The Odder Couple

Concert promoter Jeb Schoonover and UA basketball associate head coach Jim Rosborough are celebrating 15 years of tennis-based friendship. How the hell did that happen?

As they respectively remember it, it was either 114 degrees that day in late June, or it was 110 in early July. It was the hottest day of that month, or of the year, or of all time. Or maybe not. It was a cloudy day with a clear blue sky, and each of them distinctly remembers being the one who took the first step.

All that's certain is that in the mid-afternoon on that brutally hot day in 1989, two guys were on the tennis courts at the University of Arizona. It was the type and time of day in which only mad dogs, Englishmen and these two morons would be outside.

Each man had a tennis racquet and a ball, and each was pounding the ball relentlessly against the wooden back wall--a tennis exercise well known to kids just starting out who are trying to gain consistency in their ground strokes, and to accomplished adults who are warming up while waiting for their tennis partner to show.

The two men continued to hit the balls, occasionally eyeing the other as they did so. They were a mismatch, to be sure. One guy looked sort of like a preacher; the other looked like the kind of guy who keeps preachers in business. The elder of the two was tall and slender, obviously an athlete who was aging well. The younger was scruffy and unkempt, with facial hair that followed no particular pattern, and a mischievous look in his eye. The former was new to Tucson and was about to step into the white-hot spotlight that surrounds the UA basketball team, while the latter was a would-be concert promoter who was managing a Tex-Mex band with the unsettling name The Forbidden Pigs.

Finally, after what had to have seemed like an interminable amount of time, one of the men approached the other and suggested that instead of the two of them succumbing to heat stroke individually, they could hit the ball back and forth over a net and perhaps pass out together.

They played that day, and then played again the next day, and the day after that. They continued to play almost every day, hundreds of times each year, with intensity and passion and an off-brand version of sportsmanship that apparently consists of exchanged curses, intentionally bad calls and the occasional physical intimidation of whichever of the two happens to be nursing an injury at the time.

And just the other day--or perhaps it was a few weeks ago--this Odder Couple celebrated their 15th anniversary by going out on the courts on yet another insanely hot Tucson morning. Tennis balls and insults flew back and forth at roughly the same rate. After a few minutes, some kids attached to some sadistic summer youth program that requires outdoor athletic participation around the time of the solstice began to wander onto the adjacent courts. One by one, they paused to watch and listen as the two guys went at each other. The kids smiled as they realized they were being treated to a little bit of street tennis. When the rec leaders showed up, they hustled the kids away like schoolmarms guiding their students past a saloon.

The kids walked away having learned two things. One, that tennis might be fun after all. Two, that old white men are crazy.

As Tucson's population sprawls its way toward the million mark, the place retains its small-town charm in many important ways. Movers and shakers are more likely to be reviled than revered. Important people have an anonymity that has to be somewhat grating to them. Heck, half the City Council probably couldn't pick City Manager James Keene out of a lineup (while the other half would probably like to see him in one). We haven't had any entertainment biggies living here since Lee Marvin passed away. Linda Ronstadt is in and out of town, but she's a local kid, so it doesn't really count. And a few celebrities pass through Canyon Ranch, but we never know who's there unless the staff forgets to take the keys away from Diana Ross.

Tucson has exactly one superstar--Lute Olson; a handful of people who get seen on TV on a regular basis (Jim Click, Kris Pickel, Bob Walkup); and a few others who it's cool and important to know. The aforementioned tennis junkies fit in that last category. Jeb Schoonover, the concert promoter and former owner of the Rialto Theatre, can get you in to see Maroon 5. And Jim Rosborough, the associate head coach of the Wildcat hoop team, can get you in to see the starting 5.

While they certainly move in different circles, there's always the chance that these two would have met at some time during the past 15 years, maybe at a charity event or a tailgate party. They probably would have smiled wanly, exchanged a dead-fish handshake and moved on. But through the magic of sport, these two men have become bitter on-court rivals and strangely compatible off-court buddies.

Jim Rosborough took something of a circuitous route to Tucson. When Lute Olson first got the job as head coach at Iowa, he named Hawkeye alum Rosborough as one of his assistants. The two men worked together for 10 years, including on the Iowa team that reached the Final Four in 1979. But when Olson came to Tucson, Rosborough stayed behind, working for athletic director Bump Elliott and doing color commentary for Hawkeye basketball.

But he wanted to get back into coaching, so he took a job as an assistant at Tulsa, which went to the NCAAs the year that he worked with the Golden Hurricanes. He then got his first head coaching gig, at dreadful Northern Illinois. His bosses had promised him five years to build a program, but they grew impatient and fired him after three. His record of 28-56 (.333) seemed sufficient grounds to let him go, but the next year, his first recruiting class became seniors, and they blazed to a 26-5 mark and earned a trip to the NCAAs.

Rosborough rejoined Olson in April 1989 and has been in Tucson ever since. Following the NCAA championship in 1997, he was promoted to associate head coach and even ran the team for a while in 2000-01 while Olson was dealing with the death of his wife, Bobbi. Rosborough coached the Cats to a 3-1 Pac-10 mark in Olson's absence, including a sweep at the Washington schools. That team started off the season dismally, but they turned things around and made it all the way to the NCAA championship game, where they got jobbed by the worst officiating in championship-game history.

