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Slimmer version, but Lute’s still Lute

Citizen Staff Writer



Lute Olson arrives, on time at a midtown restaurant for lunch, after getting his still-perfect white hair cut at his usual place.

While he is getting a trim, interim Arizona basketball coach Russ Pennell is on the radio, occupying the spot Olson held for 24 years on the weekly coaches show.

If that still feels a little strange to you, it does to Olson, too. Hard to imagine the moment in late October, less than two weeks into preseason practice, when doctors gave him the news: That thing you did for 49 years of your life – forget about it.

“The doctors told me there was a problem,” Olson said Tuesday, giving the Citizen his first extended interview since his abrupt retirement Oct. 23.

“I started practice with the idea that there was no question that I’d be back, and then they said, ‘You’re going to kill yourself if you do it.’ ”

At 74, having gone through some heart problems, a small stroke that affected the frontal part of his brain and suffering at least one bout of depression, Lute isn’t the same vibrant Lute you’ll see in a video tribute at halftime of Thursday’s home game against California.

The Olson of today walks slowly, carefully measures and searches for his words and is more slender than in his coaching days at Arizona, saying he has lost 20 pounds.

But, in other ways, Lute is still Lute, the city’s No. 1 celebrity.

He gets stares and wide eyes of recognition from customers as he walks to the back of the restaurant. The restaurant staffers later take peeks at the Hall of Fame basketball coach, wondering what he ordered and asking their boss if they could get a photo with him.

Olson, who has barely been in the public eye since November 2007, says he is feeling fine.

“The biggest problem has been keeping weight on,” Olson said. “My doctor wants me to make sure I’m keeping my heart rate up and that type of thing. . . . Usually, I get up early and walk, in many cases, a couple of hours or so.

“Then maybe I’ll read . . . make calls and return calls, that kind of thing. In the afternoon, I usually do an elliptical workout over at a friend’s house.”

His doctor, Steven Knope, speaking with Olson’s blessing, told reporters Oct. 28 that a stroke sometime in the past year had affected the coach’s “executive decision-making and personality” and contributed to “severe depression” and “changes in judgment.”

“He just couldn’t put the pieces together,” Knope said at the time.

Was that how Olson felt?

“I don’t know,” he said Tuesday.

“When they did the extensive stuff on that, they told me it can lead you to do things that you otherwise would not do.”

Olson included in that a letter he sent to the Rebounders Club last spring, soliciting donations, in violations of NCAA rules, for a youth basketball tournament at McKale Center.

“I didn’t remember a letter going out. That had to be something in the mix,” he said.

No doubt, the past 16 months – dating to when Olson began a seasonlong leave of absence on Nov. 4, 2007, because of depression – have been difficult. For Olson. For the players. The program. The fans.

One of the favorite local pastimes has been playing The Blame Game.

Olson, ex-interim coach Kevin O’Neill, athletic director Jim Livengood and university president Robert N. Shelton have all taken public floggings as the villain.

There seem to be dozens of different decisions that could have been made in the past two (three, four?) years to avoid a decline in Olson’s rock-solid program, which is trying to extend its NCAA Tournament streak to 25 seasons.

He says the events that led to UA having two interim coaches in two seasons were “out of everyone’s hands,” simply the result of his ill-timed medical problems.

He did say the university has been “very supportive.”

“It was a case of, medically, it would have been impossible for me to coach last year.

“From a health standpoint, that was a very, very difficult situation,” he said.

Same for this season.

Olson will be front and center in the next couple of weeks – Thursday night at halftime and March 14 when he is inducted into the Pac-10 Hall of Honor in Los Angeles.

It hardly seems productive anymore to wonder about the whats and whys that helped contribute to the uncertainty and unsatisfactory ending to Olson’s career.

Besides, it’s a drop in the ocean of a wonderful career than spanned 24 seasons at Arizona.

It’s time to celebrate that career and wish him the best of health.

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

Slimmer version, but Lute’s still Lute


Thursday: California (21-8, 10-6) at Arizona (18-11, 8-8), 8:30 p.m. TV: FSNA Radio: 1290 AM, 107.5 FM

Saturday: Stanford (16-11, 5-11) at Arizona, 5:30 p.m. TV: FSNA Radio: 1290 AM, 107.5 FM

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