In truth, I never wanted to be the University of Arizona men’s basketball beat writer. I backed into the beat when a colleague became pregnant back in 1991 and it would have taken a toll on her given the workload and demands of covering Arizona basketball.
I had heard too many stories about Lute Olson not liking the media, being surly at times – many times? – in response to questions he didn’t particularly like. Nonetheless, they gave me the beat after three years of covering Dick Tomey.
I’m glad it turned out the way it did. As I tweeted earlier this week – a hour or two after Lute’s announced death – I wouldn’t be the writer/reporter I am today in part because if I didn’t cover a winning basketball program few would know me. I covered a winner for almost two decades. It allowed me the opportunity to write five books on the program.
As the main beat writer for the Tucson Citizen back in the day, UA went 399-98. I covered all but two of those games. Everyone loves a winner – and Arizona basketball was a winner under Lute Olson, a master builder of programs and men. I would have never met Sean Elliott, Steve Kerr, Tom Tolbert, Pete Williams (guys I didn’t cover) or Damon Stoudamire, Mike Bibby, Jason Terry, Luke Walton, Richard Jefferson (guys I did cover). Rarely did he recruit a bad apple. He also had help from his beloved late wife, Bobbi, who knew the type of recruit her husband needed. He/they were of the belief that good people create good things and bad people create problems.
Back then, she was – and still is – my all-time best Lute recruit.
I’ll never forget that night in 1997 when Arizona won the national title on April 1 in Indianapolis and Lute was still conducting interviews deep into the night/morning when he saw Bobbi leaning against a wall, waiting for him to finish.
“I’ll be right there, babe,” Olson yelled to her. She, in her quick wit, said, “I’ve waited 40 years for you, I can wait a few more minutes.”
Those were the good ol’ days.
It’s taken me a couple of days to gather my thoughts on my memories of Lute, a man I covered professionally for 17 years then became what I think was a friend for the last 13 years of his life. It’s a cardinal rule in journalism to not get close to the subject you cover and truthfully, I straddled the line a time or two in those 17 years. The last 10 or so, well, I didn’t care anymore. The Tucson Citizen was long gone — journalism gave up on me with the closing so I gave up on it — and I became more of a storyteller/writer than I did a reporter. He was the subject of many of the stories.
I’ve been in denial of his poor health for months now, all the while knowing it wasn’t good. I hadn’t seen him in more than 15 months, since his last stroke in early 2019. We did exchange a text more than a year ago as I checked in to see how he was doing. My last text to him was on his 85th birthday, wishing him well with the message: I hope you gradually get better and hope to see you soon.
Both didn’t happen. But I was in contact with his great wife – no, make that GREAT wife Kelly – to make sure he’d get messages from me. She passed them along, and I’m grateful.
In the last three months, I’ve had two dreams involving Lute, which is weird in as much as I don’t remember dreaming about him before. In May, I dreamt he was on a golf course wearing his khaki pants and a red Hawaiian top.
Kelly passed on the note “adding nice dream but sad his golfing days are behind him.”
I knew. I hadn’t heard from him in months. Here was this rock of a man – 6-foot-4 with made-for-the-movies looks – getting older and less mobile.
Then in early July, I had another dream. He had Arizona in the Elite 8 but was five seconds away from being eliminated. His team was down by one with five seconds left and without the ball. Fans were headed to their cars. But someone from UA stole the ball dribbled to the basket took a shot and missed, but some Wildcat got the rebound and put it in before the buzzer.
I was thinking, “Lute found a way to get back to the Final Four after all.” True story.
Later that night – still in my dream – I saw Olson, Kelly and some friends coming into a restaurant to celebrate. They sat at the table next to me and were celebrating. That’s when I knew it was a dream because, come on, we don’t eat at the same places. He’s in a different tax bracket.
I woke up and later that day texted Kelly to tell her I had another dream and what it was.
“Love it,” she texted. “Thanks for sharing.”
I thought to myself, thanks for sharing Lute the last few years. I said that to her often.
I kept him busy. He’d travel around the city signing books and meeting fans who adored him. From Mr. Ans to Vivaces to Barnes & Nobles, he’d be right there. The fans loved him. Heck, they weren’t there to see me.
And I appreciated him, as did Anthony Gimino, a co-author on the last book. And as Anthony so, obviously, pointed out, Lute, who had 30-plus years on us, was always the best-looking one among us.
He was such a good sport. In covering him for those 17 years, I’d often tell people – when they would ask – that he was a very good guy but didn’t want anyone to know. I say that because many of the very good coaches aren’t good guys. He was, thankfully.
I’ll never forget being invited to his 65th birthday so I could do a story on the event. Some of Tucson’s heaviest hitters were there. I didn’t stay too long so as to not make him feel uncomfortable.
I’ll never forget being invited – or me inviting myself, can’t remember – to watch an Arizona game at his house. I wanted to see what watching a game through the eyes of a Hall of Fame coach turned Arizona fan was like. It was the year UA went on to play in he Elite Eight, losing to Wisconsin. The highlight of the night was Lute seeing and laughing as Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim went bonkers and eventually was thrown out out in a game against Duke. Dookie Vitale (as Lute used to call him) was doing the game.
I’ll never forget he agreed to be a special guest of mine at the 2013 El Tour de Tucson. Bill Walton was in town too, so we all sat at the same table.
I’ll never forget, he agreed to throw out the first pitch at a Tucson Padres game about eight years ago or so. Again, wearing his Khaki pants and red top.
I’ll never forget him smiling and agreeing to let Mike Feder and I host the Lute Olson Fantasy Camp. He knew we would bring some of his old players back for a mini reunion. He loved it. They loved it as did the campers, who spent three days hearing stories about Lute Olson.
Those days are gone, but the memories will last a lifetime.