Rosborough wears many hats in the program. Besides the usual coaching and recruiting responsibilities, he is also in charge of the day-to-day basketball office operations, oversees the academic progress of the players and runs the mega-successful Lute Olson Basketball Camps during the summer.

Jeb Schoonover grew up in Florida, where he dreamed of a career as a professional tennis player. For a time, he bounced around the junior circuit, a viciously Darwinian system that chews kids up and spits them out, labeling them as failures right around the time that their voices begin to crack. Jeb managed to hang on until he was 14.

There was a scene in the original Bob Newhart show, the one in which he was a shrink (not the one in which he was an innkeeper or the other one in which he was a cartoonist). He told his wife, Emily, that he had dreamed of being a jazz drummer, and he worked and worked at it. One day, he got to audition for legendary jazz drummer Buddy Rich and he gave it his all. When he got done, Rich looked at him and said, "You stink, Man."

Now, just change drums to a tennis racquet, and transfer that story to Jeb. But Jeb wasn't going to let the cruel words of one man ruin his life. Jeb tenaciously clung to his dream of growing up to be a really mediocre adult tennis player. And darned if he didn't fall just short of his goal.

He moved to Tucson for school, got plugged into the vibrant music scene and has been a major player for years. He was instrumental (pun sorta intended) in putting together the TAMMIES (the Tucson Area Music Awards) and the Club Crawls with the Weekly, and he turned The Rialto into a hot venue, one that managed to attract bigger-than-expected names to the butt end of Tucson's grimy downtown. If everything goes according to plan, the theater will be purchased by the Rio Nuevo district. It will then be leased by the Congress Street Historic Theaters Foundation, headed by former TW editor/publisher Douglas Biggers. Biggers bought much of the block the Rialto is on, and before the sale and subsequent six-month closure, he butted heads with Schoonover regarding the future of the theater and the surrounding area.

The Rialto actually has a rich history. Back in the days before suburbanization hit America (and Tucson), the Rialto drew people to downtown for movies and shows. In the 1970s, it was at the center of a national controversy that raged over the public showing of the porn classic, Deep Throat.

The theater eventually fell into disrepair and came close to being demolished on more than one occasion before being rescued by Jeb and his partner, Paul Bear. The Rialto lives on because of their efforts. Meanwhile, Schoonover is still working around town as a promoter; don't be surprised if he owns another venue soon.

Both men deal with inordinate amounts of stress. Schoonover always was a string of four or five bad bookings in a row away from the brink of financial ruin, while Rosborough has to deal with the capriciousness of the modern-day athlete. Last year's UA squad (I'm reluctant to use the term "team" for that particular collection of bozos) consisted of some of the most talented athletes ever to step on the McKale floor, and yet they underachieved at an absolutely dizzying rate.

One of the guards would rather pass a kidney stone than a basketball; the Cats just barely kept alive Olson's 18-year streak of 20-win seasons; the squad was out of the Pac-10 race by February; there was talk that they might not make the NCAAs; and when they did get in, they got smacked up by a very ordinary Seton Hall team in the first round.

And so Rosborough meets Schoonover at the courts to take out some of his pent-up emotions. The UA tennis courts are incredibly convenient, since Schoonover lives basically across the street from them in the Sam Hughes Neighborhood, and Rosborough basically lives in his office in McKale Center. Since Schoonover works mostly at night, he's home much of the day. Ros will call him up, and they'll meet at the courts, which are almost always empty.

While the courts are convenient, they're not in the best shape. If tennis were a revenue-producing sport for the UA, they'd be covered, air-conditioned, as smooth as glass and probably packed with advertising. But since they're not, the courts are, like Humble Pie said, hot and nasty. And the surfaces have more cracks and lines in them than Cher's face before Botox.

The day I watched them play, I was mildly impressed--with their tennis, anyway. Rosborough moves with a grace that belies the fact that he will turn 60 in December. Schoonover, coming off arthroscopic knee surgery a couple months back, showed good lateral movement and is in pretty decent shape for a guy in his early 40s who, shall we say, lives a rock-concert promoter's life.

They both have pretty good serves, and both have great ground strokes, with the ball skimming right over the net and landing deep in the court, just inside the line. They also both have an assortment of tricks up their sleeves, with drop shots and lobs mixed in with the regular strokes.

But what was most impressive was their willingness to openly cheat. They would call good shots out and foot-fault on serves. Schoonover would run over to Ros' side of the court to point with his racquet at the imaginary spot where his shot had supposedly landed. It was highly entertaining, if not altogether sportsmanlike.

They played a few no-deuce games up to five points (most of which ended in scores of 5-4), exchanged a few unpleasantries ("You cheat!" You suck!"), questioned each other's ancestries ("Your mama cheated!" "Your mama ... well, you know") and then they were done. After an hour or so in the blazing heat, they were both drenched in sweat. They shook hands, walked off the court together and promised to meet again the next day.

