The lasting memories of Arizona’s 1997 NCAA Tournament are easy: Bennett Davison finding the courage to muss coach Lute Olson’s hair after its 84-79 overtime victory vs. Kentucky, Miles Simon falling to his knees cradling the ball in his arms (with Billy Packer saying “Simon Says Championship”), the UA players running around with excitement looking for teammates to hug and, well, so much more.
And deep into the night when reporters were still asking Lute Olson questions in the RCA Dome, Olson turned to his then-wife Bobbi to say, “Babe, I’ll be right there.” And she quickly (she had a great sense of humor) said, “Lute, I’ve waited 41 years for you, I think I can wait a little longer.”
Luckily, I saw – and heard – it all.
For a night – and a three-week run of making history as the No. 4 seed knocking off three No. 1 seeds – Tucson was Titletown USA.
Twenty years ago this season the magic carpet, er, hardwood ride began.
“Twenty years? It’s almost a reality check,” Davison said. “We were just babies back then.”
Yet, the biggest memory of what was an unbelievable night – perhaps for everyone – was said best by Mike Bibby this week: “It was all about the guys. That’s my fondest memory … the best guys ever.
“There’s a bond that us guys will always have no matter what.”
Arizona’s one-and-only basketball title brought together a group of players – some highly rated, some not – to get on a run to win it all.
“The title puts us in such elite company,” said Josh Pastner, who will get away from his head coaching job at Georgia Tech and come in for the day’s festivities of honoring the 1997 championship team. He’s also here to help celebrate Miles Simon’s jersery retirement.
“It was important to him for all of us to be there for him,” Pastner said. “Heck, without Miles we don’t win it.”
In a story that’s often told, Pastner, then a freshman walk-on, said UA would have many more titles.
“I remember telling my dad, we’re going to do this every year,” he said. “Obviously, the longer you’re in it, it’s nearly impossible to accomplish. Now as I look back, I go, ‘wow.’ It’s a special feeling.”
Related story: Miles Simon ‘meant everything’ during title run
Arizona weaved hits way through a land-mine of basketball.
Every game seemed scary. South Alabama? UA had to rally late behind Jason Terry and Miles Simon.
College of Charleston. It disposed of the Shaq of the MAAC but had trouble.
Then came a monster game vs. Kansas, considered the best college basketball game of the season. Bibby & Co., put the Jayhawks away in the final moments.
Next was Providence and God Shammgod. Bye, bye.
UA then found a way to beat North Carolina’s Dean Smith for the second time that season. Then Kentucky and Rick Pitino.
“We were just dialed in,” Davison said. “We had the ability to keep up with anybody because of our quickness.”
North Carolina? History.
Arizona found a way to make history, knocking off three basketball blue bloods.
“What I remember the most is just how tough our team was,” Simon said, at a UA reunion five years ago. “I remember Coach (Olson) telling us in the huddle that the toughest team is going to win the game.”
Arizona proved tough enough – and now 20 years later many of the key figures are coming back: Bibby, Jason Terry, Bennett Davison, A.J. Bramlett, Josh Pastner, Lute Olson and so many more. They will be celebrated before the annual Red-Blue Game on Friday night.
“Some of those guys are my best friends – ever,” said Pastner, who said he’s been in Tucson about 16 hours since he left UA to go coach at Memphis. “That’s why I’m excited. Being able to see those guys will be great.’
“I can’t wait to see the guys,” Bramlett said Thursday. “It’s been a while since we’ve all been together and it’s just a lot of fun. It’s always like 1997 all over again.
“The championship ride was something that gets more special with every year that passes. The one thing that stands out to me was our chemistry. We played to win and that was the only thing. No one had agendas. We sacrificed for each other. You never wanted to be the one to make a mistake during the game because you didn’t want to let your guys down. Coach O demanded the pursuit of perfection and we also demanded that from each other.
“Through all that we had A LOT of fun, too. We definitely had some characters, too.”
Davison said it was “a motley crew of a bunch of jokesters. We made it work.”
Lead jokester, without a doubt, was Davison, who famously mussed Olson’s hair and earlier in the year rode a luggage conveyor belt in Oregon.
But, Davison had an untold story of the usually stoic Simon being a prankster during the year.
“Miles dressed up in some high socks, Chuck Taylors, short shorts, a weightlifting belt, a wife-beater t-shirt and cowboy hat and we all went to get ice cream on Sixth Avenue,” Davison said. “John Ash, Miles and me just giggled like school boys. Actually, we laughed our asses off.
“That’s what was special. We could make each other laugh and we could challenge each other.”
All the way to a unfathomable title that has brought the guys back together 20 years later.