1997 championship basketball team reunites for charity
In front of a sold-out crowd at the historic Fox Tucson Theatre, members of the 1997 National Championship Arizona basketball team celebrated their 16th anniversary on Friday. Co-hosted by the Primavera Foundation and the Blair Charity Group, the celebration raised more than $35,000 to help counter the rising poverty level in Tucson.
Household names, including former head coach Lute Olson and Arizona star players Miles Simon and A.J. Bramlett, were in attendance. Simon, now an analyst for ESPN, received the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player Award in 1997.
Arizona basketball fans and 10 members of the championship team watched a replay of the 84-79 overtime victory against Kentucky at the theater. During breaks in the game, the audience enjoyed entertainment from the master of ceremonies, Joseph Blair.
Blair, founder and owner of the Blair Charity Group, gave out raffle prizes to attendees and interviewed the former Wildcats about their memories of the game and where they are today.
Ryan Revock/The Daily Wildcat Kirk Sibley, who was Wilbur from 1996 to 1999, helps entertain the crowd at "The Game" on Friday at Fox Theatre.
“Joseph Blair and the Primavera Foundation put on a very unique, first-class event,” Simon said. “I was very happy to be here, very impressed by the turnout. It was for a great cause, more so than anything, to help the Tucson community.”
Primavera Foundation Chief Development Officer Michael Finkelstein and Executive Director Peggy Hutchison gave the opening statements.
Hutchison told a story about a married couple who had come to the Primavera Foundation after losing their jobs. Following a year-and-a-half of the program’s aid, both now have steady jobs and saved enough money to purchase their own home.
Tucson mayor Jonathan Rothschild spoke as well.
“Tonight, we’re celebrating probably the greatest moment in Tucson sports history, and the folks who made it happen,” Rothschild said. “But what we’re really here for tonight is to celebrate the work of Primavera. Every person in this room is a fortunate person, and you need to count your blessings. Every single one of us can do a little more in this community.”
Blair, who played center for Arizona from 1992 to 1996 and is currently an undergraduate assistant coach, gave the final talk before the game was put up on the big screen.
“What I’ve learned is that block ‘A’ that we all wear on our chest is not representative of the university,” Blair said. “It is not representative of a basketball team. It represents our community.”
The crowd gave ardent reactions throughout the entirety of the replayed game.
Olson and Simon received the most emphatic ovations. Everyone who came up to speak had nothing but kind words for Olson and what he meant as a mentor and leader on and off the court.
Simon called him an “innovator” of college basketball because he was the first coach to use a three-guard lineup, beginning in the 1993-94 season. With guards Damon Stoudamire, Khalid Reeves and Reggie Geary in the starting lineup that year, Olson led Arizona to the Final Four.
“He [Olson] was ahead of his time as a coach,” Simon said. “We didn’t run any plays. We just had smart basketball players that knew how to play right away. The fundamentals we learned in practice every day — I can remember them now and see why they paid off in the game.”
Olson recalled when the 1997 championship game was headed to overtime, that he noticed the Kentucky players were bent over and clutching their shorts, usually a sign of fatigue.
“I told the guys [that] the toughest team was going to win,” Olson said. “I knew who that was, and I think they knew who that was, so this thing is as good as over.”
Blair asked every member if they had watched the full game apart from the time actually playing in it but all answered “no.”
“Everybody obviously has a positive memory from winning the game, and I think the way we remember it is the best way to do it,” Simon said. “The memories and emotions that are brought up by watching this game, seeing my teammates, how hard they were fighting and how each member of the coaching staff was pulling for each other — I think that’s the memory that lasts longer than watching the game.”
Championship team members Mike Bibby and Jason Terry, were unable to attend. However Terry’s mother, Andrea Cheatham, sat in the second row.
As she watched the game’s replay, Cheatham wore an ear-to-ear smile every time Terry scored or made an impressive play. Near the end of the event, Blair and Simon auctioned off a poster signed by the attending members of the team.
Starting at $200, the bid shot up another $800 within minutes, adding an extra $1,000 to the charities’ funds.
“I’m going to say ‘generous’ about 100 times tonight; excuse me,” Finkelstein said. “But that’s what this town is.”
— Follow Joey Putrelo @JoeyPutrelo