It did not draw headlines in 2018, but the first lottery pick in Arizona’s history was back on campus walking in a graduation ceremony at Arizona Stadium some 39 years after he left to play in the NBA.
Larry Demic earning his Interglobal Communications Studies degree in the College of Science more than four decades after he started his Arizona education was symbolic of how he never gave up in his academic and basketball pursuits when things did not look promising at first.
“I really was happy because that’s something I always wanted to do,” Demic, who is now 63, said on Sunday. “I wanted to graduate from the University of Arizona. I didn’t want to graduate from another school.
“That’s where I went and that’s where I wanted to get my degree. Technology just didn’t permit it to now, in the last four or five years.”
The late George Kalil, Arizona’s prominent booster who gained friendships with many players during the Fred Snowden and Lute Olson eras, alerted Demic in 2015 that Arizona offered courses online that would help him complete his degree requirements.
“George was my guy; we kept in contact over the years,” said Demic, who resides in Anaheim, Calif. “He called me and asked if I finished my degree. I said, ‘I’ve kept trying. I’m going to a junior college over here blah, blah, blah, but I’m working and stuff.’ I tried to go back to the U of A 10 to 15 years ago but that was tough because of my work.
“He told me that I could earn my degree online. I was like, ‘Really?’ He told me to call somebody over there. I did and I was enrolled in the online program right after. Two and a half years later, I was back in Tucson getting my degree.”
It was Demic’s best weekend in Tucson since the stretch between Jan. 18-22 in 1979 when he was a senior. In Arizona’s first season in the Pac-10 after leaving the WAC, the Wildcats swept UCLA and USC at McKale Center in one of the most magical developments in Arizona history.
They defeated No. 4 UCLA 70-69 on Jan. 18, 1979, in front of 14,606 fans, many of whom stormed the court after John Smith made a go-ahead free throw with six seconds left. David Greenwood’s attempt on the other end was off the mark as time expired.
It was Arizona’s first win over UCLA in 56 years.
“It was our first year in the Pac-10 and the expectations were high,” recalled Demic, a 6-foot-9 and 225-pound forward who had a game-high 20 points with eight rebounds. “We didn’t know what to expect. These guys (UCLA) had national exposure all of the time.
“We were just ready to play that weekend. Coach (Snowden) had us ready to play … Russell Brown, John Smith, John Belobraydic … We were just ready to play, man.”
The late Snowden made sure to tell reporters about what the win over the Bruins meant to Demic.
“I wanted this win so badly for Larry Demic because he has worked so hard for four years,” Snowden said. “And the way the team played, it was an incredible tribute to them. They beat a great basketball team.”
Arizona held on to upset USC, which was atop the Pac-10 standings at the time, four days later on a Monday night with a 74-72 win in front of an estimated crowd of 14,500. Demic finished with 15 points. Arizona’s Joe Nehls led all players with 31 points.
“The Tucson fans were just incredible at McKale; I don’t think you could have got another body in there,” Demic said. “You would have thought we won a national title or something with all the fans on the court. We just won a game. But that was UCLA and USC.”
The significance of the weekend for Demic went beyond beating those teams.
“My mom had never been able to see me play and she was able to get there for the (USC) game. That was kind of a special thing,” said Demic of his late mom Johnnie Mae, who came to Tucson from their home in Gary, Ind.
“I enjoyed my senior year overall. I enjoyed playing the game. I was happy for the program and being part of it. I just knew Arizona basketball was going to be good. I just knew it. I had no idea they were going to bring in the legend Lute Olson. He recruited and it took off. It was a matter of time.”
It was a matter of time.
That is an apt way to describe Demic’s career at Arizona.
A model of perseverance, Demic rode the bench his first three seasons at Arizona, playing behind Al Fleming, Bob Elliott and Kenny Davis. Entering his senior season, Demic started only nine times and played just 49 games in his previous three years.
He started all 27 games his senior season. His 924 minutes were more than his three first years combined. He averaged 19.3 points and 10.3 rebounds and shot 57.1 percent from the field as a senior.
“Coming out of Gary, Ind., I really liked Arizona, the weather, the environment, but I didn’t get a lot of playing time,” Demic said. “I just had to kind of grin and bear it. I guess now — and I don’t follow basketball as closely as other people do — if a kid is not happy, he is gone.
