Remembering Lute Olson, who put Tucson on the map

By Sunny Cadwallader

I don’t have time to write.

I work full time. I’m going to school, albeit online, full time. I don’t have time to write!

That’s what I told myself last night, yet, there I was at 11 pm attempting to write some thoughts down for only one reason.

Lute Olson.


Legendary Arizona Wildcats men’s basketball coach, Lute Olson, passed away Thursday night at the age of 85. Battling Parkinson’s, recovering from a stroke, Olson’s health had been in decline over the past several years.

Yet, when I think of Lute Olson, I don’t think of him in a frail state. I think of him when I first saw him on TV back in the early 80’s. I think of that “silver fox” hair he had even back then. I think of how awestruck I was to see an Arizona basketball team on national television.

That’s when I became a fan, which wasn’t easy when you lived in the Valley of the Sun. See, I grew up a fan of Arizona State. If you liked ASU, you hated the U of A. Or, something like that. You couldn’t like anything to do with the team down south. You just couldn’t do it.

But ASU didn’t really have a team worth cheering for. They had achieved some measure of success – I remember future NBA players like Byron Scott, “Fat” Lever and Alton Lister – but they were on the decline when Olson went to U of A.

I came to enjoy the play of local kid, Sean Elliott. Steve Kerr and Craig McMillan were the guards and Anthony Cook….oh, Anthony Cook was like a man-child at times. He’d go up against players that were better or stronger than him and he more than held his own.

They were a scrappy bunch, to some degree, but darn it, they were “Arizona”. They had the name of the state that I loved on their jersey and a coach who could be both respectfully quiet, yet eloquently animated.

Olson and his teams earned respect. Not that they needed anyone’s respect, but through their play and the way they carried themselves, they earned respect in college basketball circles. He put Arizona and Tucson on the map. Still, both they and Arizona somehow feel underappreciated.

His talent-laden teams would come into Pac-10 gyms and destroy opponents. He’d reload with new super recruits in the program year after year. Jud Buechler. Tom Tolbert. Sean Rooks. Chris Mills. Khalid Reeves. Michael Dickerson. Chase Budinger, Gilbert Arenas, Deandre Ayton …

He’d steal the best players from other Pac-10 states, because all the good ones wanted to play for a winner. Dickerson and Jason Terry from Seattle. Damon and Salim Stoudamire from Portland. Countless California guys. He’d recruit in Phoenix — Sun Devil Country — and to the Old Pueblo Jerryd Bayless, Channing Frye and Mike Bibby went.

On a night when people waxed unapologetically (pro and con) about a political speech, a great man passed from this earth.

I never met Olson. Nor did I ever even cover one of his teams, though I wish I had. I watched from afar and fell in love with a team, a school, that I had no business loving. I watched him carry himself with, dare I say, grace and elegance. I watched him unashamedly love his wife in public. Seeing his interactions with players on the sidelines seemed as genuine as one could get.

Judging by the outpouring of sentiment tonight, those interactions were, in fact, genuine.

Now, no man is perfect. Olson had his share of (mini-)controversies. Then again, who hasn’t? We’d all like to be perfect with no skeletons in the closet, but it’s just not in our DNA. But, some of what I have read tonight points to a tremendous coach and man.

I have no personal stories to share. I simply have my fandom.

Coach Luuuuuuuuuute Olson may be gone, but his legacy will forever live on.

I have time to write one more thing – Bear Down!