March 15, 2005
Lon and Kevin Kruger were on the phone early Sunday night wondering where their respective college basketball teams would be headed in the National Invitation Tournament.
Both father and son knew a matchup between L on’s first Nevada-Las Vegas team and Kevin’s Arizona State team might be too juicy a story line for the NIT committee — always looking for an angle to steal any possible spotlight from the NCAA tournament — to pass.
While they talked, the UNLV coach’s other phone rang.
It was the NIT. And it was ASU.
"We both laughed at the same time, and then we got kind of quiet,’’ said Kevin, a sophomore guard. "No one wanted to be the one starting any trash talking.’’
There is little chance of that leading up to Thursday’s game between the Sun Devils and Runnin’ Rebels in Las Vegas. The teams have never played but have followed each other’s progress because of the unique bond. Lon has seen a half-dozen of Kevin’s games in person this season, and ASU coach Rob Evans — a close friend of Lon’s dating back to their SEC days at Mississippi (Evans) and Florida (Kruger) — makes sure he sees the others via videotape.
Last November, when the Devils were in town for the Las Vegas Invitational, the entire team had Thanksgiving dinner at Lon and Barb Kruger’s home — giving the holiday a special twist.
"It was great,’’ Lon said. "I got a chance to see the ASU kids in a different light. It’s not just Kevin and I . . . Rob and I have been good friends a long time, and over the last few years, I’ve been pulling for all those guys.
"I’m a big fan of (ASU forward) Ike (Diogu) and (ASU guard) Jason Braxton is such a great kid. All of those guys are. You get to where you’re pulling for them every day. Now you have to figure out a way to beat them.’’
In the first year of a fiveyear, $3.8 million deal at UNLV, Lon’s career has come full circle. After taking the Gators to a Final Four and Illinois to an 81-48 record over four seasons, Kruger jumped for the NBA’s big money and a huge offer with the Atlanta Hawks. But after winning only 69 of 191 games, Kruger was fired after less than three seasons.
He hooked on as an assistant with the New York Knicks under Don Chaney but was canned in less than a year when new general manager Isiah Thomas came in and cleaned house. A year later, he was at UNLV and is trying to return the Rebels to powerhouse status.
"I was happy to see him happy," Kevin told the Las Vegas Sun after his dad took the UNLV job. "He really wasn’t happy that last couple of years. You could tell."
Lon was in the NBA when it came time for his son to pick a college, and his relationship with Evans played a key role in Kevin’s decision.
"As a parent you want to have confidence in the people who are going to be coaching and teaching your son for the next four to five years,’’ Lon said. "I had that confidence in Rob. When we were in the SEC, we did the conference meetings together and played golf together. You really get to know the coaches you work with so we developed a friendship.’’
Kevin’s not wild about matching up with his father’s team on the court.
"I’d rather be playing someone else, but that’s the way the bracket came out and UNLV is the team we have to beat,’’ he said.
But Evans knows the Kruger under the most pressure Thursday will be Barb.
"These kinds of situations are always the hardest on Mom,’’ he said. "Lon will be coaching to win, Kevin will be playing to win, but Mom will sit there knowing she’s in a no-win situation. That can be rough.’’
Kevin ranks third on the Sun Devils in scoring (11.1). No. 2 scorer Steve Moore is a senior and if Diogu jumps to the NBA, Kevin will be the top returning scorer next season. Coaches know they have to keep an eye on his outside shooting — none better than the guy who taught him a jumper.
"We maybe have a little idea of what he likes to do,’’ Lon said, laughing. "But, unfortunately, we have to give Ike so much attention that the guys on the perimeter are going to get good looks anyway.
"I’ve watched every ASU game, whether it’s live or on tape, and I know what they do, but that still doesn’t give us much of an advantage.’’