Editor’s Note: I promise this post has something to do with the Phoenix Suns …. kind of.
But I couldn’t not write about Lute Olson’s retirement ceremony, right?
Lute is the greatest basketball coach in Arizona history across every level of the sport (the Suns included) when you consider success and longevity. During his 24 years at the helm of Arizona Basketball, he led the Wildcats to an active-best 23 straight NCAA Tournament appearances (the last two occurred without him), 11 Pac-10 titles, four Final Fours and, of course, the 1997 national championship.
He’s a Hall of Famer and a gentleman, and a man who deserved today’s day in the sunshine when the school and a host of former players, including Suns GM Steve Kerr, honored the man known as Luuuuuuuuuuute at his retirement ceremony.
History will one day see Lute Olson as the Silver Fox, a legendary coach who somehow made Tucson, Ariz., a hoops hotbed. I can’t think of many better coaches in Pac-10 lore this side of John Wooden, who’s only known as the greatest coach in the history of coaches.
Judging by the outpouring of love deservedly shown to Olson, maybe that day was today, but having covered Lute’s final season and his leave of absence season, I can’t shake the image of the Lute Olson I saw at the end.
Mind you, I didn’t know Coach O before I got on the beat. The closest I came to knowing him was having him walk by me while I was in McKale Center for an event early my freshman year. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world that this legend said hi back to me.
For those who didn’t go to U of A, you’ve got to understand that Coach O was the most powerful man in Tucson. He could have run for mayor and nobody would have wanted to oppose him it would have been such a landslide.
Then he put the Wildcats through two years of Hell. Of course this wasn’t done intentionally. It’s always tough for the great ones to walk away when they feel they have something left, and I only hope we aren’t talking about Steve Nash in that way in a few years.
It all started when Olson took that infamous leave of absence, an absence that we still don’t know the complete details of.
One of my journalism profs offered my upper-level journalism class extra credit to the student who came closest to guessing when the reason for his LOA would first be broken by the news media. The prof guessed in a couple days, most of my classmates guessed within a few weeks, I guessed three weeks and only one kid guessed years down the road.
It’s downright shocking that in this day and age of confidential steroids tests being leaked every few months that the true reason for Olson’s LOA has never been leaked or discovered. And it probably never will.
I wrote that his absence lacked class and chided him for being so secretive. It’s a shame that my final memory of Olson will be of him coming out more defensive than Bruce Bowen (in his prime) at a press conference in which he spat venom at nearly every reporter in the room and finished it off with a shouting match with a Daily Star reporter, which sadly is the last image I ever saw of Coach O in a professional capacity.
It was the final chapter of a year of Lute Olson acting like anybody but Lute Olson. I mean, he even took a dispute with his former wife to the airwaves and Johnjay & Rich, a show better known for callers who confess to being nurses who sleep with patients about to die for cash, as one caller did last week.
I mean, it was downright surreal, and I feel almost cheated that this is the lasting impression I will have of Lute Olson.
But before all that, Olson was one of the classiest coaches in college basketball history, a tireless recruiter and above all a winner who did things the right way.
Nobody knows better than Suns GM Steve Kerr, who was part of Olson’s first recruiting class at Arizona and played in the school’s first Final Four in 1988. (See, I told you there was a Suns connection coming!)
Three years ago while covering the Tucson Summer Pro League All-Star Game, Kerr told me what makes Arizona Basketball tick.
“There’s a pretty strong connection between all of us,” Kerr said. “Lute Olson is obviously the guy responsible for that. He put this whole thing together.
“The first thing he told me was, ‘This is a family.’ And it really is. It’s an extended family that goes way back.”
He’s got the wins, the conference titles, the coaching awards, the Final Fours, the illustrious national championship and even the Hall of Fame honors.
He built Arizona Basketball into a national brand that practically recruits itself in the middle of Tucson, as Sean Miller has found out.
But above all else, Olson made Arizona Basketball a family that connects players through generations, and that’s what he should be remembered for most.
Looking back at old Kerr comments
When I talked to Kerr at the Tucson Summer Pro League just over three years ago, he said some stuff that is pretty funny in hindsight.
For example, then a TNT broadcaster happy with his job, Kerr said:
“I think I’d like to get more involved maybe down the road, whether it’s coaching or management in some capacity, but I’m really enjoying my family right now and raising my kids and being at home. Broadcasting gives me a good balance of career and family.
“Being a college coach and an NBA coach, it really consumes you and takes you away from your life and becomes your life. I don’t want that yet. I think I might want that one day, but not as long as I can be at home raising my kids. I’m very lucky, and I’m really enjoying my life.”
At the time, Kerr was rumored to be the next head coach of Arizona Basketball, a position that at the time seemed to be years away from being open. Less than a year later Kerr left his perch at TNT that he enjoyed so much to become general manager of the Suns, and the rest, of course, is history.
It’s kind of funny how time jades the public. Back then, UA fans were practically frothing at the mouth wanting this sharp, well-spoken alum to become a part of their program on a day-to-day basis. Judging by the comments I receive on this site, most Suns fans would like nothing more than for Kerr to leave town on the next flight out of Sky Harbor.
It’s also kind of interesting that a man seemingly so happy with where he was in life (or so he said) would want to pack up for the stresses of becoming GM of the Suns and all the obvious pitfalls that would be in his way in less than a year.
One last note from that day, a few minutes after interviewing Kerr as I was leaving the gym I saw none other than the future general manager of your Phoenix Suns walking toward my blue car about to insert his key into my door to open it.
I walked up behind him wondering if Steve Kerr was really about to steal my car right in front of me in broad daylight when all of a sudden we both realized an almost identical blue car was parked in the adjacent row. He shot me an embarrassed look, we shared a laugh and then he explained his rental car looked just like my new car.
So no, the future general manager of the Phoenix Suns was certainly NOT trying to steal my car, but it could make for a good story to tell the grandkids one day nonetheless.