The news was numbing. It came in the form of a text from a longtime high school buddy, both of us about the same age as Sean Rooks. Three years after we graduated from Sunnyside, Rooks — “Wookie” as he was affectionately called — and Arizona advanced to the program’s first Final Four.
Wookie redshirted that season (1987-88) as a freshman but was an inspirational member of “The Gumbies”, the fun-loving, towel-waving, group of exuberant reserves who were a joy to watch along with Sean Elliott, Steve Kerr and Co.
“Sean Rooks passed away. Wow.”
An uncomfortable tingle in my arms remains from reading that text message and thinking that Rooks is now gone, at age 46, a loving father and respected teammate and friend of many.
Rooks passed away on the very day he attempted to enhance his coaching career, interviewing for a New York Knicks assistant coaching job with coach Jeff Hornacek and team president Phil Jackson. He reportedly suffered a heart attack while eating dinner at a Philadelphia restaurant after taking the train ride back home from New York.
The sad news of Rooks’ passing comes only three days after another endeared former Wildcat, offensive lineman Pulu Poumele (1991-94 with the Cats), died suddenly from an apparent aneurysm while playing a pickup basketball game at Oceanside (Calif.) High School — where he was a physical education teacher and defensive coordinator.
The last I saw Rooks was a couple of years ago at the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas when he was beginning his stint as a Philadelphia 76ers assistant. Seeing him in the stands at Thomas & Mack prompted me to tweet this:
Sean Rooks looks like can still play. Starred w/#UofA in early '90s. Joseph Blair looks same. Rooks/JB 2 best fundamental bigs in UA history
Rooks, who coached Philadelphia’s big men before he was let go a couple of weeks ago, responded with one of the “likes” of that tweet. He also reportedly was offered the head coaching job of Charlotte’s NBA D-League team next season.
Wookie, 6’10”, was a member of the “Tucson Skyline”, a post-player group that included 7-footer Ed Stokes and 6’11” forward Brian Williams. They were together in the 1989-90 and 1990-91 seasons at Arizona. Williams, known later as Bison Dele in his NBA career, was presumed dead July 7, 2002, after disappearing in the South Pacific.
The news of Rooks’ passing also comes eight months after the murder of former Arizona standout Michael Wright in Brooklyn. Wright was only 35 at the time of his death.
Rooks was an avid supporter of Arizona’s basketball program as he routinely posted encouraging social media posts for the current players. His support was meaningful, especially considering his son Kameron Rooks plays for Pac-12 rival California.
When fellow big man Kaleb Tarczewski decided to return for his senior season last year, I took to social media to ask Rooks for his opinion of Zeus’s move. Rooks was in the same position before the 1991-92 season, his senior season, after four years in the program following his redshirt season as a freshman.
Other than the image of Rooks celebrating with the Gumbies, he is most remembered at Arizona for his game-winning shot at Stanford as a junior, his ability to stand up to Shaquille O’Neal at the start of his senior season and his appearance at the funeral for Bobbi Olson, Lute’s much-loved first wife, in 2001, at McKale Center despite having to play an NBA game that day.
Rooks’ last-second heroics at Stanford capped a performance in which Arizona showed composure after trailing by four points with two minutes remaining in a pressure-filled game at Maple Pavilion.
Stanford led, 76-72, with 2:25 left after a lay-in by Andrew Vlahov. But baskets by Williams (who scored 13 points) and Matt Muehlebach tied it, 76-76, with 1:55 left.
Arizona, ranked No. 5 at 16-1 overall, was in position to take the lead when Vlahov made a diving steal. On the other end, Arizona’s Matt Othick drew a charging foul from Stanford point guard John Patrick, who was whistled by Pac-10 ref Richie Ballesteros for clearing out Othick with his left arm.
Stanford was up in arms about the call.
“I like to see the kids decide the game,” Stanford coach Mike Montgomery was quoted as saying by the Stanford Daily student newspaper. “That’s a no-call at best. It’s a crime.”
“I don’t know,” Lute Olson said in the same article. “I’m beyond the point of understanding. There were a lot of calls I didn’t understand.”
The Wildcats called timeout to set up a winning shot. After play resumed, Othick dribbled around at the top of the key as the play developed. With 12 seconds left, he passed to Rooks, who returned the ball to Othick. Leading scorer Chris Mills (who would finish with 18 points) received a pass on the left side.
The play was set up for Mills to take the winning shot, but he couldn’t shake Deshon Wingate. Mills looked inside, saw Adam Keefe guarding Rooks, and decided to let the big fellow try to make a play closer to the hoop. Mills passed to Rooks and Keefe fell to the floor because of a puddle of sweat, he said.
Sean Rooks took this selfie and posted it on Facebook on Tuesday about four hours before he passed away. He was determined to continue his coaching career, interviewing for an assistant position with the New York Knicks.
Sean Rooks is a great Wildcat. He will be missed by many. We send our thoughts & prayers to his family & friends. pic.twitter.com/axrzPCpRLD
Man I'm hurting rt now. My friend Sean Rooks passed away. I can't believe it. He watched out for me. Great person and father. Gone too soon
Sad day for the @NBA Family…. RIP to Sean Rooks..May GOD bless his Family!!!
Rip Sean Rooks.. What is going on?? Please cherish every day!
My heart goes out to the family of Sean Rooks. Today the entire NBA family mourns the loss of a great man… #RIP Big Fella!!
RIP Sean Rooks. You made plane rides my first year fun. Can't believe we talked just a few weeks ago. You will be missed Wookie
My condolences to Sean Rooks Family. Plan and Simple he was a Good Dude. Fantastic teammate. Tippy Toes you will be miss.
Sean Rooks: Rest In Heaven My Friend! pic.twitter.com/y9krSHK6Yb
“I was moving to go around Sean — there was no contact,” Keefe told the Stanford Daily. “I put all my weight on one foot and I hit a puddle. He didn’t touch me.”
“I set a pick, rolled and saw Chris with the ball,” Rooks said in the same article. “I didn’t see what happened to Adam. I thought he might have tripped.”
With Keefe on the floor, Rooks had a wide-open bank shot from eight feet away. The ball kissed off the glass, hit the inside edge of the rim, and fell through with one second remaining.
In the game in which Arizona defeated LSU and O’Neal 87-67 at McKale Center on Dec. 7, 1991, Rooks outplayed one of the best centers in history. O’Neal was held to only 10 points and four rebounds. Rooks, later a teammate of O’Neal with the Lakers, finished 16 points and five rebounds.
Late in the game, after O’Neal blocked one of Rooks’ shots, he reportedly told Rooks: “I don’t care how good you play. I’m still a No. 1 draft pick.” Rooks waved good bye to O’Neal a few minutes later when O’Neal fouled out.
Rooks’ sudden appearance at Bobbi’s funeral surprised his former coach, to a degree, as was noted in Lute’s book, Lute! The Seasons of my Life. Olson admitted in the book that he and Rooks “butted heads” because he did not believe Rooks “worked as hard as he was capable of working” during practices.
Rooks had a shootaround with the Clippers the morning of Bobbi’s service. He flew to Tucson to pay his respects to Bobbi, who was like a second mother to most of the players. He then flew back in time to make it for the Clippers’ game that night.
“Nobody, absolutely nobody, made more of an effort to get back for the memorial than he did,” Lute wrote. “That is the kind of effort that I could never forget. Since then Sean and I have become good friends.”
Muehlebach and other former teammates Tom Tolbert and Damon Stoudamire commented about Rooks’ passing today on Twitter:
Totally heartbroken about Sean Rooks' passing. Wookie had a heart of gold! Prayers to his beautiful mom, kids and family.
I'm heartbroken to hear about my former teammate and friend passing away..Always had a smile and a good energy. https://t.co/00QlssghsQ
I can't believe Sean gone! Tons of fun and really took care of me my freshman yr! I'm forever grateful for what u taught me! #RIP 🐻⬇️
Muehlebach was also a Gumby along with fellow longtime NBA player Jud Buechler in 1987-88. Rooks and Buechler each played 12 years in the NBA. “They were future pros sitting on the bench,” Olson wrote in his book.
“The Gumbies epitomized true basketball support for your players and we were very deep; the Gumbies were not non-talented players,” Rooks told the Rio Rancho (N.M.) Observer in 2010. “A Gumby were myself, Jud Buechler, who played a lengthy NBA career; myself, I played a lengthy NBA career.
“At that time, we had guys that were better than us: Sean Elliott, Tom Tolbert Anthony Cook, one of the leading shot-blockers in (Arizona) history, and Kenny Lofton.”
Olson said in a statement Tuesday of Rooks’ passing, “This is just a horrible shock. Sean was such a wonderful young man with a great disposition. During his time at Arizona, he was always one of the most pleasant individuals to be around. His positivity was something I’ll always remember. This is a tough day and a terrible loss for Arizona basketball. We send our condolences to Sean’s family and friends.”
Former Arizona player Reggie Geary posted on his Facebook wall: “RIP Big Wookie. The Wildcat family lost a Great one today and I lost a friend. Sean was one of the nicest, most positive, and funniest guys. Just spoke with him not too long ago, and he was as always his awesome self. Our condolences to his family and all that knew him. Damn.”
A Wildcat teammate Matt Othick told Steve Rivera of GOAZCATS.com: “Wookie was like a brother too me. No one I have ever met loved life as much as him. He was a great teammate and player but an even better human being. I am heartbroken.”
Rooks was born in New York City but lived most of his life in California, starring at Fontana High School before deciding to attend Arizona despite North Carolina State’s Jim Valvano recruiting him heavily.
Earlier in the day Tuesday, Rooks changed his Facebook page cover to a picture of Muhammad Ali, who passed Friday, mock fighting the late Wilt Chamberlain in a staged photo.
“RIP CHAMPS #GOATS-One Love”, Rooks wrote (GOAT stands for “Greatest of all time”).
Now, Wookie is with them above, forever a respected figure in Arizona basketball history.
ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.