State, Jan. 12. 21 rebounds vs. Oregon State, Jan. 26.
Money stat: Has recorded 15 double-doubles
Love didn't smirk. He didn't give a half-hearted 'Whassup' and he didn't pull out his cell phone and begin to text. No, instead of responding like a typical, soon-to-be NBA millionaire, Love did what he was taught: He thanked the girls, asked where they were from and then made small talk during the elevator ride to the food court.

"It was sure nice to meet you," said Love, extending his right hand as the doors opened. "You ladies have a good day."

The 6-foot-10, 260-pound Love made a left and strolled toward Rubio's. From the folks in line at Panda Express to the employees working behind the counter at Wetzel's Pretzels, stares zipped toward Love from every angle. Love smiled when asked about the attention.

"The best thing about being a basketball player is getting to meet so many people," he said. "I like the spotlight. I don't shy away from it. I actually think I handle it pretty well."

He's certainly had plenty of training.

Five years ago, as a 14-year-old freshman at Oregon's Lake Oswego High School, Love was greeted by television crews as he walked onto the court for his first practice. His decision to sign with UCLA prompted an appearance on the Jim Rome Show, and his 33.4 points a game earned him National Player of the Year honors from Gatorade.

"He's the best player to ever come out of Oregon," said Mark Shoff, Love's high school coach.

Even so, Love was so envied by others that a simple walk to the bus could mean signing an autograph one minute and dodging a flying water bottle a full one the next. When he returned to his home state last month for UCLA's game at Oregon, Love was booed so viciously that the school had to issue a formal apology.

Love didn't seem to mind. Instead of shouting back or gesturing toward the crowd, Love responded with a 26-point, 18-rebound performance that enhanced his already strong chances of earning first team All-American honors.

"I was glad," Love said, "that I was able to show all those people that I was the bigger person."

UCLA coach Ben Howland was, too. But he certainly wasn't surprised. From the moment he arrived on campus in June, Love has handled himself masterfully during what could be his one and only season as a college basketball player.

On the court he's averaging 17.3 points and 11 rebounds for a Bruins squad that seems poised for a third straight berth in the Final Four. Love is also making the most of his freshman year off the court.

Instead of sitting around and worrying about his draft status, Love hangs out at his apartment and watches movies and plays videos games with his teammates and brother. He pulls pranks in the locker room and befriends fans with special needs.

"It's fun to watch, isn't it?" Howland said. "From Day One he had all this national attention with the hype and the magazine covers and the notoriety. He's so mature about it.

"Yet, deep down, he's still having fun being a kid."

Can't-miss kid

The first time Kerry Keating saw Kevin Love play basketball, the former UCLA assistant whipped out his cell phone and placed a call to Howland.

"Coach," Keating said, "Kevin Love right now could start for us tomorrow against Michigan State. He's that good."

At the time Love was a 14-year-old high school freshman.

Love was certainly blessed with strong lineage. His father, Stan, starred at Oregon before spending four seasons in the NBA, including two with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Stan the brother of Beach Boys lead singer Mike Love began working with Kevin at a young age and stressed the importance of becoming well-rounded. Even though Kevin was destined to be a post player like his 6-9 father, Stan wanted him to be able to dribble and pass and score from the perimeter as well as the paint.

"Like Magic Johnson," Stan said.

It is not surprising that Love today is regarded as one of the most fundamentally sound players in all of college basketball. Stan refuses to take credit.

"Kevin did it on his own," Stan said. "There was no pushing, no prodding and no if you want to be somebody speeches. He's a self-starter. He works as hard as a high-level professional."

Indeed, each and every morning before school, Kevin's brother, Collin, said he'd hear Kevin shooting hoops on the driveway before coming in for a quick shower and breakfast. During the summer Kevin was out the door by 8 each morning and on his way to the high school, where he'd work on his jump shot before hitting the weight room.

After a midday rest, Kevin repeated the routine in the evening. It was an incredible work ethic for a player who was so naturally gifted that he could've dominated on talent alone.

Love, though, has never been the type to settle.

"A few years ago," Love said, "one of my friends told me, 'Kevin, it almost seems like you think you're not good enough. It's like you're fighting from behind, and you don't think you have much time left.' I sometimes feel like that's true.

"The main thing I keep telling myself is that I can't lose focus."

Love said his father's NBA shortcomings have served as a lesson. Stan Love was a two-time All-American at Oregon but, after four NBA seasons he quit basketball and began serving as an assistant/caretaker for former Beach Boys lead singer Brian Wilson, his cousin.

