LAS VEGAS — The more than a thousand or so Arizona fans who remained at the MGM Grand Garden Arena to watch Oregon beat UCLA for the Pac-12 Tournament championship had the opportunity to cheer loud at least once during the evening Saturday.
Jason Gardner’s introduction as one of the 12 players inducted into the Pac-12 Hall of Honor drew the loudest response other than UCLA’s Lucius Allen. Utah’s Keith Van Horn also drew a loud cheer from the Utah fans in attendance.
Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott presented Gardner with an Arizona jersey bearing Gardner’s name and No. 22. Gardner, the third-leading scorer in Arizona history with 1,984 points from 1999 to 2003, held the jersey high as the crowd roared.
“I think it is amazing,” Gardner said of the honor. “It goes to show all the hard work and dedication that you put in, the amount of hours late at night in the gym.
“I just think that being a part of this is something that I have never even thought of. It’s so amazing.”
After an eight-year pro career overseas, Gardner, 32, is an assistant coach at Loyola of Chicago under Porter Moser, who improved the Ramblers from 7-23 in his first season to 15-16 this season.
Because of Gardner’s coaching duties right after playing professionally, he has not had the opportunity to watch the Wildcats in person. He finally had that chance Thursday and Friday when the Wildcats played Colorado and UCLA.
“Now to watch it is different because now coaching, I look at plays differently, like defensively, what are they doing,” said Gardner, who was last part of the UA game experience as a captain of the Wildcats when they lost in the 2003 Elite Eight to Kansas in Anaheim, Calif.
“As far as watching, I love it because I started hearing those (U of A) chants again and the next thing you know, my heart is pumping, my underarms started sweating,” Gardner said with a laugh. “I thought overall it was pretty good.”
Gardner is Arizona’s Iron Man, having played the most minutes (4,825) as a Wildcat. He averaged a record 38.5 minutes a game over his 136-game UA career.
He tries to preach hard work and diligence to the Ramblers, who view him as more than a coach.
“You can become a father figure for these boys,” Gardner said of his coaching experience. “You can help them not just with on-the-court stuff, but also off-the-court issues.
“I think that’s amazing. You’re still involved around the game, just learning and trying to learn as much as possible.”
What has he learned from a coaching perspective after watching the 2012-13 Wildcats in person for two games?
“I think they have a great chance,” Gardner said. “No. 1, they have a great coaching staff, and on top of that, they are athletic and they can shoot it.
“They will be one of those teams in the tournament that I think can get hot in the tournament and be hard to beat. They have guards. They have bigs. I think whenever you have guards and bigs, you have a good chance.”
Gardner did not get the opportunity to interact with Arizona’s coaches and players because of the limited amount of time, but he had the chance to mingle with the large Arizona contingent at the MGM Grand.
“I was just more glad to be part of this ceremony and also glad seeing all the fans,” Gardner said. “All the fans were thanking me for my career. I thanked them because without them, it would be tough for me to have a good career. I think overall my family enjoyed it.”
Site publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner