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Lute Olson, legendary Arizona basketball coach, dies at 86

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One of the last “gentlemen” coaches.

Pacific Life Pac-10 Basketball Tournament: Arizona v Oregon Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

Before I became a Tar Heel, I was an Arizona Wildcat fan. My dad, who was in the Air Force for 27 years, was assigned to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson during the summer of 1996. We moved to the desert from Virginia, and I felt like I was on another planet.

Because I loved basketball, I quickly glommed onto the local team. Arizona had a ton of support in the local community, and 99% of the students at Sabino High rocked U of A gear, rather than the hated “Scum” Devils of Arizona State. Rooting for Arizona helped me fit in.

I had arrived in Tucson during an exciting period in the basketball program’s history. Lute Olson was a consistent winner. The team was usually a lock to win 20 games per season. They opened the 1996-97 season with an unexpectedly handy victory over North Carolina in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic, and were led by an exciting freshman from Shadow Mountain (Phoenix, AZ) High School by the name of Mike Bibby.

Despite finishing with a deceivingly decent 19-8 overall record, Arizona limped to a fifth place finish in the Pac-10 with an underwhelming 11-7 conference record, and bowed out of the Pac-10 tournament in the first round to Cal. The Wildcats made the tournament, but weren’t expected to make any noise.

This is where Carolina fans’ consternation begins. Lute Olson’s Wildcats would go on a legendary run that has not been matched since, beating three #1 seeds en route to a national championship. As the #4 seed in the SouthEast bracket, Arizona beat Roy Williams’s #1-seed Kansas. After an overtime scare against a sneaky-good Providence team (featuring the eternal God Shammgod and the decidedly -ternal Austin Croshere), Lute Olson beat our beloved Dean Smith in his final coaching appearance, denying him a third championship before his retirement. I don’t think that anyone will complain that he beat a Kentucky team that was led by Rick Pitino, who turned out to be a pretty gross guy.

Tucson was nuts after the national championship, Lute Olson’s and Arizona’s first and only. My dad bought me some cheap non-brandname t-shirt with Wilbur the Wildcat on it that I wore to school all the time. My mom, then a flight attendant for United Airlines, served Lute Olson on a flight to Los Angeles, and got him to autograph a picture of me wearing the t-shirt my dad got me. I still have the picture. Goodwill has my t-shirt, I’m afraid.

I left Arizona the next Christmas when my family moved, and when I eventually got to Asheville, NC, my eyes and heart turned to UNC. But I was suddenly thrown right back to 1997 when Arizona made it to the 2001 national championship in Minneapolis against Duke.

How I loathed them, even then. I remember watching the game with a room of Carolina fans, and fighting back tears of frustration, when Jason Williams did not foul out when he cut Jason Gardner, and Gardner had to leave the floor to dress his wound! “How do they get away with this bullshit?!!” I screamed to no one in particular. “They get away with this all the time,” they replied, a lesson I would learn and understand later in life. Lute was jobbed out of a second title by the Rat and his accomplices, Scott Thornley, Frankie Bordeaux, and Ed Corbett.

I hadn’t thought about Lute Olson or Arizona much since then. Carolina played them twice more [an 86-69 beatdown at the Dean Dome (led by Tyler Hansbrough’s 21 points, 11 rebounds) and a return shellacking at the McHale Center 92-64, Lute Olson’s worst home loss during his Arizona career] but by then, the romance was gone. I belonged to Roy and UNC. When Lute retired and Arizona eventually settled on a gross, sweaty guy who gave Arizona the unfortunate Twitter handle of @APlayersProgram, I was done having anything to do with Arizona.

But when I saw the news on Thursday morning, I was legitimately very sad. Heartbroken, even.

Lute Olson and Arizona sparked my love for college basketball. I have them to thank for a passion that has endured throughout my adolescent and adult life. Roy Williams, a man who I respect and admire, had this to say about Lute:

I had not thought about Arizona for a while, but I did a lot today. Rest in peace, Coach Lute!