Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2006 | 7:27 a.m.
Even when Kevin Kruger landed at Arizona State, one of the few Division-I basketball programs to woo him out of high school in Georgia, he heard the whispers:
The only reason he was a Sun Devil was because of his old man.
Lon Kruger, a fiery athlete who starred in hoops at Kansas State, had made a name for himself as a coach, first at his alma mater and then at Florida and Illinois and with the Atlanta Hawks.
The kid yearned to make his own name in the game.
"Growing up, I kind of shied away from accepting things," Kevin Kruger says, "just from being who I was or from having the Kruger name."
Consider him grown up.
Now 23, Kevin Kruger is embracing the name and will play his last season of collegiate ball for his father at UNLV. He has established himself as a leader in his own right, and says he'll relish playing for his famous father.
"You feel it did happen for a reason, like someone was looking out for you, giving you an opportunity to do something that most people don't get to do: to play my senior season for my dad," Kevin Kruger says outside the Thomas & Mack Center.
He received expert tutelage early in life. During shoot-around sessions at Florida and Illinois, his pop's players would coax, guard and tease Kevin . After games, they played HORSE with him.
"That said something about the players he brought in," Kevin Kruger says of his dad. "They weren't just good basketball players, but good people. They paved the way for me learning what being a college athlete was all about."
Still, he admits that those perks came with a price - those whispers and high expectations.
Those first couple of seasons at Arizona State, he deflected all questions about life as the son of a famous coach or the pressures of living up to his name.
Lon Kruger says he has never spoken with Kevin about the challenges or rigors that Kevin has had to deal with, or would deal with, as his son, nor has he ever perceived that his son has been saddled with abnormal pressure.
"What we do is very public, on a daily basis, and I think people are aware that that brings pressure," Lon Kruger says. "Sure, he's had to deal with it. But he's handled it in what appears to be a comfortable way."
The path for Kevin Kruger's departure from Tempe, Ariz., began last season, when the Arizona State administration announced it would not retain coach Rob Evans.
Without Evans, who'd recruited him to Arizona State, Kevin Kruger pondered his options.
In April, the NCAA implemented a rule (technically Proposal 2005-54) allowing athletes who have graduated in four years and have a year of playing time left to transfer and become eligible to play immediately.
Kevin, who redshirted as a freshman at Arizona State and majored in justice studies, graduated in June. Asking his dad about playing at UNLV, he says, was a no-brainer.
Now Barbara Kruger won't have to choose between watching her husband coach or watching her only son play in some Pac-10 city.
That should be good for Rebel fans.
"I saw him play a lot last season, and he'll make a difference," UNLV coaching legend Jerry Tarkanian says.
UNLV's new 6-foot-2 shooter averaged 15 points a game as a junior for the Sun Devils and played 38.96 minutes a game, an Arizona State record. He also hit 81 percent of his free throws.
It's easy to spot the source of his competitive fire.
"He's got some toughness about him that will enhance what we're after as a team," Lon Kruger says. "He doesn't lose comfortably, which I think is a good quality."
Kevin Kruger already knows his new teammates - and they know him - since they've played pickup ball together over the last two summers. And he has known his dad's assistants since he was very young.
It might be the smoothest transition in transfer history.
He smirked ever so slightly when asked if he has seen any footage of the old man in action at Kansas State. Last Christmas, the family watched an apparently rare 25 minutes of Lon Kruger's playing days.
"Of what was saved from his playing days," Kevin Kruger says. "I got on him about their style. It was a little revolutionary. They gambled a lot. He'd run around chasing the ball. He knew he had help back there (on defense); so I got on him about that."
"From things I've read, it's just two guys who want to win and would do anything they can to help the team win," Kevin Kruger says. "That's what I pride myself in."
He rises from his Park Place pad, watches a couple of hours of game tape from the last two seasons in the UNLV basketball offices and then participates in individual workout sessions.
At night, he attends facility management and philosophy of physical education classes. A lot of reading and discussion, he says. After this academic year, he'll be about a semester away from his master's degree in sports education. Practice officially starts in three weeks.
And, yes, he's prepared for when the old man sees a pass or a shot he doesn't like.
"I've seen him get a lot madder than any of these guys have," Kevin Kruger says, slightly smiling. "I think I'm ready for that."