Tom pays tribute to a friend leaving Tucson for basketball glory

Michael Steward has left Tucson in search of basketball coaching glory. I will miss the hell out of him, and while I wish him nothing but the best, it didn't have to be this way.

I've known Stew (as everybody refers to him) for more than 20 years. I was running an adult basketball league and he and his buddies signed up to play. For reasons probably known only to God, Stew took an immediate dislike to me.

I know, right? How is that even possible?

He and his team decided to play in the league anyway. One day, he brought along with him a street knucklehead who tried to draw attention to himself with the way he dressed rather than by the way he played. I looked at Stew and said, "Dude, your friend dresses like an Aztec pimp." That broke the ice and we became fast friends.

Over the years, we played on City League teams together, worked at camps and ran leagues. One of the leagues we ran was so ridiculously popular that the first game began at 8 a.m., and then we'd run straight through with games starting on the hour and the final game starting at 11 p.m.! After more than 16 hours in the nasty, stinky gym, we'd clean up, put everything away and then get out a football for a game that we had co-invented.

We would compete at everything—dominoes, free throws, even trying to throw a football from one end of a basketball court into the hoop at the other end. One night, around 1:30 in the morning, we each made three such shots in a row. After we each missed our next one, we finished the game and left. We knew that no one would ever believe us (try it; it's not easy), so we kept it to ourselves. I would later liken it to the Feynman Point in pi, where there are six consecutive 9s. (There is also a point, much later in pi, where there are nine consecutive 6s.) Stew, ever the competitor, trumped me by saying that our six consecutive baskets were more mysterious than Jessica Simpson's celebrity.

Stew worked his butt off to be a coach. He started out coaching middle-school teams outdoors in the blazing Tucson afternoon sun. After several years of hard work, he got the plum varsity job at Catalina Foothills High. Great facilities, great academics, great athletic traditions, and lots and lots of parents—some great, others not so much.

You may remember that I once was offered an opportunity to write a book about sports parents. If I ever do, there will be an entire chapter devoted to Stew. He quickly built up the program and guided the Falcons to back-to-back Class 4A Final Fours. Even then, the best was yet to come. Like a swell out in the ocean, he (and everybody else) could see this monster team on the horizon.

One of the key members of that monster team—which, with the exception of an inexplicable stumble early in last year's state playoffs, has arrived in full force—is a kid whose parents used the open enrollment provision in Arizona state law to go from a middle school in TUSD to Catalina Foothills High. The move was completely legal and aboveboard, but it still managed to raise the ire of at least one Rich White Lawyer/Daddy in the Foothills District, who apparently saw the interloper kid as a threat to take precious playing time away from Rich White Lawyer/Daddy's kid. (It may or may not be important to note that both the kid from TUSD and Stew are of the same race, one that is different than that of Rich White Lawyer/Daddy.)

Everything seemed to be going OK, with Stew building the squad into a legitimate state championship contender, when he was suddenly called into the office one summer day and fired. No reason was given, but everybody in the district and in the local coaching ranks knows of the pressure brought to bear by Rich White Lawyer/Daddy. One odd quirk is that Stew missed out on a chance to coach the son of current University of Arizona basketball coach Sean Miller because he got fired by the (athletic director) daughter of former UA coach Lute Olson.

Stew scrambled and found a spot on the coaching staff of fledgling Tohono O'odham Community College. The college is officially in Sells, but they play their home games at Baboquivari High. To get there, you drive into the setting sun until you just can't drive anymore. Then you turn left and go another 20 miles to Topawa. I've made that drive a few times, but how people do it on a daily basis is beyond me.

Stew gave his all to coaching, scouting and recruiting, and the TOCC Jegos are on the verge of emerging as a statewide (if not national) junior college power. But then a job opened up at Eastern Oregon University in tiny LaGrande, Ore., and Stew jumped at it. The job pays a shockingly low amount of money, the school is out in the middle of nowhere, and he's basically starting over at the age of 40. What's not to like?

I wish him the best, but it didn't have to be this way.

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