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Cut from stone: creators behind Olson statue leave no hair out of place

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Madeleine Viceconte | The Daily Wildcat The statue honoring former basketball coach Lute Olson was unveiled at the Eddie Lynch Athletics Pavilion on April 12. Olson is referred to as one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all time and was a seven-time Pac 10 coach of the year.

No one is quite sure when the idea for putting up a statue of the University of Arizona’s greatest basketball coach got started. Depending on who you ask, you’ll get a range of answers and timelines.

According to Jeremy Sharpe, associate athletic director of communication services, it’s something that the athletics department has had in the works… for a while. “I’m not sure honestly,” Sharpe said. “It’s kind of something that’s been talked about for a healthy period of time.”

To hear Omri Amrany, co-owner of the Fine Art Studio of Rotblatt – Amrany and co-designer of the Olson statue with artist Jessica LoPresti, tell the story, that amount of time was very healthy.

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“I’d been intrigued by the idea of a statue [of Olson] for about 15 years,” he said. 'For years I tired and tried."

Olson's statue, which sits outside the Hall of Champions on the north side of McKale Center and reportedly cost $300,000 according to a UA Athletics press release, depicts the former coach waving to a far away crowd with the 1997 NCAA National Championship trophy in his other arm.

When word of his firm (finally) being awarded the commission on the statue got to Amrany and his wife, Julie Rotblatt-Amrany, founder and co-owner of Rotblatt — Amrany, it found them off-guard. 

“The architect called and said ‘you are the studio,’” Amrany said. “It was a big surprise, and we got right to work.”

After taking a look at the Rotblatt — Amrany's portfolio of past works, it's evident the UA did its due diligence. The firm is behind some of the most famous sculpture's of athletes both in the U.S. and around the world.

Some of the firms past works include the statues of former Lakers' stars Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal outside of the Staples Center in Los Angeles. 

Closer to home, a statue of Pat Tillman, the late Army Ranger and ASU graduate, was designed by the firm and sits outside University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.

Perhaps the firms most famous piece, a 16-foot-tall sculpture called The Spirit: Michael Jordan, rests outside of the United Center in Chicago. 

Much like the iconic "Jump Man" image immortally depicted on Nike gear for decades, the statue finds Jordan seemingly suspended in mid-air, arms stretched, legs spread wide and preparing to dunk on a witless defender (probably Byron Russel).

It's that element of perceived movement and action that sets Amrany's firm apart. "People are really drawn to the sculptures because of that illusion of suspension of gravity," Amrany said. "There is something about the form — our pieces were gutsy."

For the Olson statue, that perceived movement and sense of place would prove more difficult, according to Amrany. For one, Olson wasn't exactly known for high-wire acrobatics around the basket — his statue would remain planted on the ground.

And second, choosing the right image  to capture the essence and spirit of Olson proved difficult.

"We used, for this portraiture, 44 images to bring it to approval," Amrany said, explaining the process of meticulously modeling and remodeling. "It took us about four months."

After the image of Olson was settled on, Rotblatt-Amrany sent the design to a foundry in Phoenix to have the statue cast. "We have six or seven foundries across the country we use to cast our statues, it all depends where the work is going."

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However, much like Jordan's ubiquitous tongue, Olson did posses one universally recognized physical quality: his magnificent mane of silver-white hair. Amrany said he wanted to make sure he captured that.

During the ribbon cutting ceremony held for the unveiling of the statue last Friday, Olson and many former players and current administrators were present. They all seemed to think the statue got Olson just right.

Right after the statue was unveiled, Olson himself said a few words. Half-turning to the statue, he offered his analysis of the piece. 'They got the hair right," he said.


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