“It’s almost expected. I don’t remember a lot of guys doing that when I was in school. It was kind of like you made your decision. Some guys transferred and stuff but it’s not as frequent as now. If a guy is not happy, in 90 days he’s off to somewhere else. It’s a different world now.”
Elliott recalled the numbers game Demic was caught in from the start at Arizona.
The six-man frontcourt rotation in Demic’s freshman season — when the Wildcats advanced to the Elite Eight before losing to UCLA at Pauley Pavilion — included Elliott and Fleming on the first team, Jerome Gladney and Phil Taylor on the second unit and Demic and CDO 7-footer Brian Jung on the third team as freshmen.
Elliott, Fleming, Gladney and Taylor became NBA draft picks. Jung transferred to Northwestern after his sophomore season and was selected in the 1980 NBA draft.
“I always felt like after our practices, games were easy,” Elliott said. “In practice, it was a war. I was impressed with Dem (Elliott’s nickname for Demic) from the start in those practices.
“He was always like a bull. He always had such a strong body, especially his lower body. His lower body was phenomenal. He was just like a load.”
The humble evolution of Demic’s career at Arizona befits his decent, unassuming character.
Snowden put Demic in drills to do the dirty work on defense to prepare Elliott, Fleming, Taylor and Gladney for game situations. He never complained. Media reports labeled him “quiet-spoken” and “unselfish.”
“I was playing against All-American players literally every single day, so I knew I couldn’t help but get better,” Demic said. “And the sessions alone, Coach Snowden man, those were some long, hard sessions.”
Demic was Jason Terry almost 20 years before Terry became a reserve-to-riches story of biding his time until his senior season to become one of the top players in the nation.
Demic contemplated transferring earlier in his career.
“I know other coaches were after him, but I told him to believe in me and he would get his chance,” Snowden told The Arizona Daily Star .
Demic arrived to prominence in his senior year when he produced 37 points and 16 rebounds in Arizona’s 76-73 win over Southwestern Louisiana and future first-round draft pick Andrew Toney at McKale Center on Dec. 23, 1978.
“The one thing I have learned while coaching is when you’re in trouble, go to your hoss,” Snowden told reporters. “Larry Demic is my hoss.”
Snowden also nicknamed Demic as “The Doctor” because of his cool, calm demeanor that did not preclude him from operating with precision and dominance.
Demic catapulted from being a relative unknown entering the 1978-79 season to becoming the program’s first All-Pac-10 first-team selection.
He established himself as worthy of a first-round selection in the NBA draft in a stretch in the last month of the season that included 26 points and 14 rebounds against USC, 38 points against UCLA, 29 points against ASU, 29 points and 14 rebounds against New Mexico and 37 points and 12 rebounds against Washington.
Becoming the first lottery pick in program history is “something people always bring up,” Demic said the other day.
“The thing is I never thought I was going to get drafted,” said Demic, who played three years with Knicks before ending his career playing profressionally at Italy, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and the Continental Basketball Association.
“I had a good senior year. I knew there would be other great players that would come through there. I just didn’t realize it would be that good under Coach Olson.”
After his pro career came to an end in 1985, he sold office products for Lanier Worldwide. More than 30 years later, he remains active in that field as a major account executive for Konica Minolta Business Solutions based in Los Angeles.
Demic’s legendary status at Arizona merited a front-page story and a feature on the evening news on the night of his graduation two years ago at Arizona Stadium, especially 39 years after leaving Tucson to play with the Knicks.
Demic was fine celebrating the achievement privately with his family, including his brother Reginald, who owns Star Aluminum Co., a property enhancement business, in Tucson.
Demic’s background is all about putting in the work without the fanfare.
“I don’t know if you know anything about Gary, Ind., but it’s a manufacturing town and a working-class city,” Demic said. “You had to work in the mills. You had to work, man. I watched my dad go to work every day, swing shifts and stuff. That’s kind of what it was about.
“A kid growing up in that environment and going to college was a heck of an opportunity. I never took anything for granted. A kid from Gary, Ind., attending the University of Arizona was an incredible opportunity.”
He laughed at the inconceivable thought of it.
“That opportunity alone, I’m grateful for,” he said. “That was something that changed the course of my life without a doubt.”
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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.