BYU BASKETBALL COACH Steve Cleveland laughs as he tells the story on himself: He was in a banquet line for the Rainbow Classic last December when Kansas coach Roy Williams approached. One of the scheduled speakers, Williams asked if he could cut in ahead of Cleveland. The old I'm-on-the-program maneuver. Surely everyone would understand.

A few minutes later, as Cleveland stood in the dessert line, Williams cut in again, politely excusing himself. After the program, in which all the coaches were introduced, Williams found Cleveland a third time. But this time he didn't butt in line. He apologized for not knowing who Cleveland was."I appreciated his sincerity," says Cleveland. "Here's one of the great coaches in the country and he's taking the time to talk to me and apologize for not knowing me. I appreciated that."

Cleveland speaks glowingly of other coaches, as well: New Mexico's Dave Bliss, Utah's Rick Majerus, UTEP's Don Haskins, Air Force's Reggie Minton, Wyoming's Larry Shyatt and Fresno State's Jerry Tarkanian. He describes how each has taken time to encourage him in his quest to bring BYU basketball back from the abyss. In telling these stories, Cleveland reveals as much about himself as he does others. He is secure enough to admit he doesn't have all the answers, to admit he's a relative unknown in the high-profile world of NCAA Division I basketball.

Twenty-two years of coaching can humble you like that. You find out how much you don't know. You learn the line between success and failure is thinner than most people think. You discover there are dozens, maybe hundreds of fine coaches who, by choice or circumstance, never become Division I coaches.

Consequently, Cleveland is generous to offer praise without fear of diminishing his own importance. "I don't have a lot of original ideas," he says modestly. "But I have my own philosophy, and I look at other techniques and try to use what's best from all of them."

Indeed, if there is anyone who should check out every avenue, it's Cleveland. He inherited a program that won just one game last season. But it's more than just building a strong program from a weak one. It's resurrecting what was once one of the better systems in the country. Before last year's disastrous turn of events BYU ranked 39th in winning percentage (.611) among Division I schools. This year's team is 6-16.

"I'm very comfortable with who I am and why I'm here," he says. "I have a responsibility and there are expectations, and I'm fully aware of them. There's nothing I desire more than to see this team return to its great tradition. But it's a different environment. What we're going through at BYU is something it has never experienced before."

At the same time, Cleveland is something BYU has never experienced before, either. The school has never had a head basketball coach who has worked at virtually every amateur level: junior varsity and varsity at a high school, junior college assistant and head coach, and now a major college head coach. It has never hired a junior college coach as its head coach, never named a head basketball coach who served an LDS mission. And it almost certainly has never had a coach who has spent most of his career inviting players to his house for spaghetti.

He has been chosen to lead a once-proud basketball program out of the wilderness. "Everything is so public," he says. "I am comfortable in public and talking to the media, those are some of my strengths. But I also cherish some private moments. It's important to find those private times.

"But I also know I have a different life now. If I win a few games, maybe there will be less stress. Maybe not. This is probably a job where you can never do enough."

SINCE COMING TO BYU last March, the private moments have become rare. Cleveland is at work by 8 a.m., goes to bed after midnight. He hasn't had a full day off since he took the job. He skips meals, loses sleep, takes life on the run. He conducts some of his media interviews while he's walking to his office. He makes a couple of calls, answers a few more questions, heads to a taping of the coach's show.

Meanwhile, he has traded a life of parenting junior college players for coaching a Division I team with seven returned LDS missionaries. As the coach at Fresno City College, he taught players to consider their future; at BYU most of the the players have planned several years in advance. One job involves driving players to the dentist or herding them to study hall, the other includes governing a basketball empire that recruits even in foreign lands. One is a one-man operation, the other includes trainers, equipment managers, doctors, public relations staff, assistant coaches, academic advisors, administrative assistants and travel consultants. When he boarded the team bus in Hawaii, his wife, Kip, asked, "Don't you have to go back and count heads?"

Sounding a little chagrined, Cleveland said, "It's not my job anymore."

"It was like `Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' when he got the job," says Wendy Rozier, a family friend. "He couldn't believe it. He had been mopping the floors; now he has this paneled office and a cell phone."

For all the disparities, there is a common thread for Cleveland at both schools: teaching. But while his FCC duties included teaching his players to stay in school or perhaps how to balance a checkbook, at BYU he works on teaching his players about handling adversity. Last year's FCC team won 20 games; BYU won one.

While there are differing kids of coaches - administrators, motivators, media schmoozers, intimidators - Cleveland admits it was probably his destiny to be a teacher. His father was an elementary school teacher who took side jobs to supplement his income. His older brother is a high school teacher in Fresno. Cleveland coached and taught government and economics for 10 years at Clovis West High in suburban Fresno. At FCC, where he became head coach eight years ago, he taught life skills, as well as basketball. His team was comprised mostly of minority players from single-parent homes, and he became their father figure. He brought players home to eat several times a week, took them on errands and checked on their grades. At times it seemed more like a rescue mission than a basketball program. Cleveland was forever grabbing pans or plates from his own kitchen to help a player get set up in his apartment.

It can be that way when you're a community college coach. You sweep floors, drive the team to games, lock up at night. Your office is usually little more than a broom closet. There is no such thing as per diem money, plane trips or room service at the Marriott. Team meals are at McDonald's.

"For some kids, that might be their only meal of the day," says Kip. "Steve made sure they each had a job, helped get them financial aid."

