Arizona Basketball

Arizona Wildcats 20 years ago today: After flight problems, UA arrives in Birmingham for historic game with No. 1 Kansas


EDITOR NOTE: is running a feature this basketball season highlighting what happened 20 years ago on that particular day commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Arizona Wildcats’ national championship. The next in the series is what occurred and what was written concerning the developments of March 20, 1997, the day before Arizona faced No. 1-ranked Kansas in the Sweet 16 at Birmingham, Ala. The information gathered is through articles written by beat reporters Steve Rivera (Tucson Citizen) and Javier Morales (Arizona Daily Star), who now are working together for

You can access previous stories in this series by clicking on this link.

DATELINE: March 20, 1997, Birmingham, Ala.

Arizona isn’t the biggest underdog since Buster Douglas faced Mike Tyson or Grenada found itself matched against the United States.

But after listening to all the talk this week about the mighty Kansas Jayhawks – UA’s NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 foe tomorrow – doesn’t it seem that way?

Arizona goes into the big game as a 10 1/2-point underdog. That’s down from 11 points, when the betting line opened this week. But most people – yes, sportswriters are people, too – don’t see Arizona getting by the Jayhawks.

Kansas is just too good – inside and outside. And the fact that Arizona players – Jason Terry in particular – provided bulletin board material doesn’t help.

”It’s payback,” he said. ”We let one get away last year.”

That’s bulletin board material? Anything for motivation and a good story. Arizona players are just expressing themselves. And anyway, what do you want them to say? Maybe something like: ”Kansas will kill us. We shouldn’t be on the same court with the Jayhawks”?

“Don’t get us wrong. We respect them, but you can only respect somebody so much before you start fearing them.” — Arizona guard Jason Terry on No. 1-ranked Kansas

Hardly. Arizona won’t lose in double figures. Arizona is too well-coached, too well-prepared for that to happen.

”I like Arizona,” said Paul McMullen, a writer for the Sun in Baltimore. ”I’ve liked them ever since I followed them in the Final Four three years ago. And I think Lute Olson is a good coach. They never get blown out.”

But he doesn’t think Arizona has enough to win this time. Few sportswriters covering the Southeast Regional here do.

The Wildcats are young and small, some are saying. And in college basketball terms, that’s just not good enough to beat the No. 1 team in the nation.

But Arizona likes its position – even as a dark horse.

”We play better when our backs are against the wall,” Arizona’s Michael Dickerson said. ”It’s helped us. People are picking us to lose, but that has given us motivation. We may have lost the first game if people thought we’d win it easily.”

Kansas guard Jerod Haase did not practice yesterday. He’s suffering pain in his right wrist. And teammate Jacque Vaughn is feeling better after suffering from the flu all week.

”Jacque is feeling better,” coach Roy Williams said. “Jerod is the one I’m concerned about. We will hold him out of practice and hopefully he will be better (tommorrow).”

Also, every flu-plagued player from UA – Donnell Harris, Gene Edgerson and Bennett Davison – is said to be feeling better. All should play.

— Steve Rivera

* * * * *

When they arrived at Tucson International Airport close to the crack of dawn today, the Wildcats found no plane, no explanation and little tolerance from Lute Olson.

The Wildcats awoke at 5 a.m. and arrived at the airport an hour later for their scheduled charter flight at 7 bound for Birgmingham, Ala., and the Southeast Regional.

But when they arrived at the executive terminal, their Champion Air flight was not on the runway.

It was in Vancouver.

“We didn’t know what the heck was going on,” Jason Terry said.

The Wildcats were told the charter was delayed for more than an hour because of mechanical problems out of Denver last night. After it had arrived in Vancouver it could not depart for Tucson because of noise abatement regulations.

It was rescheduled to depart Vancouver for Tucson at 7:45 this morning. By that time, the UA was at Denny’s near the airport because Champion personnel at first said the flight would be rescheduled for 9:30 a.m.

Kansas is ranked No. 1. The Jayhawks are the odds-on favorites to win the national title because of their experience and assortment of future NBA players, and they are the media darlings of the Southeast Regional. “We’ve gone over hours of film, and I have yet to find a weakness,” Arizona coach Lute Olson said.

But after the team returned to the airport, it was told the plane would not actually arrive until 11. So the UA drove back to McKale Center. After they were at McKale, Champion phoned to say the flight would not depart until noon for Birmingham.

“The disappointing thing is (Champion) knew (last) night the plane would be held up in Vancouver,” Olson said. “If we had known, we would not have had a 5 a.m. wake-up call.

“The guys could have slept until 9:30 instead of getting up that early and wait six hours for a flight. The fact all of this was known and we weren’t told about it, I don’t like.”

After the UA left the airport for McKale Center, some of the players went to their dorms to wait for the noon departure. Miles Simon went to John Ash’s place and slept. Michael Dickerson said he went to the UA locker room and “slept on the floor.”

Following the agonizing wait, the UA finally departed for Birmingham. But by the time they arrived at 4 p.m., they had already missed their scheduled practice at noon and their mandatory press conference at 1 p.m.

An NCAA spokesman said the Wildcats will be fined for not making their scheduled practice and press conference. The school will have to pay approximately $1,000 for a satellite hookup that aired their rescheduled press conference.

— Javier Morales

FOLLOW @JAVIERJMORALES ON TWITTER! 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, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports,, 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.

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