One of the great things about the Tucson summer is that an athlete almost never has to stand in line. You want to go work on your jump shot? There are 8,000 outdoor courts standing empty, with plenty of natural lighting and your choice of string or chain nets just waiting to sing your favorite song.

You went to play golf in the winter and found that they wanted your first-born child and you still had to pay extra for the cart? Well, during the summer, they almost pay you to play. Courses all over the valley will let you play for scandalously low amounts. At some places, you can play 18 holes with a cart thrown in for less than $20. You can't even get in and out of a movie theater these days for that amount. A couple courses even have deals for unlimited play after 2 p.m. Sure, it's a tad on the warm side, but if you didn't like that 3-iron shot you just hit, go do it again, 'cause Lord knows ain't nobody behind you.

And if you feel like playing baseball or football, there are dozens of perfectly manicured fields all over Tucson, almost lusting to be trod upon. All you need to do is find 17 or 21 other people as nuts as you and go to town.

One of the things that keeps Tucson's outdoor sports venues deserted during summer daytimes is the misguided notion of the comfort factor adhered to by today's self-proclaimed "athlete." Sports, of course, aren't supposed to be comfortable; they're supposed to be hot and sweaty and crampy and dirty, sort of like everybody's other favorite pastime--shopping at Wal-Mart.

Then there's that other small thing that keeps people indoors during the summer: the fear that they might drop dead in the heat. This, of course, is pretty much a myth. A recent study by the Arizona Department of Health Services found that an average of 29 Arizonans die each year from heat-related causes. Twenty-nine out of more than six million is a relatively inconsequential number, unless, of course, you happen to be one of the 29.

Sadly, some of those 29 are children left in cars by parents and caregivers who deserve to rot in hell. Another three or four deaths outside of the 29 strike out-of-state visitors who die in the Arizona heat. (The study does not take into account the number of illegal aliens who die in the desert each year, although that number is now being overshadowed by those who die in traffic rollovers involving horribly overstuffed vans, SUVs and trucks.)

Still, the chances of an athlete dying in the heat are almost nil. The recent death of an incoming UA football player initially raised concerns about the players working out in the midday heat, but an autopsy showed that he had an enlarged heart that hadn't showed up during any of his physicals.

Todd Judge of the Fitness Institute of Tucson often runs in the Tucson heat and finds it exhilarating. "You just have to use common sense," says Judge. "Drink lots of water, before you start exercising and before you feel thirsty. Know the warning signs of heatstroke--dehydration, muscle cramps, dizziness, weakness, an elevated pulse--and use your head. Obviously, I wouldn't recommend that a 50-year-old man who is just starting an exercise program go out and run a mile at noon in July, but the heat is not this horrible thing to be avoided at all costs. If somebody's in shape and they hydrate themselves, they should be fine."

Rosborough and Schoonover have played tennis in the rain and played tennis in the snow, but mostly, they like to play in the heat. That's generally because they like to play, and it's usually hot in Tucson. But over the years, they've become good friends off the court as well. Schoonover's musical memory goes back to around 1970, while Ros lived through the early, glory days of rock 'n' roll, as well the British Invasion, the Motown years and the birth of metal. Naturally, they dog each other for the gaps in their musical knowledge.

Rosborough occasionally shows up at concerts at The Rialto, and he was sighted at the last concert (the Weekly's TAMMIES) of the Jeb-Paul era. His favorite show last year was Lucinda Williams. The basketball memorabilia in his office is broken up by an autographed picture of Leon Russell, who is now officially the scariest-looking person in rock music, ever since Jerry Garcia collapsed into a pile of drugs and ashes a couple years back.

The two even drove up to Phoenix a few months back to catch the Bob Dylan concert. Ros complained that Schoonover took a bottle of wine and didn't share. Schoonover explains, "Wine's probably not a good idea for somebody his age. Besides, I needed wine to understand what Dylan was saying."

Schoonover takes in a few Wildcat games each year, much to Rosborough's chagrin. "Jeb sits there and yells things at the players and the coaches, and he has no clue. He'll call me up or talks to me on the tennis court about playing this guy more or switching defenses. I mean, do I go to concerts at his place and say, 'That guy should be playing the piano instead of the guitar?'"

One of the hard and fast rules of adult athletics is that if you were blessed with proficiency at basketball, you must play basketball until your body (not your wife or your job--your body) absolutely refuses to allow you to play any more. Then you take up tennis, followed in 20 years by golf, then death.

Jim Rosborough, who was recently inducted in the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame for his stellar prep basketball career at Moline High, hasn't played basketball in almost 30 years. "My knees just couldn't take it. I can play tennis, because it only involves a few steps at a time. I just couldn't keep getting up and down the basketball court. I miss it, but my knees don't."

Schoonover also used to play basketball, although not quite as well. He hopes that he'll still be playing tennis as he nears 60. "It's great for the stress. It's free; the courts are almost always open; and we're both pretty good at it."

What about golf somewhere down the road? Both were asked, but neither sees it happening. Says Rosborough, "At least in tennis, we have a net separating us. If we played golf, with the opportunity to cheat and the (availability of metal clubs), we'd kill each other."

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