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Lute Olson deserves peace and respect--not rampant rumors

Shortly after the report surfaced last week that longtime UA basketball coach Lute Olson was retiring--this time forever, although certainly not for good--I received an e-mail from a pretty regular correspondent, urging me not to join in the cacophony of praise for Olson.

Yours is an alternative paper, she wrote, one that should focus on the more important issues that the dailies ignore while not sinking to covering something as trivial as sports--and certainly not providing tribute to a man who became a multimillionaire by being paid enormous amounts of public funds to teach guys how to throw a ball through a hoop.

For the briefest moment (as Data would say, .0082 seconds, a lifetime for a cyborg), I thought of giving the coach a stereotypical alt-paper sendoff, one replete with references to wasted resources and wildly misplaced priorities. I even thought about sarcastically catering to the Kill Your Television/PETA/hippie home-school crowd by urging the UA to take advantage of Olson's departure by switching over to Earth Ball, where everybody wins because nobody loses.

But that wouldn't be fair to him or to the readers of the Weekly. Like it or not, for much of the past quarter-century, Lute Olson has been the most important person in Tucson. Not land-raper Don Diamond, not County Emperor Chuck Huckelberry. It was Olson who gave Tucson much of its national identity, turning what many in the United States considered little more than a dusty desert outpost into the least-likely basketball mecca anywhere.

We'll never know how many students enrolled at the UA because of his program's excellence or, for that matter, how many people back East turned on their TVs on a cold January afternoon and saw that stock shot of the majestic saguaro cactus and 70-degree sunny skies before a UA game and thought, "Hey ..."

Basketball's appeal in places like New York and Indiana is understandable, but Tucson? Olson almost single-handedly built a powerhouse from nothing; legend has it that, upon his arrival, he scratched some caliche dust into his palm and spat upon it, and Sean Elliott showed up.

Having been a longtime, limited-proficiency practitioner of the game, I was blessed to spend my formative years in Los Angeles while Coach John Wooden was winning his 10 championships in 12 years at UCLA. And now, over the past 25 years (judging by my appearance, we'll call them my de-formative years), I've been able to watch another coaching legend work his magic, year in and year out, winning with studs and somehow winning with scrubs.

After suffering through his only losing season in his first year, Olson took a team to the NCAAs with players that would have trouble winning a City League championship. The ultimate coaching compliment--that he can beat you with his and then trade places and beat you with yours--definitely applies to Olson.

I first met him while writing a magazine article about the resurgent UA program. Being a stay-at-home dad at the time, I took along my daughter, Darlene, who was about 2 at the time. She sat on his office floor and colored. He looked over at her and complimented her on coloring inside the lines. She shot him a glance, like, "What else am I supposed to be doing?" I'm sure I had a look on my face like Michael gets on Arrested Development.

He and I have never been good buddies, but he's always been gracious, asking about my kids and taking time to talk about basketball. One time, when his nemesis Jerry Tarkanian was riding high with his UNLV Runnin' (From the Law) Rebels, I wrote in my column: "If the UNLV starting five went to the $5-a-carload drive-in, at least three of them would try to hide in the trunk."

When I later bumped into Olson at McKale, he asked if my remark referred to the players' intelligence or their penchant for skirting the law. I said, "Well, yeah." I swear he almost laughed. Came this close.

One major lesson that can be taken from Olson's time at Arizona is that, in a specific way, basketball is, indeed, like life. One can put in all the work in the world, pay attention to the minutest of details and pour his very soul into preparation, and things can still go wrong. Branch Rickey once said that luck is the residue of design. Well, maybe it is, and maybe it isn't. If luck exists at all, Lute's luck ledger would be heavy on the debit side. But, through it all, he remained steady and cool, never complaining, never making excuses.

This past year has been a brutal one for him and the program he built. I don't know what happened last year, and I don't know what's going on now (although a press conference on Tuesday, Oct. 28, shed some light on matters, including the revelation that Olson suffered a stroke sometime within the past year). I wish there were a way to stop all the rumors. Ostensibly grown-up people, some "leaders" of our community, have been passing around rumors--each one more scandalous than the one before--like a bunch of eighth-graders. Shame on them all.

Olson has earned his peace, and he long ago earned our respect.

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