Editor’s Note: I wrote this story three years ago for FoxSportsArizona.com when Lute turned 80. I revisit here.
You know life is good when you can spend a long weekend with friends and family to enjoy your 80th birthday. Being an octogenarian never looked so good. The life of Riley, indeed.
And doing well on the golf course didn’t hurt former Arizona Hall of Fame basketball coach Lute Olson, who Monday celebrates his 80th birthday.
“I feel great and yes, I’ll be 80 but it’s just a number, I guess,” Olson said on Sunday just a few hours after getting off the golf course and late having lunch with some of his friends and former players. “My health is great. … Everything is fine. Everything has been well.”
How could it not?
“I played the best round of golf I’ve played in the last two years,” he said of his 86 at La Paloma Country Club.
It was a whirlwind weekend for the former Arizona coach, who was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002 and who called it a career in 2008 after suffering a stroke and its complications. Visitors for his surprise party were Harvey Mason, Steve Kerr, Sean Elliott, Luke Walton, Channing Frye, Miles Simon and about 100 others, including wives and friends. His wife, Kelly, helped with close to 1,000 emails and texts over the last couple months. “We had a great time,” he said.
Pictures were all over Twitter, with him as the central figure among the many former players.
“We had a great day with tons of his former players,” Steve Kerr said in an email. “It’s amazing how much of an impact he had on all of our lives.”
Former players ranged from Iowa to Long Beach City College — both stops before his quarter century at Arizona, where he won a national title in 1997.
“It’s always great seeing my Wildcat family but this time was extra special,” said Joseph Blair, a former player and now a graduate assistant coach on current Arizona coach Sean Miller’s staff. “We had the opportunity to celebrate the birthday of the man that started that family for us. When I stop and really think of it, it was Coach O bringing me to Tucson that became the catalyst for many lessons learned, friendships created, the birth of my oldest son, my philanthropic state of mind, and so many other positive aspects of what now defines who I am as a man.”
Those memories were typical of those who spoke of him. Daniel Dillon remembers Olson’s large hands among his many memories.
“From the moment his giant hands swallowed mine when greeting me for the first time in Tucson ’til today, still not knowing whether he truly understood my Australian accent,” said Dillon in a text. “The reason why I decided to select University of Arizona was because of the way he treated his players, not only on the court but outside of basketball also. The friendships that I’ve made through my teammates and staff can only be credited to the way Coach O selected great men into the program.”
Former player Sean Rooks echoed that on Facebook:
His famously perfectly placed white hair may not move but Olson surely does. Since retirement, he’s actively been all over, and will be in Italy next weekend for an extended vacation Kelly got him for Christmas. And for the most of the recent years he’s a constant at all Arizona home games, he’s been an ambassador for the UA Foundation and a television commercial star. He’s even done the robot, taught to him by Kerr as he said in the commercial.
“That was a lot of fun doing that,” he said, laughing. “We had a great time.”
No more than the three-day celebration he had in Tucson getting to see everyone.
“It was very special,” he said. “It was a family affair again.”
There may have even been some recruiting going on. Walton and wife, Bre (a former Arizona volleyball standout), brought their newborn son, Lawson, with them.
“As you’d expect by seeing mom and dad, he’s just beautiful,” Olson said. “He’s happy and smiling.”
And, of course, a future Wildcat.