UCLA freshman Love a throw back


Kevin Love is a freshman in name only.

In a highlight mad world, the UCLA star plays an old-school game modeled after family friend Wes Unseld, featuring outlet passes and low-post moves the likes of which haven't been seen in Westwood since Bill Walton starred for the Bruins in the early 1970s.

Love has established himself as one of the nation's top newcomers, averaging 17.7 points and 11.1 rebounds to lead the fifth-ranked Bruins (21-2, 9-1 Pac-10).

Since UCLA lost to rival Southern California, Love has raised his level during the Bruins' current five-game winning streak, averaging 20.8 points and 13.8 rebounds. He had 13 double-doubles in 23 games heading into Sunday's contest at Washington.

Coach Ben Howland calls Love "the best freshman I ever had. He's unselfish to a fault. He's improving right now and that's exciting."

Love can obviously put up big numbers, including shooting nearly 50 percent from 3-point range. But his strong suit is lobbing a pass to a teammate streaking down court.

"My favorite one of the whole year was the one to Darren (Collison) against Arizona State because we kind of called it out beforehand," he said, smiling at the memory. "I hit him right in stride, he took one step and laid it up."

Love honed his passing skills partly by watching cable replays of Magic Johnson during the Los Angeles Lakers' "Showtime" era of the '80s.

"A lot of passing is just really instinctive," he said. "A lot of it came from my dad working with me at a young age. He had me doing footwork drills and watching instructional videos."

Love's father, Stan, played at Oregon and for the Lakers and Washington Bullets during a brief NBA career. He's a regular at most UCLA games, often with brother Mike Love, lead singer of the Beach Boys.

"He'd always tell me stories about Wes Unseld, Connie Hawkins, Jerry West," said Love, whose middle name Wesley honors Unseld. "I wanted to be the greatest basketball player of all time, like every little kid wanted to be."

The elder Love focused his hard-nosed development efforts on Kevin, his middle child and second son. Some days, Kevin would be outside in the rain at their Lake Oswego, Ore., home shooting jumper after jumper.

"My hands would be all dirty, I'd come in and make the floor all muddy," Love said. "Once he saw I was a self-starter, then he kind of backed off."

Love's mother, Karen, had her son's back.

"She'd always make sure I was getting treated right," he said.

Love chose UCLA over North Carolina, starting out alone in an off-campus apartment before being joined by his 21-year-old brother Collin, who attends Santa Monica City College. Their sister Emily is 13.

Love credits Collin as much as their father for toughening him up.

"My brother was always picking me up until I was about 10 or 11 years old," he said. "He'd throw me down the stairs, push me off the bed, make me cry, make me real angry. We've always been best friends."

Howland suggested living off-campus to shelter his prized recruit from the raucous dorms, where Love drops in to visit guards Collison and Russell Westbrook.

At the Love brothers' shack, Collin often does the dishes, laundry, cleans up and sometimes cooks. In return, his younger brother is a willing video game combatant, TV-watching companion and running buddy when the brothers hit the town.

"I am a good kid and I'm not going to make any bad choices because I was raised right by my parents," said Love, so focused on UCLA's goal of winning its 12th national championship that he doesn't have a girlfriend.

He's heard comparisons to Unseld and Walton since his high school days as a three-time player of the year in Oregon. The hype followed Love to UCLA. But his pals don't allow him to believe any of it.

"The best part about my close friends is I don't have any yes people around me," he said. "In the long run, that's the best thing for me."

Love is listed as a center, but he rejects labels.

"I feel like I'm a creator," he said, "a guy that can do anything my coach needs me to do."

If that makes him sound like an egotist, he's not.

"He's one of the most unselfish guys on this team," Westbrook said. "He's always looking to help a teammate out, whether it's on or off the court. He listens to us older guys."

Love also pays attention to 97-year-old John Wooden. He's deliberately cultivated a relationship with UCLA's former coach since meeting him in high school.

"Who else are you going to for advice that's better? There's no one," Love said.

Wooden enjoys Love's work ethic, his eagerness to get back on defense, and oh yeah, those outlet passes.

"He has the strength to make that particular pass and the accuracy with which he can throw it from that distance with some defense around him, too," the former coach said. "He's a team player and for a youngster who had so much publicity in high school, the ability to not let it go to his head."

That's evident after games, when Love is bombarded by autograph seekers ranging from young children to grown men pushing basketballs into his big hands. He handles all comers with the polish and graciousness of someone older than 19.

"I treat everybody how they want to be treated," he said. "I can read people real quick. It's been that way since I was a freshman in high school, having to pick people to be around."

If the NBA hadn't prohibited high school players from turning pro, Love said he still would have committed to UCLA while also testing the waters.

At season's end, Love will have to decide whether to stay or go. The prospect of enriching UCLA's winning tradition and adding his name to its roll call of great players is compelling.

"In the pros, you're playing for your contract and it's a business," he said. "Here, you're playing for the love of the game. Winning a national championship, being one of the best teams to play here ever, that's something very special to me. That's going to carry some serious weight."

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