"When my dad got to the pros, he was good, but he didn't put in the time in the weight room or on the court," Kevin said. "He'll tell you that. He was living the L.A. lifestyle as a Laker, and The Beach Boys were around a lot. He was just having fun.

"He told me, 'I didn't work hard enough. Here are the certain things you have to do if you want to stick around and be great for a long time.' He instilled those things in me at an early age and I took it from there."

It also helped that Kevin was blessed with uncanny strength, some of which he achieved by doing finger-tip push-ups.

Love's calling card in high school and college has been his ability to snatch a rebound and whistle a court-length outlet pass to a streaking teammate, much like Wes Unseld, his father's former teammate. It's no coincidence that Kevin's middle name is "Wesley."

Shoff, his high school coach, recalled a practice session when Kevin threw a chest pass from the baseline that surpassed the backboard on the other end and hit the concrete wall. Another time he plopped down in the front row of the bleachers right along the baseline and fired a two-handed shot that hit the far backboard.

"I tried the same shot and barely got the ball past half court," Shoff said.

With Love leading the way, Lake Oswego appeared in three consecutive state title games, winning the championship during Love's junior season. As a senior, Love shattered the backboard at Putnam High School on a breakaway dunk.

"It was like having a redwood tree in there," Shoff said. "He was a big old grizzly bear. You weren't going to move him. When he was a senior, I really wanted time to go by slowly, because I knew it'd be the last time I'd be able to coach someone like him."

Shoff almost didn't make it that far.

After Kevin's freshman season Stan Love began expressing displeasure over the lack of playing time given to his older brother, Collin, who was a junior. He threatened to have Kevin transfer to another high school if Shoff wasn't terminated. He also posted "Fire Shoff" stickers in the foyer of the gymnasium.

In the end, Shoff retained his job, Stan apologized and the two formed a friendship that continues today. During an interview last week, Kevin credited Shoff for much of his success.

"Stan just said, 'Hey, I'm sorry. I was over the top,'" Shoff said. "It was over after that. I think Stan has taken some hits from it, which shouldn't be the case. He apologized. That was enough."

The situation certainly didn't scare off UCLA and North Carolina, the final two schools in line for Kevin's services.

"Everyone was like, 'Oh man, that dad is going to be a problem,'" said Keating, now the head coach at Santa Clara. "People took the situation with Mark at face value. But no one cared to find out exactly what happened.

"It literally wasn't an issue. It's written off as a speed bump. There was an understanding that there was something bigger going on."

Keating paused.

"Still," he said, "I think fans always used that situation against Kevin. They never let it go."

Local support?

Walk into the Love house in Lake Oswego, and one of the first things you'll see is an 11-foot Christmas tree in the living room.

"I know it's Valentine's Day," Karen Love said last week. "We're a holiday behind around here because we've been gone so much."

Whether they're at UCLA or on the road, Stan and Karen attend almost all of the Bruins' games. The atmosphere is certainly better than it was during Kevin's high school days in Oregon, where he was often treated like an outcast instead of a hometown hero.

Kevin was well-liked by his classmates, and last week he used the word "awesome" to describe his high school. Still, fans rarely filled the gym for home games. And his brother said he was treated poorly by parents from both Lake Oswego and opposing schools.

"No one cared that the Gatorade National Player of the Year was in their own backyard," Collin said. "If he was in California, there would be a line out the door every night to get in the gym.

"Not only did people not show up, all they did was talk trash about him. Instead of supporting their hometown kid and trying to keep him from leaving the state for college, they'd tell him, 'You're not that good. You suck.' These were parents. I'm talking about 45- or 50-year-old men yelling at a 17-year-old and telling him he's not going to make it."

Stan Love said it's the "nature of sports" to be jealous of the people on top. But he never could've imagined things could get as brutal as they did when UCLA played at Oregon earlier this month.

"We got out of the car and they were yelling at me in front of my 13-year-old daughter and my 77-year-old mother," Karen said. "They were using every swear word known to man. It wasn't just students. It was adults as well. It was completely over the top."

Kevin said he used the situation as motivation.

"I always play my best when I feel like I'm in one of those me-against-the-world' situations," Love said. "In Oregon that's how I always felt it was. I really don't understand why I got this bad rep. People up there still don't like me to this day."

That's especially difficult to fathom considering the character Love has shown throughout his high school and college career.

On a mantle in his school close to the jar filled with glass from the backboard he shattered is a picture of Love sitting in the middle of his high school gymnasium, surrounded by a group of children.


