Steve Lavin underwent nearly seven hours of surgery for prostate cance in October, knowing that the college basketball season was just around the corner but counting on his energetic ways to carry him to a recovery full enough that he could coach this season.
He wanted to be on the court as St. John's tried to build on the momentum it achieved last year when the Red Storm qualified for the NCAA Tournament after becoming perhaps the biggest surprise of the Big East Conference season.
But four games into this season, after coaxing his team back from a 16-point deficit to a win over Lehigh, Lavin said he found his "gas tank was empty, like I was pumping on the accelerator and there was nothing there."
He tried to fight his way through it, but he continued to struggle in St. John's next three games. Finally, in mid-November, his doctor ordered him to step away, requiring an extended leave of absence.
Lavin, 47, is said to be cance-free, but he has been warned about pushing his body too hard after two biopsies and a major surgery in a 15-month span. A premature return, doctors cautioned, could lead to a setback further delaying a complete recovery.
Prostate cancer annually affects approximately 220,000 men and kills nearly 30,000.
During a recent interview at a SoHo coffee house, the former UCLA coach discussed his situation and his future. "I can still manage the program, attend practices, travel to recruit and text the coaches and players after games — this iPhone is like an athletic office," he said. "But I can't be there in the games."
Staying away hasn't been easy. "Coaches by nature have that 'Braveheart' attitude. It's difficult to take a step back," Lavin acknowledged. But he has a wide network of support, including that of Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski.
"Coach K called and we discussed miscalculating our own strength," Lavin said. "He said to me, 'Our game is energy. What we do is based on energy.' To not have that is debilitating, counterintuitive to our nature."
Krzyzewski was speaking from experience, having been forced into a leave of absence in 1995 while recovering from back surgery.
Lavin had hoped he would be ready to return to the team for the start of Big East Conference play late last month. Then he took aim at Jan. 15, when classes at St. John's are set to resume. But now he's saying only that his status will be revisited at some point later this season.
The gleam in Lavin's eyes when he discusses his basketball team reveals a deep-seated yearning to be with it. After all, he already has one big comeback to his credit.
After being fired by UCLA in 2003, Lavin spent seven years in television as a college basketball analyst, barnstorming the country with veteran play-by-play man Brent Musburger while increasing his coaching acumen by observing the game's top programs.
"I'd get in the night before, watch practice, sit in on staff meetings as they broke down film, watching every game courtside," Lavin recalled. "Gathering that intel . . . there's value in distance. You see the game in a wide-angled lens.
"To me, it's why teachers take sabbaticals. When you're coaching, you can't study the game as much as you want to with the recruiting, donors, crisis management, media commitments."
When St. John's signed Lavin to a six-year contract in the spring of 2010, he inherited a team loaded with seniors who were used to losing. Privately, the coach predicted it would take three years for the Red Storm to be consistently competitive in the mighty Big East.
But Lavin's style meshed with the players' will to win, and they swept through their Big East schedule in February, beating Pittsburg , a Connecticut, team that went on to win the national championship, and winning on the road at Villanova,Marquette and Cincinnati.
St. John's did better than just compete. The Red Storm finished 12-6 in conference play and earned an NCAA tournament invitation while enjoying the nation's largest increase in home attendance. Then, Lavin followed that up by securing the nation's third-ranked recruiting class, behind only Kentucky and Duke.
Suddenly, that bad ending at UCLA took on new perspective.