I don’t mind people taking shots at Lute Olson. I’ve taken a few myself. You gotta do what you gotta do when you think you’re right.
Sometimes you even have to defend him.
I hate to be the local homer or any kind of apologist for the Arizona basketball coach. Still, I’m guessing I had the same reaction as many UA fans when they read a particular paragraph Wednesday from national columnist Jason Whitlock.
And that reaction would be, “What the . . . ?!”
Whitlock, writing for Foxsports.com, had the pull to get a sit-down with erstwhile Arizona basketball recruit Brandon Jennings, who announced last week he was going to play professionally in Europe rather than attend college. In fact, Jennings signed Wednesday with an Italian team. Bravo!
Whitlock frequently brings out his hammer to bang against the NCAA (and does so quite passionately), so the big fella welcomes Jennings’ snub of the system.
Whitlock wrote: “Strictly from a basketball standpoint, a year in Europe will do Jennings good.”
I don’t have much of an argument with that. Jennings will face good competition against older players, get full-time coaching free of NCAA time restrictions and be forced to grow up in a hurry, on and off the court.
But then Whitlock, gratuitously, followed with this:
“No one who knows anything about basketball believes Lute Olson would teach Jennings a thing about the fundamentals of the game. I’m not taking a cheap shot at Lute to defend Jennings’ decision. It’s a well-known fact within basketball circles that Lute Olson is famous for rolling the ball on the court, kicking back and enjoying the work of his recruiters. Lute Olson is not Bobby Knight.”
If you have to say “I’m not taking a cheap shot,” chances are you’re getting ready to do the opposite. I’m reminded of the Sopranos episode titled, “All Due Respect” in which that conversational convention was unsuccessfully used to blunt the criticism that followed.
Anyway, after reading that paragraph from Whitlock – and picking up my jaw from the floor – I called Corey Williams, a well-spoken former Wildcat who played for 12 years in Europe.
I read him the passage.
“Are you serious?” Williams said.
“Oh . . . my . . . god. That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard.”
You can say a lot of things about Olson.
That he mishandled his leave of absence. That he holds a grudge. That he can be standoffish and arrogant. That he hasn’t taken the high road with some of his public comments since his spring return. That many of his recent teams have lacked cohesiveness.
But to say he wouldn’t teach Jennings a thing about the fundamentals of the game?
Where do you even begin with that?
I’m sure Richard Jefferson would vehemently defend Olson. Luke Walton, too. Channing Frye.
There are plenty of other examples of fundamentally sound Wildcats; those are just some of the more recent ones.
Ones that should be obvious to anybody.
Never mind Whitlock’s in-the-know assertion. You hear a lot of things in this business, but Olson being a roll-the-ball-onto-the-court kind of coach isn’t one of them.
“I would challenge him to find anybody else who agrees with what he said,” Williams said.
“I averaged seven points a game at Arizona. I was an average player who interviewed with five NBA teams and had a 12-year professional career because of what I learned about how to play the game from coach Olson.
“When I interviewed with the Suns, (then coach Danny) Ainge told me, ‘I know you know how to play because you played for coach Olson.’ ”
Williams added, “We have all heard that,” referring to the other former Wildcats.
It’s a well-known fact within basketball circles that Lute Olson is still a tireless recruiter, so it’s not as if he simply kicks back and enjoys the work of his assistants.
It’s as Gilbert Arenas told the New York Daily News a couple of years ago: “Anybody who comes from Arizona knows the game of basketball. When you play for Coach Olson, you get taught well. You’re ready for the NBA.”
It might be self-serving to quote Olson in his defense, but this was another telling comment from two years ago when the coach was talking about ex-Cat Andre Iguodala.
“After (Iguodala) practiced a while with Philadelphia, he called and said, ‘I can’t thank you enough for what I learned at Arizona. There has been nothing here that I didn’t know coming in,’ ” Olson said.
“They have all been that way.”
This isn’t about Jennings. He will be fine in Europe if he listens and takes coaching seriously.
The same would have been true at Arizona.
Whitlock’s comments might not be a big deal (OK, maybe it was a slow news day), but Jennings is a hot topic and Whitlock is a well-read columnist with ample circulation.
Arizona basketball has had enough trouble lately. It doesn’t need imaginary ones, too. No need to pile on.
Especially with a characterization as egregious as the one from Whitlock.
“That’s a cheap shot at Coach O,” Williams said. “As least say something remotely sane.”
Anthony Gimino’s e-mail: email@example.com
Who: Virtus Roma
Coach: Jasmin Repesa
2007-08 record: 23-11, second straight Top 16 Euroleague appearance, first trip to Italian League finals in 25 years.
History: Italian League champ, 1983, 1992; Euroleague champ, 1984.
Notable past U.S. stars: Rick Mahorn, Danny Ferry, Brian Shaw.