I always play my best when I feel like I'm in one of those me-against-the-world' situations. I really don't understand why I got this bad rep. People up there still don't like me to this day."
- Kevin Love, UCLA freshman

Love made a habit of pulling up a chair after each of his games to talk with and get to know the kids who view him as an idol. The personality trait is one that began to reveal itself at an early age.

When Love was in elementary school he befriended a young boy named Billy who was born with a mental handicap. When Billy invited his entire class to his birthday party, Love was one of the few who actually showed up. And he spent the night.

"They got to high school," Karen said, "and Kevin was walking down the hall one day and saw some kids were teasing him. Kevin walked up, put his arm around the kid and said, 'You don't ever mess with him. He's my friend.'"

When Love was a senior at Lake Oswego, a parent jokingly sent word to Love about how great it would be if he could show up at his son's birthday party that weekend. Needless to say a few jaws dropped when Love walked through the door.

"It was fun," Love said. "We ate ice cream and played dodge ball."

Two summers ago, most of the high school players who attended Reebok's ABCD Camp shied away from the special needs children who were in attendance one afternoon. But Kevin spent nearly a half-hour with them, shooting the breeze as if they were his close friends.

"He's a very warm, caring person," said Ricky Korach, Love's high school English teacher. "The attitude of 'I know who I am and I want to be this type of person' is a very mature attitude for a 17- or 18-year-old. It's actually quite impressive."

So, too, was the way Love handled a difficult situation last month, when he met a young fan from San Diego stricken with cancer.

"I want to see you at a lot more games," Love told him. "Let me know when you want to come and I'll have a ticket waiting for you."

Big moments

A few days after he arrived on campus in June, Love found himself in Howland's office talking about the upcoming season.

"I'm going to average 18 and 10 this year," said Love, referring to points and rebounds.

Howland tried to hold back his chuckle. Averaging a double-double is tough for anyone much less a college freshman. Yet eight months later, Love finds himself doing just that.

"He's the best freshman I've ever coached," Howland said.

On Sunday, he swished two three-pointers against USC. He also kept a possession alive by diving on the floor for a loose ball.

"I like the big moments in games," Love said. "Whether it's coming down to that last shot, coming down to a second half or a fourth quarter where your season is on the line. That's what I play for, that's what drives me. It's never been about the paycheck that's going to come with it. I truly love the game."

Keating said no one should be taken aback by Love's accomplishments.

"None of this is a surprise," said Keating, who maintains regular contact with Love. "It's not a surprise for him. It's not a surprise for me. When you really get to know someone and really believe they have faith in themselves and their abilities, it's not a surprise."

About the only problem with Love's success in college is that it might be short-lived. Most NBA draft analysts project Love as a lottery pick in next spring's draft.

Shoff said he's "99.9" percent sure that Love will turn pro after his freshman season, although he stressed that that was his opinion.

"He's doing to the college game what he did in high school," said Shoff, who compared Love to former Portland Trailblazers star Arvydas Sabonis. "He's just dominating. I don't know if he's a franchise guy. But he's a guy that's going to do well at the next level. He's not going to be a guy that sits at the end of the bench. He's going to play."

Even Love's parents are being candid about their son's college future.

"If all the GMs and owners and experts and scouts say that you're going to be a Top 10 pick in the draft, you have to go," Stan said. "It's just because of the economics of it all. How often can you make that kind of coin?"

"You couldn't make it in a lifetime," Karen said. "But Kevin did mention the other day that all the guys were talking about how good they could be if everyone came back."

That's what people admire about Love. While everyone else talks about his future, his only concern is the present.

There are big games this week against Oregon State and Oregon and a Pac-10 title to win. But there are also parties to attend and video games to play. There are people to meet, autographs to sign and naps to take. Collin Love said his brother takes "four or five hours worth of naps" each day.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm growing up pretty fast," Love said. "But I'm also stepping back at points and realizing how much fun I'm having in college. I'm trying to soak it all in. It's nice having time to just be a kid."

Love puts the finishing touches on his Burrito Especiale and Lite Lemonade but leaves the chips and beans untouched.

"I'm watching my calories," he said.

Love leaves the Ackerman Union and begins walking through campus. He passes a group of high school seniors on a tour of UCLA's campus. The guide tells Love that one of the boys in the group wants to meet him but the kid is wearing a Duke basketball shirt. Love shakes his hand and refrains from making a snide comment. He's in too good of a mood to be bothered by something so petty, especially considering it's shorts-and-flip-flop weather outside.

"Los Angeles, 70 degrees and the women are wearing less clothing," Love said. "This isn't a bad life."

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.



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