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Cats on the Court 

Arizona basketball is back—and the fans couldn’t be happier

Arizona freshman forward Zeke Nnaji (22) scores a layup against Northern Arizona University Wednesday, Nov. 6. Nnaji had a game-high 20 points on 9-of-12 shooting for the Wildcats.

Mike Christy / Arizona Athletics

Arizona freshman forward Zeke Nnaji (22) scores a layup against Northern Arizona University Wednesday, Nov. 6. Nnaji had a game-high 20 points on 9-of-12 shooting for the Wildcats.

If you've attended an Arizona Wildcats basketball game over the past two decades, there's a pretty good chance you've met Robert Wagner.

Wagner has been a steadfast presence at Arizona sporting events, serving as an usher at men's and women's basketball games, as well as working football and softball events for two decades.

Wagner is a tall and amiable gentleman, with a trademark mustache that's occasionally dyed various shades of red and blue.

His path to joining the University's athletics department began two decades ago, when the former Tucson Fire Department employee shattered his leg when his motorcycle was hit by a semi.

Wagner was told he'd never walk again after the accident, but willed himself to do just that, thanks in part to taking on a role as an usher at Arizona Stadium in 2000.

"They told me I'd never walk again, so I came to [then-University of Arizona Assistant Athletic Director] Suzy Mason and said, 'I need a job Suzy, I need to walk.' They hired me in 2000 to work football and now I do football, softball, women's volleyball, women's basketball," Wagner recalls. "I love it. It keeps me young; it keeps me moving and being around the kids is a blast."

Wagner has worked a host of athletic events, but says he feels most at-home inside the friendly confines of McKale Center, a venue he's been intimately involved with for more than four decades.

His time inside the palatial basketball arena dates back to 1983, when his adult league team used to scrimmage against then-coach Lute Olson's roster in the hall of fame coach's first season in Tucson.

Wagner and his longtime ushering colleague, Barry Scofield, were inside the venue for the Wildcats' home opener against Northern Arizona University, which the Wildcats would win in a walk, 91-52, on Wednesday, Nov. 6.

The pair have worked together for eight years, with Scofield coming over from Kino Stadium, where he ushered for the city's former AAA baseball team, the Tucson Sidewinders, after a long career in the Navy and with Boeing, where he built some of the company's most well-known aircraft.

The former member of the Blue Angels demonstration team has seen a lot of highs and lows in his eight seasons as an usher, including Pac-12 regular season championships in 2014, '15, '17 and '18.

The highlight for the former Washington State resident is the people he's met along the way, many of whom he's on a first-name basis with.

"I enjoy mingling with the season ticketholders as they come through and I've gotten to know them and it's always good to see them," Scofield says. "I enjoy the people, I enjoy helping them, I enjoy being around them. I enjoy solving their problems for them. I treat them like I would my family."

Two of those regulars include John and Linda DeCastro, who sit midway up the upper concourse level of section three inside McKale Center.

The couple are second-year season ticketholders, receiving the golden tickets from their son and daughter-in-law.

The DeCastros were the first people to arrive in their section on Wednesday night, settling into their plush seats about 90 minutes prior to tipoff.

Attending Arizona home games has been a rite of passage for both members of the DeCastro family for decades, however, as Wildcat basketball is a way of life for the family.

The couple agreed that the pageantry of college basketball is what they love most about attending games.

They both enjoy watching the Pride of Arizona pep band launch into its setlist and actively scout players from both teams to see who's hot and who's struggling with their shot.

Both believe the Wildcats will be much improved from a year ago, when the team suffered through a 17-15 season, missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012.

Their faith looked rather prescient on Wednesday, as the Wildcats shellacked an overmatched Lumberjacks team, with 6-foot-11-inch freshman forward Zeke Nnaji scoring 20 points to lead the team to a one-sided romp.

"I think they're going to have a really successful season this year and I'm glad that we're going to be here to see it happen," John said. "We were basketball fans before we got these seats, but we're really, really big fans of Arizona basketball now."

Home court advantage

Arizona coach Sean Miller, who's entering his 10th season in Tucson, praised the likes of John and Linda in his postgame commentary on Wednesday night.

Miller said the announced crowd of 12,960 on Wednesday gave his players a jolt of energy, allowing them to come out hot and bury the Lumberjacks early.

"I'd like to thank our crowd. We had a great crowd here on opening night," Miller said. "All you need to do is look around America and you see that the opening game, especially on a weekday, isn't always filled.

"I'd like to thank them for showing up and being as active as they were. It was exciting to return to McKale. And our players feed off of that. This is a magical arena and I think all of us feel a great sense of pride to perform well and to play with great effort because of the crowd and the tradition that we have here."

Nnaji touched on a similar topic in his postgame comments, calling the crowd at McKale an energizer for the team's players.

The Minnetonka, Minnesota native admitted to being a bit awestruck at first by the crowd, before acquiescing and thriving off their collective energy.

"It was great. It was so fun to make a big play or getting a defensive stop and hear the crowd cheering you on," Nnaji said. "I think just gave everyone extra energy."

Longtime Arizona employees, like Wagner and Scofield, can attest to the effect that the McKale Center crowd can have on opposing teams.

A glance at the school's record book will tell you that the Wildcats have won 603 of their 710 games at the arena, which opened its doors in 1973.

The uniqueness of McKale Center, according to Wagner, is its ability to bring together a ravenously passionate fanbase that spans age groups.

The veteran usher believes the fanbase in Tucson is among the best in the nation, which makes his role entertaining.

"I feel very fortunate to be alive and in McKale," Wagner says of the crowds at McKale. "Every game's great, every game's exciting. They're fun to be around. They keep you young."

More by Christopher Boan

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