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Gimino: Wife is O’Neill’s best defender

Ex-singer likes his sense of humor

Roberta O'Neill, the wife of UA interim coach Kevin O'Neill, cheers on the Wildcats.

Roberta O'Neill, the wife of UA interim coach Kevin O'Neill, cheers on the Wildcats.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Roberta O’Neill considers the question, the one that really gets to the heart of the matter, and laughs.

The petite 31-year-old blonde from Canada laughs easily, which makes her a perfect fit for her husband, Kevin.

“I think he missed his calling as a stand-up comedian. Really. I do,” she says.

She takes, in her words, “no guff” from her husband, which also makes her a perfect fit for Kevin, blunt and always full of banter.

She has a bit of gypsy in her soul, again making her perfect for her husband, who has never been in one place too long.

And, right now, no one knows if Kevin O’Neill, Arizona’s interim head basketball coach and the would-be successor to Lute Olson, is going to be in town long enough for the former Roberta Elder to ascend to the lofty title of first lady of Arizona basketball.

She laughs when asked if she had considered the possibility.

“Someone mentioned that to me, and I thought, when I think of first lady I think of Jackie O,” Roberta says.

“I don’t know if I’m quite polished enough to be first lady,” she adds with a smile. “But I’m quite happy being Kevin O’Neill’s wife.”

• • •

The woman who shaped the man who shaped this Arizona basketball season initially thought her future husband was a bit of a jerk. Which surely is an understatement.

Roberta was working in Toronto with a restaurant/distillery group that helped open fine-dining establishments, and in walked O’Neill, the head coach of the Toronto Raptors, with an assistant and the team’s strength coach.

It was early in the 2003-04 NBA season, and O’Neill’s crew was celebrating with gusto an afternoon victory over Denver.

Roberta, at one point, was asked to go over and, as she says, “smooth things over.”

“I would dare say at that point we were acting like jerks – you know, if I had to guess,” O’Neill recalled with a laugh, not really needing the guess. “I liked her, but I could see where she didn’t like me.”

Roberta, not being a big sports fan at the time, had to be told who Kevin was. A man who was helping her organize a fundraiser told her she should ask Kevin to donate Raptors tickets for the event.

Her response: “I’m not asking him for anything.”

Reluctantly, she later left a message for him. He called right back. He insisted on delivering the tickets in person.

“He was so incredibly charming,” Roberta says. “I thought, this is not the same man that I met.”

They started talking. They talked all night. They became friends. They started dating, living together. They were married on July 4, 2006.

Kevin O’Neill, the man who was once dubbed the best recruiter in the nation by his college basketball peers, had just landed his top prospect.

“She’s pretty great, isn’t she?” Kevin says.

“Although she’s young, she’s way smarter and wiser than I am. Meeting her was a godsend.”

• • •

Kevin, 51, often talks in news conferences about the days when he was young and foolish, but a big night for him and Roberta usually consists of “Law & Order.”

“That’s our thing. That’s our show,” Roberta says.

“We’re not picky. We’ll watch all of them. He laughs at me because as soon as an episode starts, I’ll say, ‘We’ve seen that one.’ He’ll say, ‘How do you know, it’s the opening scene?’

“That’s kind of what we do. We’re like two peas in a pod.”

It’s a bit funny to think about. Kevin, the intense, demanding, foul-mouthed guy who is no stranger to having some over-the-top fun, sitting on the couch at home waiting for the “Law & Order” twist.

“We have simple tastes,” she says. “We like being with our friends and, I probably shouldn’t say it, drinking beer.

“When certain situations call for champagne, we’re up for the task. But we’re mostly flip-flops and shorts kind of people.”

If Kevin has found more maturity, more harmony, in the past several years – and he says he has – it is because of Roberta. She has, in Kevin’s words, “an old soul.”

“We sort of meet in the middle in terms of maturity,” she says.

“I think for him, his personal life has never been something he focused on. As time has gone on, he has understood the need for balance, to see that personal happiness can help you be successful in your professional life.”

Before they embarked on this basketball journey, before his tenure with the Toronto Raptors came to an end after just one season, Kevin made sure that Roberta knew the world she was getting into.

“We had lengthy discussions about my commitment,” she says.

“That was a huge thing. In all honesty, though, it wasn’t a hard decision to make. He wanted to know if I wanted to come with, and I thought, ‘You know what, what do I have to lose?’

“I have not looked back and I have no regrets. I’m hoping he would say the same thing.”

Well, she might have one regret – Kevin’s love of country music.

He might have one, too.

• • •

They are renting a house in the foothills – Kevin’s law: Rent, don’t buy – a testament to his nomadic ways.

He was an assistant with the Indianapolis Pacers in 2005 and 2006. In their second year there, Roberta fell in love with a 1917 colonial-style house. She convinced Kevin to buy, not rent.

And then they renovated.

“That was not the right thing to do, and I don’t think he will ever let me live it down,” Roberta says, laughing. “It was the money pit.”

He was soon looking for another job. At least they got out before real estate values crashed.

But this is the life she quite carefully chose, on the move, the wife of a basketball coach. Previously, she studied nursing, giving it up for a singing/song writing career.

She performed under the name “Lady El” with a Canadian rap/hip-hop band called Triad. Go to www.triad3.ca. You’ll find links to some of her performances.

She said she hasn’t performed in several years and is now working toward being a Pilates instructor. Mostly in the past year, she has been learning to love the college game, traveling with the team and becoming attached to the people and the atmosphere.

She took a girlfriend to one of the early Arizona games and became irritated when her friend wanted to chat during the action.

“When the game is on, I’m pretty focused on it, which Kevin has found quite amusing,” Roberta says.

“From the moment we got here, I would hear people talk about the program and everything surrounding it. You learn quickly. College basketball is an incredible thing to watch. I can understand why people are so taken by it.”

• • •

During a game at USC, Roberta couldn’t understand why fans were calling her husband a “Jim Boeheim wannabe,” referring to the longtime Syracuse coach.

Kevin told her later. It’s because Boeheim, like Kevin, has a wife 20 years his junior.

“He has a very young spirit,” Roberta says of Kevin, “so to me it has never felt like there was an age difference.”

Kids? Maybe. Kevin has a 20-year-old son, Sean, from a previous marriage. Roberta says she would like to be more settled into one place before having a child. There’s no guarantee that place will be Tucson.

Olson will be back as the head coach next season. Will O’Neill return to an assistant coaching role at UA? Stay tuned for that.

For Roberta, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to be the first lady of Arizona basketball, which is, of course, a huge deal in Tucson.

But if it doesn’t happen, she will handle it like her kindred spirit does – pack up and move on and find another place to crash.

That doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be a measure of disappointment – from her point of view and perhaps from ours, as we’re just getting to know her.

“This is more like a family atmosphere, and it’s pretty great,” Roberta says of Arizona. “I definitely could get used to it. I definitely could.”

Spoken like a true first lady.

Anthony Gimino’s e-mail: agimino@tucsoncitizen.com


The former Roberta Elder was a singer before marrying UA interim basketball coach Kevin O’Neill.

Roberta, 31, performed as Lady El with the Canadian rap/hip-hop band Triad. Go to www.triad3.ca. for links to some of her performances.

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