The years in Fresno, however, were more than tedious chores. There were moments of exhilaration when a player went on to gain his college degree. Meanwhile, the basketball side thrived. Cleveland was twice the California junior college coach of the year. He won 159 games and was in the California JC Final Four twice. He says he could have been happy for the rest of his career coaching at the Fresno school. "I had a great job," he says.

Even as a high school coach, Cleveland enjoyed rare opportunities. During the mid-1980s he hosted a summer camp sponsored by former NBA player Rod Higgins. That led to golf and tennis with Michael Jordan, Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Higgins. ("Boy," he says, "is Jordan competitive.") The players borrowed Cleveland's car to run errands, asked his wife to do their laundry. One summer night, as part of the camp, the NBA stars played a charity game at Cleveland's high school gym. Three thousand people packed into a 2,000-seat arena. Jordan was just beginning to assert himself as a great player but had yet to win his first NBA title.

"If there had been a fire marshall, we'd have been in trouble," Cleveland says.

The temperature outside the gym was 100 degrees - higher inside - but no one cared. Jordan was landing 3s and laughing, high-fiving children along the sidelines. Players on the bench sprayed the others with mist to cool them down. It was an unforgettable, intoxicating night of raw hoops. No contracts. No endorsements. No agents. No television. Only the hot gym, the stunning talent, the happy crowd, the joy of the game.

"That was a special moment," says Cleveland.

Those days are long gone now. "I haven't talked to Mike for several years," says Cleveland wistfully. "I'd like to see him again."

That isn't likely to happen anytime soon. Jordan is surrounded by an army of managers and hangers-on. Cleveland is working 18 hours a day trying to save a basketball program. Still, says Cleveland, it continues to afford him the chance to teach, which is what he's wanted all along. "That's probably a good assessment, both professionally and religiously," says Cleveland. "That seems to have been my calling in life, the one thing. "

"Basically, he's like a father figure and role model for me. He's more interested in my personal development than basketball," says BYU guard Ron Selleaze, who also played for Cleveland at FCC.

The first time Selleaze met Cleveland, they were in the FCC tennis office. They talked for 11/2 hours about life and the future, barely mentioning basketball. "He likes to talk about where you see yourself in five years, stuff like that," continues Selleaze, who grew up in inner city Oakland. "The way I grew up, I was just thinking about the day I was in, what am I doing today, and I didn't really think about tommorrow because for some people there might not be a tomorrow. It was day to day. He got me to open my mind and think more of the future."

While the circumstances vary, the teaching remains. At BYU Cleveland is teaching guard Danny Bower how to get open so he can utilize his flawless shooting stroke. He's teaching Justin Weidauer how to play with almost constant pain. He's teaching Selleaze not to try to carry the team on his own. He's teaching assistant coaches to be head coaches. And he's teaching everyone, including himself, how to learn from losing on a regular basis.

CLEVELAND GREW UP in Fresno, in love with basketball and teaching from the start. He watched his father bring home underprivileged students as a sort of reclamation project. But on a school instructor's salary, outside income was important. His father sold shoes and ran a family gardening business to make ends meet. Often the extra jobs included his sons.

"As much as I disliked pulling weeds when it's 105 degrees in Fresno, I learned to work," Cleveland says. "There was a certain value system we were taught."

Thus, when he played at FCC and UC Irvine, and later when he coached in high school and college, Cleveland had no qualms about long hours. He didn't mind staying late. He didn't think twice about sweeping the floor or picking up towels in the locker room. It was honest work. It made young men better. It made him better.

Along the way, Cleveland demonstrated unusual determination. He fully expected to meet his goals. "If he wanted the family car," says Richard Rozier, who grew up with Cleveland, "it was going to happen. His parents might have had the most important thing in the world coming up, but if Steve made up his mind it was going to happen, it did. He'd say, `I'll take care of it,' and you could take it to the bank."

Rozier and Cleveland made enough money painting house numbers on curbs to pay green fees and buy gas. They worked hard and fast in the mornings and golfed at the end of the day.

In Cleveland's life, there has always been room for hard work, teaching, learning and play. Lately, play has taken a back seat. However, he still takes time to teach himself, reading from three types of books daily: religious, basketball or sports and general interest. "I think you need that balance in your life," he says.

Cleveland has also found time for dreams, both figurative and literal. Stories about recurring dreams in which Cleveland envisioned himself as the BYU coach have been recounted since he got the job. He admits to having dreamed of living in Utah. But coaching at BYU? He barely knew the place. The first time he visited the Marriott Center came when he was interviewed by Roger Reid for an assistant's position in 1994. He returned home to Fresno feeling good about his chances. When he learned the position had gone to former assistant Lynn Archibald, he was crushed.

"I did have some strong impressions I would be in Utah," he says. "But the fact is, I never had any conscious or subconscious thoughts that I would be the head coach at BYU prior to getting the job."

After being denied the assistant's job, Cleveland sulked briefly, then decided "what I really needed was to commit myself to being the best community-college coach I could be. I would take care of the present and what I needed to do now." His teams won 80 games in the next three years. "I had my greatest coaching success after I didn't get that job," he says. FCC, which drew crowds of 50 and fewer when he arrived, was drawing crowds of 2,000 when he left.

Since being hired at BYU last March, Cleveland has moved on to a new challenge. His former life is behind him. There are more resources, but there is also more pressure. It's a different job in a different world. But ask Cleveland about the differences and he'll eventually get back to the basic charge: teaching.

"What I've always wanted," he says, "is to be a better teacher this year than I was the year before."

Who is he to argue with destiny?

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Local hoops

Utah visits Rice, Tulsa takes on BYU in Provo and USU hosts Cal-Fullerton today. For details see Page D4.