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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Lute Olson uncovered

    Roman Veytsmanassistant sports editor
    Roman Veytsman
    assistant sports editor

    Lute Olson walks by the students waiting in line outside McKale Center before a game. He smiles. The band yells in unison and waves prior to tipoff, “”Hi Lute.”” Olson waves back.

    For all his class, friendliness and a laundry list of contributions to philanthropic causes, Olson remains intangibly distant to the average fan.

    But not for long.

    Olson’s book, “”Lute! The Seasons of My Life,”” which is co-written by David Fisher and hits stores everywhere today, brings out a side of Olson those outside of his inner circle have only wondered about.

    “”With the book, I wanted to make sure that it was personal, that it was an honest assessment of everything that’s gone through my life,”” Olson said from his office, his perfectly combed hair accenting his red Arizona polo shirt and khakis. His hands, which look large enough to palm a medicine ball, fidget in front of him. “”I really didn’t want to hold back.””

    After the Wildcats won the national championship in 1997, people pushed Olson to pen an autobiography, but the Hall of Fame coach said he “”just didn’t feel that the time was right.””

    Basketball is at the center of the legendary 72-year-old’s life, yet it is hardly a focal point in the book, which instead paints the picture of a hardworking, determined Norwegian who came from the humblest of beginnings and put an emphasis on family first.

    When Olson was 5, his father, Albert, died at the age of 47 of a “”massive stroke”” shortly after trimming Lute’s hair. Just eight months later, Olson’s older brother Amos died from gangrene after a tractor accident.

    “”I had terrible, terrible nightmares for a long time,”” Olson writes in the book. “”Funerals have always been very hard for me.””

    As big as his love for basketball was, his love for Bobbi Olson, his wife of 47 years, was bigger.

    Bobbi was a beloved figure in Tucson, the players’ confidante, and just as much a part of Arizona basketball as Olson himself. In fact, Olson withdrew his name from consideration from the Kentucky job in 1985 after the program failed to include Bobbi in the interview process.

    At the time of Bobbi’s cancer diagnosis, Lute tried to keep his family life under wraps, but as time went on, he felt the appropriate moment had come to share her story.

    “”Once Bobbi got sick, we had asked the media and the community to understand that this was really a family thing, and that we appreciate for that to be a personal thing and sort of out of bounds as far as discussing those things,”” he said. “”People in the community were great, the media was great, and I just felt that given how private we were able to keep that, I thought this would be the time to really let people know what the family went through and what she went through.””

    When Olson first sat down with Fisher, who also authored “”Gracie”” with George Burns and “”The Artful Dodger”” with Tommy Lasorda, to begin the project 2 1/2 years ago, it wasn’t an easy process.

    Though the memories poured out of his mind in hours and hours of conversation with Fisher, Olson found certain memories emotionally tough.

    “”It wasn’t going to be a case of trying to protect this feeling or that feeling,”” Olson said. “”It was real tough to do.””

    At times, even though he almost never broke down in front of the team, Olson’s vulnerability jumps out.

    “”For a time, I was lost,”” Olson writes in the book. “”Without Bobbi, without basketball, I didn’t seem to have any direction.””

    But despite the tragedies in Olson’s life, there is an equal amount of laughter and achievement.

    From his “”most embarrassing job”” – dressing dummies in a ladies’ store called Buttery’s as a 16-year-old – to receiving a commitment from Khalid Reeves in a bathroom stall, to late assistant coach Ricky Byrdsong telling a recruit, “”You know, in nine years at Iowa, coach Olson has never been arrested,”” the book glows with happiness.

    Olson also talks vividly about his relationship and eventual marriage to Christine Toretti and the difficulty of moving on with his life in public.

    Toretti envisions raising $50 million for the Arizona Women’s Cancer Center in part due to Olson’s book, which he called “”a good way to kick off”” the fundraising.

    Reaction to the book has come quickly for Olson. He spent half an hour yesterday listening to one of Bobbi’s close friends discuss what the book meant to her.

    “”She said she alternated between crying her eyes out and laughing,”” Olson said.

    Whether you cry or laugh, this account of Olson’s life strays from his public demeanor and digs deep inside the emotions of a man whose exterior has never told the story.

    “”I didn’t want this book to be about ‘X’s and ‘O’s,”” Olson said. “”I wanted it to be a personal look at what goes into building a successful basketball program, but also into what family life is about.

    “”If I look at it with my life story, I want it to start with family,”” Olson added. “”Basketball is a great passion with me, but it’s never a case where basketball has come ahead of the family.””

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