I never shook Lute Olson’s hand.
The thought ran through my mind over and over again last Thursday, Oct. 23, 2008, the day an era died.
Much has been written about Lute Olson’s retirement, and much more will be, by men who did shake the coach’s hand.
As a newbie sportswriter in the Tucson-area media scene, I was too late. Too late to shake the hand of the man who, in 24 years, gave more to the Tucson sports scene than anyone before. Although the future is unknown, it is likely that for many, many years, no one will approach what Olson gave to us — a national championship, four Final Four appearances, 11 Sweet Sixteen appearances, 11 Pac-10 titles and trips to the NCAA tournament for 23 straight years.
I know what he gave to me.
I grew up in Tucson, someone used to people reacting with near-shock when they inquire into my origin, and I reply “right here.”
“Right here” was where I was in 1988, the year of the Wildcats’ first magical Final Four run.
That year, a local radio station decided that the ‘Cats simply had to record a rap, and so they did.
Each star had a verse dedicated solely to himself, (view it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=58zSZjbxt-o), bookended by the stunning chorus, “W-I-L-D-Cats, we’re wild about the ‘Cats!”
Future pro standout Sean Elliott’s contribution pretty much summed up why the team needed to stick to passing and shooting: “Elliott’s here, it’s time to play! They want me in the NBA!”
As an 8-year-old, I decided that it was unfair for only starters to be lyrically immortalized, and wrote my own verses for the entire team, beginning with #44, Harvey Mason. I still remember the word wizardry that seemed to flow from me like a river, “Harvey Mason’s hands are like glue, give him the ball he’ll score for you!”
My parents encouraged me to mail (in a huge envelope) my newly minted musical catalog to the university, and being a good rap-mogul-on-the-rise, I did.
About a week later, I received an autographed picture of Harvey Mason, that I kept until it dissolved, and a letter of thanks from someone in the athletic department (who was probably hoping I would grace them with their own personal rap, as if with my busy star-studded playground schedule I had the time).
I was hooked, as wild about the ‘Cats as could be, and when their storybook season ended with a loss to Oklahoma, I wept, but through the tears decided that although I didn’t know what a Sooner was (still not too sure), I didn’t much care for it. I still root against Oklahoma.
Lute Olson gave me 1988, the stories, the rap, the excitement, the hatred of a Big 12 school. He gave us all 1997, the year the ‘Cats beat three #1 seeds and brought the NCAA college basketball championship home to Tucson.
A testament to what that year meant to the city can be seen in the overwhelming number of faded bumper stickers still gracing autos all over the community. The next time you’re in a crowded parking lot, you need no time machine to make time travel possible; simply look down.
After the game, the university held a homecoming for the team at the football stadium.
I had missed much of the tournament due to the fact as a junior shotput / discus thrower on the Canyon Del Oro track team, conflicts arose between meets and the televised NCAA action, but I was NOT going to miss the party, and so, skipping school (kids, don’t skip school) a group of buddies and I piled into a large van provided by a sympathetic parent, and proceeded to get into a not-too-serious but not-too-minor fender bender on our way to campus.
The driver aside, our main concern was getting the hell out of there and down to the stadium with all possible haste.
As soon as insurance info was exchanged, we piled into the still-running (and eventually easily repaired) van and got down to campus in time to park almost five miles away, run the whole way there in sandals, incurring incredible blistering, and still arriving in time to hear the speeches.
It was totally worth it. The driver even thought so.
I could share these memories indefinitely, but the paper’s ink might run out.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is what Coach Olson gave to us.
He gave us the privilege of being united, whether in victory or in defeat.
He gave a young child the opportunity to cheer for a team that inspired him to be creative, and to tell the stories for a lifetime.
Coach Olson, this is as close as I will get to shaking your hand, and as near as I can get to a personal thank you.
And you know, if this rookie sportswriter can shake a Hall of Fame coach’s hand with words on a page, that is just fine with me.
Bon voyage, Coach Olson, you will be missed.