Thursday, November 8, 2001

No one recognizes the symbolism, the importance of the cause more than Arizona basketball coach Lute Olson. Olson and his Wildcats open their 2001-02 season tonight against Maryland at Madison Square Garden in the Coaches vs. Cancer IKON Classic. Last Jan. 1, Olson’s wife, Bobbi, died of ovarian cancer at 65.
The tournament, which has raised $2million for cancer research, was inspired by the 1993 death of Olson’s coaching peer, Jim Valvano, who led N.C. State to the national title 10 years earlier. “But obviously it has more meaning to me, and to others whose lives have been touched by cancer,” Olson said. “And my guess is, very few coaches, very few people have not been affected by it.”
Olson committed to the tournament three years ago, shortly after Bobbi was diagnosed and underwent emergency surgery during a trip to Budapest. After extensive treatment, she was determined to be free from cancer in March 1999. Then it returned.
High school sweethearts who grew up in a small North Dakota town, Lute Olson and the former Roberta Russell were married for 47 years. They were inseparable. She was his best friend, confidant and partner in every sense. Former Arizona star Damon Stoudamire once referred to her as “Coach’s crutch,” explaining, “She helps him stand up.” She made almost all the basketball trips, and served as a surrogate mom to the players. He was reserved. She was bubbly, outgoing, vivacious. Before every game at McKale Center in Tucson, the crowd greeted her with a hearty, “Hi, Bobbi,” as she took her seat.
Now Section 16, row 2, seat 5 remains unoccupied, except for flowers. They were first placed there during a televised public memorial service at McKale, an almost unprecedented display of love and remembrance for the wife of a coach. The floor, named for Lute Olson last year, was renamed “Lute and Bobbi Olson Court.” Several former players attended, and there was an abundance of more flowers, photographs and shared recollections.
“When you were with Bobbi, you were the one, you were her favorite,” Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood told the crowd. “You were that someone that all the attention was focused on.”
Olson had skipped a trip to Connecticut in early December to be with Bobbi, then took a leave of absence, entrusting the team to associate head coach Jim Rosborough. Olson wept when he informed the team; the players were stunned. “That was the hardest day,” Rosborough recalled. “That was just God-awful.”
The shaken Wildcats lost their own Fiesta Bowl tournament for the first time ever, then wrote one of the great stories of any college basketball season. Regrouping after Bobbi’s death, the Cats went 3-1 under Rosborough to start the Pac-10 season. Olson returned, and the squad rode an emotional wave through the NCAA tournament (24 victories in 25 games) that subsided only when Arizona lost to Duke in the national championship game.
“It was a very difficult year,” Olson said. “Not just for me and my family, but it was very difficult for the players and Coach Roz and the rest of the staff because of the closeness and attachment of Bobbi to the entire program.
“Once I had the opportunity to come back, I think that really was the focal point of the team, that they really wanted to go on and win the thing for Bobbi, and they came as close as they were able to come. Emotions, when you’re dealing with adults, is one thing. We’ve had to deal with emotions. But for a team to be placed in that situation, I think is very difficult.”
Speaking of last season, Rosborough said, “Some day, somebody will write a book about it.”
Olson has a home in San Diego, a favorite summertime retreat for himself and Bobbi. This year there was a much-needed family reunion. “It was difficult,” he said. “Yet we all had to lean on one another quite a bit. I think it was hard on everyone, but it was important for us to be together.”
Olson, starting his 19th season in Tucson and 29th overall as a Division I coach, has tried to fill the void with work. There were basketball camps to run and recruiting trails to hit. He worked at Michael Jordan’s fantasy camp in Las Vegas. His vast support system includes five children and 14 grandchildren, and a daughter and her kids provide company in the big house nestled in the Tucson foothills. But Olson spends more time at the job now, sharing the training table and weight room with his youngest, most inexperienced team ever.
“He’s always been a bulldog with regard to his profession and preparation,” Rosborough said. “I’m just gonna guess and say that he’s doing a little more film work at home. … He’s still very busy with charitable work. He’s out several evenings. That part really hasn’t changed. He’s doing a lot of the same things, but without Bobbi.”
Olson’s Wildcats won the national championship in 1997 and have been to the Final Four three other times. Under Olson, Arizona has 17 straight NCAA tournament appearances, nine Pac-10 titles and 14 consecutive seasons of 20 wins or more, during which time the Wildcats have the nation’s best winning percentage. Olson’s 639 victories (he also coached at Long Beach State and Iowa) are surpassed only by 28 coaches in Division I history.
Yet at 67, Olson faces what might be his most difficult on-court challenge to date. This year’s model bears faint resemblance to the national runners-up. There are just nine scholarship players, including six freshmen and three juniors. No sophomores, no seniors. Junior point guard Jason Gardner is the lone returning starter.
Gardner declared for the NBA draft but changed his mind when it became clear the pros were less enamored with his ability than he was. Olson, however, wasn’t so lucky with three other underclassmen who started last year, forwards Richard Jefferson and Michael Wright, and guard Gilbert Arenas (the fifth starter, center Loren Woods, was a senior).
This was something different for Olson, who had been more successful than most coaches at getting his players to stay for four years. “We expected this to be a veteran team,” he said.
Jefferson, at least, had the skills to turn pro after his junior year. Drafted 13th by Houston and traded to New Jersey, Jefferson is off to a good start, averaging more than 12 points a game for the resurgent Nets. But Arenas, who hung around until the 31st pick in the draft after playing two years at Arizona, does little but occupy space at the end of Golden State’s bench. And Wright, who came out after his junior year, was picked 39th by New York, was cut during training camp and is among the nation’s unemployed.
Olson, who has lobbied against NCAA scholarship limitations, has emerged as a leading critic of unrestricted eligibility for underclassmen.
“The unfortunate thing is that all too often, kids not just ours listen to these shady agents who have no real interest other than that the kid maybe can make them some money,” he said. “And if he gets cut and left out in the street, he’s not their problem.
“I wish there was more publicity about the hundreds of kids who come out who have no degrees, who have never been in the NBA. But the only ones who are focused on are the [Kevin] Garnetts and the [Kobe] Bryants. For every one of those, there are a hundred who have blown an opportunity for a college education and blown an opportunity to gain from being involved in a college situation.”
And the problem, Olson said, will get worse before it gets better because of the new NBA developmental league. Although 20 is the minimum age for participation, Olson believes that soon will be reduced.
“I’ll almost guarantee you it will drop to 18 next year,” he said. “This was just a way of getting the thing passed. The second it’s challenged in court, it’ll drop to 18 and then you’ll see all kinds of kids take the easy way out. And very few will ever make it.”
Uncharacteristically, Arizona is missing from most preseason Top 25 polls. They also were picked to finish fourth in the Pac-10, which was previously unheard of. Olson, in fact, can’t believe it. “It’s too high, he said.
“There’s no way in the world we should be picked fourth,” he said, “based on six freshmen and nine scholarships. … But we’re being awfully demanding of these young kids. It’s required if we’re going to develop by the time league play comes around.”

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