Citizen Staff Writer
THE FINAL EDITION
We know how all this ends, so we’ll start at the beginning.
In truth, I never – ever – wanted to be the Arizona men’s basketball beat guy back in the early 1990s. I all but refused, as did Dave Petruska when it was going to be either him or me in taking over for former beat writer Cindy Somers.
I had heard many a time that head coach Lute Olson didn’t like the media, and often was surly with the bunch. But I took it and don’t regret one minute of it. Two books and thousands upon thousands of stories later it all ends for the Citizen.
I have no regrets.
How can there be? In 18 years of covering the team, I’ve covered 625 Arizona games (minus two for the birth of my first child). But this will be a testament to the Arizona program: UA is 476-149 in my time (missed wins not included). That’s an average of 26.4 wins and 8.2 losses a season.
Thanks for the ride. Thanks for the winning. It’s better to cover a winner than it is a loser. And, Lute wasn’t that bad. He seemed to always return calls. And in this business that’s all you can ask – beginning to end.
I have many memories of covering the Arizona basketball team the last 18 seasons, but here are my top three:
1) The national title run
The thing I’ll remember the most is the mad scramble after the game.
When Kansas star Raef LaFrentz missed a 3-pointer from the corner in an attempt to tie the game against Arizona in the Sweet 16, the UA Wildcats were overjoyed in the 85-82 win. UA had knocked off what was perceived to be the most dominating team of that season in 1997. Jason Terry jumped on the scorer’s table. Players searched for hugs. It was bedlam crazy.
Heck, I remember frantically calling the airlines to see what I needed to do to change the paper’s airplane tickets just in case Arizona defeated its next opponent (turned out to be Providence) in the Elite Eight.
It helped Arizona gain confidence, paving the way to a national title. Against No. 1 Kansas, it played near flawless basketball, save for giving up an 11-0 run near the end of the game to make it close.
“It had to be a perfect game,” Jason Terry said at the time. “We had to do it all.”
Arizona did, behind freshman guard Mike Bibby’s 21 points in a kid-cool performance.
“This was big because the whole nation was watching,” Terry said. “We had a lot of doubters and it feels good when you stick a fork in them.”
2) Wildcats in the pros
Apparently 1997 was a big basketball year. Back in the day when there was a huge following for UA hoops young and old, I spent nearly two weeks traveling back and forth from Chicago to Salt Lake City following the Chicago Bulls. The reason? Former UA stars Steve Kerr, Jud Buechler and Brian Williams were with the Bulls and playing in the NBA Finals.
I was able to write about Michael Jordan’s 38-point performance as he played with horrible flu-like symptoms in Salt Lake City in pivotal Game 5. Many thought he wouldn’t play at all, but he found a way and had an incredible game as Chicago won, 90-88, to go up 3-2 in the best-of-seven series.
Then came the NBA Finals, Game 6. I can’t remember how I felt, but I do remember the basketball gods had me there to tell the story. And Kerr was the story.
With Chicago needing a basket in the game’s final seconds, who will the Bulls turn to? Of course, Jordan. Not so fast. It was Kerr who hit the game-winning shot (with an assist from Jordan), furthering Kerr’s legend as a sharpshooter. He later would say hitting that “big shot was my most memorable moment.”
When the Bulls had their day to celebrate in front of thousands of fans, Kerr used his typical humor to explain the play.
“When we called timeout with 25 seconds to go we went into the huddle and Phil told Michael, ‘I want you to take the last shot,’ and Michael said, ‘I don’t feel real comfortable in these situations. Maybe we need to go in another direction.’ I thought to myself, well, I guess have to bail out Michael out again.’ ”
3) UA’s collapse vs. Illinois
Sometimes I think back and still can’t believe it. Arizona had a 77-63 lead with 3:20 remaining and an 80-72 lead left with just more than a minute left and couldn’t hold off Illinois in the Elite Eight in 2005.
It would have solidified UA coach Lute Olson’s legacy, as it would have been his sixth Final Four. All Arizona needed was one basket to stem Illinois’ late-game run. It couldn’t get it. And eventually it lost, 90-89 in overtime in Rosemont, Ill.
Being on the losing side of that game was “unbelievably painful,” Olson said in his autobiography, ‘Lute: The Seasons of My Life.’ “This game ranked close to the 2001 loss to Duke in the championship game as the toughest of my career. As hard as it was for me, I’d been through more than a thousand games, for the team this was just devastating. I felt awful for our seniors.”
One sportswriter’s locker full of memories
TOP UA PLAYERS BY DECADE
2000s Luke Walton, F ’00-’03
1990s Mike Bibby, G ’97-’98
1980s Sean Elliott, F ’86-’89
1970s Bob Elliott, C ’74-’77
1960s Warren Rustand, F ’63-’65
1950s Ernie McCray, C ’88-’91
1940s Link Richmond, F ’44-’49
1930s Lorry DiGrazia, F ’36-’38
1920s Harold Tovrea, G ’21-’24
1910s James Herndon, NA ’17-’19
1900s Charles Brown, NA ’05-’06
As picked by Steve Rivera, based on overall play and intangibles.
Great quote: Channing Frye, Gene Edgerson, Joseph Blair. Quirkiest: Tie, Gilbert Arenas and Bennett Davison. Unbelievable talent but horrible quote: Khalid Reeves. Unflappable: Mike Bibby. Unluckiest: Jawann McClellan. Surly, but good: Salim Stoudamire
Moment with Candrea
I also covered two Olympics for the Citizen: 2000 in Sydney and 2004 in Athens.
The 2004 Games affected me the most when UA softball coach Mike Candrea led Team USA to a gold medal.
Candrea’s team dominated, not that it was a surprise in going 9-0 and outscoring opponents 51-1. It was his humility, poise and pride in the journey. It came just five weeks after his wife, Sue, died of a brain aneurysm while on the pre-Games tour.
I remember him in the dugout, hand on chin, taking in the team celebration on the field. Heartfelt and memorable.
“I thanked them all for the greatest moment of my life,” he said at the time. “I love this team.”
And, through it all, he didn’t get a medal. Coaches don’t get medals.
“That’s not what this is about,” he said.
Mike Bibby, G 1997-98
Gilbert Arenas, G 2000-01
Channing Frye, C 2002-05
Jordan Hill, F 2007-09
Andre Iguodala, F (left) 2003-04
Damon Stoudamire, G 1992-95
Khalid Reeves, G 1991-94
Jason Terry, G 1996-99
Luke Walton, F 2000-03
Michael Dickerson, F 1995-98
Jason Gardner, G 2000-03
Jerryd Bayless, G 2008
Chris Mills, G 1991-93
Richard Jefferson, F 1999-01
Sean Rooks, C 1989-92
• Includes players from last 18 seasons, when Rivera covered UA.