One of the first times Ron Bollinger watched Zach LaVine play, the longtime coach at Bothell High School outside Seattle noticed how LaVine came off the bench behind the coach’s son on a seventh-grade All-Star team and often got stationed in the corner despite prodigious athleticism.
“And yet, when he was out of the game, he’d be cheering for his teammates on the floor,” Bollinger said in a phone conversation. “He wasn’t sulking or pouting. He was confident in his own skills but wanted to win more than anything and followed what the coach wanted.”
Two years later, LaVine faced a decision. At the time, Bothell High sat in one of the last districts to be a three-year high school and thus ninth graders couldn’t play varsity. LaVine clearly had the talent to do so, particularly since the school stood as a football powerhouse but behind nearby hoops-rich programs like Garfield or Franklin.
“His Dad asked him, ‘What do you want to do, son?’” Bollinger recalled. “He said, ‘I want to play for Coach (Bollinger). He has been there for me.’”
So LaVine focused on AAU ball, cheered for Bothell High and waited.
“He’s got a very loyal streak to him,” Bollinger said.
Once LaVine arrived, he led Bothell High in scoring for three straight seasons. In one memorable matchup against Garfield, then the top-ranked team in the state with Washington-bound Tony Wroten, Bollinger called over LaVine. To that point, LaVine had been focused on setting up teammates from his point guard position.
“I told him, ‘We don’t have a chance unless you shoot,’” Bollinger said. “He pulled up and hit a 3 from deep. Next time down, same thing but even deeper. College coaches were there to see Wroten and they’re looking at Zach. The Garfield fans even started cheering for Zach. That’s how deep his shots were.
“After the game, our guys were all excited because we almost beat Garfield. I looked over and Zach is lying down by the lockers with a towel over his face. I can see that he’s upset. He had tears. He wanted to win that game so badly. There’s no reason we should’ve even been in that game except for Zach.”
This is a story about loyalty and losing -- and how LaVine’s hatred of the latter won’t make him stray from the belief in the former. It will just make him work that much harder.
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Sunday night, LaVine will make his first NBA All-Star appearance. He will do so after, in his mind, playing well enough to qualify the last two seasons.
And so while he is honored and appreciative, he is more focused on what it means to those around him, including the Bulls, his family and his tight inner circle. LaVine will soak in and enjoy the experience, but his eyes already are on what’s next.
“Zach has his goals. And that was one of his goals. Be an All-Star and then stay an All-Star. But every time he reaches his goal, that’s not the end for him. That just starts the next stage for him,” Bollinger said. “That started early on in his career. He always knew he had to work even harder once he reached one goal so that he could reach the next one.
“I think he’ll reach the All-NBA team. That’s his next goal. The only one I haven’t been right on -- yet -- is saying he’s going to win an NBA championship. I wouldn’t count him out. He’s a tireless worker. He’s never satisfied.”
In fact, while LaVine’s workouts with his father, Paul, are well documented -- and sometimes shared via social media -- plenty of sweat is shed in less glamorous moments.
During the Bulls’ near nine-month break as 22 teams descended on the bubble-like Disney World campus in Florida, LaVine retreated to his suburban Seattle roots. Often, Bollinger would receive a late-night phone call.
“This was after he would’ve already worked out with his Dad. He’d say, ‘Coach, can I get back in the gym?’” Bollinger said. “I’d be tired, but I’d meet him at the high school and sit there for two hours while he’d get up shots and work on different things. He’s got the work ethic to achieve whatever goal he sets because, athletically, there’s no ceiling on that young man.”
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LaVine has regained this elite athleticism despite tearing his left ACL in February 2017. Like everything else, LaVine plunged into that rehabilitation with a commitment that stood out even to those who have known the guard the longest.
“It’s impressive,” Devin Willis said.
Willis, who played professionally in Lithuania, first met LaVine at a local YMCA when LaVine was in elementary school. His father Tony, a basketball trainer, began adding some sessions to LaVine’s schedule. And Willis, now a skills trainer himself, has worked with LaVine most offseasons during his NBA career.
