In the summer of 1990, my older brother, Scott, was attending the Lute Olson Basketball Camp at the University of Arizona. My dad — a successful high school basketball coach — was working the same event.
I was too young to attend…technically. But in a move predating Emmanuel Akot, I reclassified and participated in my first Lute Olson Camp as a camper. I went every summer for the next 10 years as a camper, then became a counselor during my college years.
A longstanding joke among campers who attended other camps, and later among counselors who traveled the country working camps, centered on how little the coaches whose names appeared on those events actually showed their faces.
That wasn’t the case at Lute Olson Camp. The man was a fixture, each and every summer and for every age group. He’d often step in to guest-teach drills, and would commend campers on hustle plays during games; I’ll never forget once seeing him stop a game involving the elementary-aged campers to point out a youngster taking a proper charge.
Of course, these camps aren’t the reason the University of Arizona is dedicating a space for a commissioned Olson statue, outside McKale Center Arena. Olson’s success as Wildcats head coach, which included four Final Four appearances, transformed the very identity of the school.
But the camp is a snapshot of why Olson’s so beloved in Tucson. In his two decades as the face of Arizona basketball, he was truly an institution and fixture of the city itself.
Olson took a last-place finisher in the Pac-10 during the early 1980s, and within a few short years, built a thriving basketball power that remains relevant today. Arizona was the third high-profile stop of his coaching career, having previously flourished in stints at Long Beach State and Iowa, and the unlikely basketball program he’d built in the Sonoran Desert was seemingly a logic pit-stop to even greater heights.
There are few highs in college basketball comparable to Lexington, Kentucky. So, when UK came calling in 1989, it only made sense Olson would leave Arizona behind.
Scott was among the many Wildcat fans who, as news of Kentucky’s interest spread, sent a letter to the UA athletic offices.
Not long after, Scott received an Arizona basketball postcard with a message handwritten by Olson and addressed directly to him.
There’s little doubt Olson would have succeeded at Kentucky — and indeed, the coach who took the job that year, Rick Pitino, won a national championship in 1996. Olson got his championship the next season at Pitino’s expense.
By spurning basketball blue-blood Kentucky for Arizona, Olson cemented the fast-growing program as a true Basketball School. At the same time, he declared his allegiances to an entire city. Tucson never forgot.
Though I can’t remember the source, I once heard a joke that perfectly captures Lute Olson’s meaning to the Old Pueblo: Bookshelves in homes throughout Tucson have photos of Lute next to those of Grandma and Grandpa.
Maybe that’s an indication of how sports fans tend to deify successful coaches. For me, though, Lute Olson doesn’t exist in rarefied air. Rather, what made him so loved was how grounded he could be.
He gave campers high-fives. He wrote my brother a thank you letter. A few years into my tenure as a camper, after having seen thousands of faces, he greeted me one morning with a warm, “Good to see you again this year, Kyle.”
My adult vocabulary can’t give fair description to how much this meant to a grade school-aged me.
And for my dad, a wildly successful high school basketball season in the mid-1990s, which culminated in an undefeated conference title; 25-4 overall record; and fell a few shots shy of a state championship; ended with his dismissal.
Yes, the best team in a high school’s history — and in the two decades since — cut ties with my dad for still unclear reasons.
As my father sought a new coaching job, he had a pretty impressive letter of recommendation from one Lute Olson. Needless to say, another school in the area hired him shortly thereafter, where he coached until the mid-2000s.
His last team went undefeated in conference and played for a state championship. He got to step out of coaching a winner, and Lute Olson played a little part in that.
Surely others tangentially involved in Arizona basketball during Olson’s near-quarter century tenure can share similar stories. Tucson’s now a Basketball Town because of him, and he’ll forever be the unofficial mayor.