Arizona Basketball

Ernie McCray: A toast to Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson

Ernie McCray

Ernie McCray


EDITOR’S NOTE: Former Tucson High School and University of Arizona basketball standout Ernie McCray is a legendary figure to Tucsonans and Wildcat fans. McCray, who holds the Wildcats’ scoring record with 46 points on Feb. 6, 1960, against Cal State-Los Angeles, is the first African-American basketball player to graduate from Arizona. McCray, who now resides in San Diego, earned degrees in physical education and elementary education at Arizona. He is a longtime educator, actor and activist in community affairs in the San Diego-area. He wrote a blog for TucsonCitizen.com before the site ceased current-events operations last year. He agreed to continue offering his opinion and insight with AllSportsTucson.com. McCray also writes blogs for SanDiegoFreePress.org.


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The other day I attended “A Toast to Hall of Fame Coach Lute Olson” at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar Officers’ Club.

The event was put on by Tender Loving Canines Assistance Dogs. I didn’t know much about them but went away feeling good about what they do – and what they do is train service dogs to help heal our sons and daughters who come back from the wars tormented with the symptons of post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD.

Lute Olson, the retired legendary basketball coach at Arizona, one of my heroes, is a big supporter of what this organization does to transform lives.

And, when it comes to transforming, they honored the right man, because he’s a master transformer.

I saw him transform a city. He brought his playbook to Tucson to coach the Arizona Wildcats about twenty-three years after I played there at a down-time in the school’s basketball history. We lost a lot of games but not because we wanted to. We hit the court running and we scratched and crawled and blocked out and screened and passed and shot like wildcats do. But when it came to winning games? We didn’t have a clue. I enjoyed every moment of it, though, through and through.

We were part of an old legendary coach’s decline, a changing of the guard. Following my era there were some teams that were kind of so-so; Fred “The Fox” Snowden came along with a ton of get-up-and-go and got Arizona into the in-crowd in the hoops world, making the program one to watch.

Then “Voila!” Along comes Lute and his beautiful wife, Bobbi, and U of A basketball, overnight, was something extraordinary to behold. It was some kind of show.

I mean:

He came on the scene
like Leonard Bernstein
with a baton in his hand,
tapping on a stand,
infusing a school and a city
with energies
neither knew they had.
Before he came along
the school’s fight songs were sung with
more adagio than allegro;
more alto than basso profundo;
more Perry Como than
Larry, Curly and Moe.

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Lute Olson with former player Harvey Mason holding a decree from the City of San Diego establishing Lute Olson Day when the legendary coach was honored at a Miramar Officers Club function on Nov. 3 (Tender Loving Canines Assistance Dogs photo)

Lute Olson with former player Harvey Mason Jr. holding a decree from the City of San Diego establishing Lute Olson Day when the legendary coach was honored at a Marine Corps Air Station Miramar Officers Club function on Nov. 3. Mason was the emcee of the event and former Arizona athletic director Cedric Dempsey was in attendance (Tender Loving Canines Assistance Dogs photo)

Ernie McCray during his Arizona playing days. His 46 points in a 1960 game remains a school record (University of Arizona photo)

Ernie McCray during his Arizona playing days. His 46 points in a 1960 game remains a school record (University of Arizona photo)

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Legendary Arizona basketball coach Lute Olson speaks at an event honoring him organized by the

Legendary Arizona basketball coach Lute Olson speaks at a recent event honoring him that was organized by the Tender Loving Canines Assistance Dogs in San Diego (TLCAD photo)

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He brought to the U of A
way more swagger and sway
than back in the day
or any other day.
His teams put some real pizzazz
in “Bear! Down! Arizona!
Bear! Down! Red! And! Blue!”
I mean his Wildcats really did
“Bear! Down! Arizona!
Hittem! Hard! Lettem! Know! Who’s! Who!”

Got us rocking, that Lute.
Brought in some of the finest
young men, one could ever recruit.
Got them and fans believing in
possibilities,
creating x’s and o’s
that got us on our toes
in ecstacy.
Built an enterprise
right before our eyes,
a program of excellence known worldwide.
Got us the 1997 NCAA Championship –
the ultimate prize.
What a sight!
What a ride!
I’ve never, in my life, felt such pride
as I felt that night.

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That win over Kentucky in the national title game, for me, was a shared victory for everyone who ever wore the Red and Blue uniform; it conjured up memories of times long ago, going back to the 40’s when my mother took me to games in Bear Down Gym when I could barely walk.

I see in my mind the greats in my childhood: Linc Richmond; Roger and Leo Johnson; Junior Crum; Bob Honea; Hadie Redd

They’re shooting two and then one handed set shots; juking left and right, making sure not to “move the pivot foot”; it’s a pure and simple game, under the rim, no hand checking or extra step allowed; no palming the ball; no showing anybody up other than just beating their butt …

I saw (Lute Olson) transform a city. He brought his playbook to Tucson to coach the Arizona Wildcats about twenty-three years after I played there at a down-time in the school’s basketball history. We lost a lot of games but not because we wanted to. We hit the court running and we scratched and crawled and blocked out and screened and passed and shot like wildcats do. But when it came to winning games? We didn’t have a clue. I enjoyed every moment of it, though, through and through.
— Arizona hoops legend Ernie McCray

All of that was honored when our team won it all …

So I propose a toast to Lute in behalf of all the Cats who ever played in the Old Pueblo: “Thanks for bringing us something we dearly love, a new beat, a new rhythm, a new dynamic, a new way of being.

“Your rich legacy, your spirit, your beat, still, to this very day, goes on. Like a melody of a beautiful song.”

It was a nice day in many a way seeing him have his day at the MCAS Officers’ Club out Miramar Way.

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