“These guys are making millions of dollars and they get to do something they really enjoy. But he takes it very seriously. It’s a full-time job with him,” Willis said. “He takes care of his body. He works on his game. He’s the most committed dude that I’ve seen by far as far as the hours he’s willing to put in on the court, in the weight room, on the field, in recovery, watching film. He’s a machine.”
Willis recalled the 2018 offseason in particular. That followed the 2017-18 season in which LaVine played 24 up-and-down games in his first action since tearing his ACL, averaging 16.7 points in his first games with the Bulls. They worked on finishing through contact and much more during their 15-18 workouts per week.
Just shy of three years later, LaVine’s scoring average is up 12 points per game on increased efficiency, while averaging a career-high 5.1 assists.
“He put in a ton of time to get back to where he is,” Willis said. “And then he took steps forward to (the) point where each year, he’s getting better.”
LaVine listened to his doctors and trainers much like he listens to his coaches. It’s well-documented that, in Billy Donovan, LaVine is on his sixth NBA coach in seven seasons. He hasn’t seen eye-to-eye with all of them.
But he has accepted coaching from all of them.
That includes Jim Boylen, whom LaVine reached out to after his firing despite some well-publicized instances in which they clashed as Boylen challenged LaVine to become a more committed two-way player. It also includes Nevada coach Steve Alford, with whom LaVine endured a challenging season as they advanced to the Sweet 16 in their lone year together at UCLA. LaVine fulfilled his promise to the program after head coach Ben Howland, who recruited LaVine and secured his commitment, was fired in March 2013.
In fact, LaVine remains close with Alford’s son, Bryce. The same Bryce Alford whose prominent role led to questions about favoritism as LaVine surprisingly became a one-and-done and declared for the NBA draft at age 18.
“He’s a tireless worker,” Nevada’s Steve Alford said this week on a Zoom media availability session. “When we had him as a freshman (at UCLA) to what he looks like now, you can tell he has really worked on his body.
“He’s maybe the most athletic player I’ve ever coached -- and maybe the fastest player... He’s always had the ability to shoot, but he’s really progressed as a scorer. He scores in a lot of ways now. His defense has gotten better every year.
“And I'm just so proud of him because he and my son, Bryce, still have a very close relationship and they talk a lot. I knew he'd be a Dunk Contest winner just because of what we saw before and after practices. But for him to become an NBA All-Star in the greatest league in the country, that is a tribute to just how hard he has worked at his game.”
LaVine’s ongoing relationship with Bryce includes online video games and pickup runs in Los Angeles during offseasons. It’s another sign of LaVine’s loyalty.
Given this trait, and his coachability, just think what some stability under Donovan could do for LaVine.
“I coached him for three seasons -- well, I guided him after a while because he’s such a natural player -- and stability gives players the ability to be the best they can be,” Bollinger said. “Teams would call me during the (NBA) draft process. I told them, ‘You haven’t seen half of what Zach can do. His ceiling is really high.’ That has proven out. (Averaging) 28 points is not the ceiling for this man.”
You see what’s happening here? The loyalty LaVine has showed is coming back to him now. It’s flowing both ways.
Maybe LaVine developed his loyalty to others as a way to repay the sacrifices his family made for him while growing up. It doesn’t really matter. It’s genuine, and it’s why LaVine talked about the best part of the All-Star experience being the knowledge of how much it means to those around him.
LaVine flew Bollinger and his wife, Renee, to New York for his NBA draft night. The Bollingers were there for his first game in Minnesota and have traveled to Chicago -- and stayed with LaVine -- for multiple Bulls games over the previous three seasons.
But with a pandemic limiting travel and plenty of Bothell High responsibilities, Bollinger will be watching Sunday’s All-Star game on TV. It will be a family dinner party, complete with LaVine jerseys from throughout his years decorating the room.
“It’s an honor to be part of his inner circle because he’s such a good person,” Bollinger said. “And his loyalty just goes to his character. You can depend on Zach. He’s very selective about who he has around. When you get in that circle -- he calls my wife his second Momma -- you’re there.
“There are a lot of users in this world. Zach has stayed insulated from that. He’s doing this for his friends and family.”
Bulls reporter Rob Schaefer contributed to this story.