Olson: closure for a legend
The irony was clearer than HD when Lute Olson stepped up to the podium to give an eight-minute speech before thousands of glassy-eyed spectators in McKale Center Saturday. He wore khakis and a red polo with Arizona's Block A on the left breast - the same Block A that was painted on the court this past spring, replacing the navy circle at halfcourt that read ""Lute & Bobbi Olson Court.""
The literal uprooting of his name from the court was a sign of the program moving forward into the hands of new head coach Sean Miller, but that doesn't mean Olson's accomplishments over the past decade will be forgotten.
""The Lute Era is not over - not as long as guys keep accomplishing things,"" said former Wildcat and current San Antonio Spurs forward Richard Jefferson. ""A new era is beginning, but Lute's is not over. You look at Luke (Walton) and he's an extension of John Wooden's era through his dad. Eras from people like that never end.""
""As all of us continue our careers,"" Jefferson added, ""our accomplishments and our children will all be an extension of the Lute Olson era.""
And yet, closure had finally come for Lute Olson - a coach, teacher, father, friend and legend.
""An event like this has to be a little bittersweet for Coach,"" said Wildcat luminary Steve Kerr. ""It signifies that it's over. It wasn't easy for him.""
Olson's retirement came at the tail-end of a downward-spiraling exit from a quarter-century of coaching in Tucson that included an unexpected leave of absence, which he initially said was not ""a health scare, but rather a personal matter that needs my undivided attention,"" then calling it a ""medical condition that was not life-threatening, but serious enough to require time away."" In the past couple of years, Olson had a stroke, went through a divorce and suddenly retired without saying goodbye to the community that has treated him like a king since he arrived from Iowa in 1983.
It's not the way Tucson nor the basketball community wanted to see him leave.
But on Saturday, Olson was able to close out his career on the highest of all highs, being honored with a two-hour retirement program before an estimated 6,500 fans and dozens of former UA players and coaches, his family and a handful of administrative figures from the past three decades. It was more than he ever imagined.
""This is mind-boggling, the number of you that have shown up to be involved in this,"" Olson said. ""Speaking on behalf of my family, I can't say how much I appreciate this.""
Finally, Olson had the chance to say goodbye to his most faithful fans, from young to old. Diehard Wildcat fans such as 75-year-old Phyllis Goodman, who has held season tickets since before McKale Center was even erected, attended the ceremony. Another fan, Doug Tepper, was dressed in Olson's signature coaching apparel: Khakis, white shirt, red tie and navy blazer. Tepper's hair and eyebrows were died white, and ""Lute!"" was painted in red across the middle of his face.
More than 25 years of emotion swirled around the arena like an easy summer breeze. At one point during the ceremony, UA senior point guard Nic Wise laughed while Olson's grandson Matt Brase, shared a story of the coach trying to use a boogie board in California. Just a moment later, Wise buried his face in his hands and wiped the corner of his eyes. Olson was one of seven coaches Wise has played for in the past seven years.
""I don't know if there's another program in the country where players of three decades can have such a close bond with each other,"" Brase said as Wise covered his face.
Added former Wildcat-great Sean Elliott: ""I never played a minute on this court with (former player) Pete Williams, but every time I see Pete, we hug like we played four years together.""
Olson, whom UA President Robert Shelton called the ""greatest coach and leader of men in the history of college basketball,"" will return in the fall to McKale Center as a spectator, watching as his legacy continues through Miller and the current team - even if they're playing on a newly painted court that no longer boasts his name. And he'll be able to do so in peace and comfort.
Finally, Olson has received closure.
""From the bottom of my heart and the hearts of my family, thank you for all the great years,"" Olson said to conclude the program. ""And go Wildcats.""