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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Physician suggested retirement despite Olson’s desire to coach

    When the desert dust finally settled on his historic coaching legacy, Lute Olson closed out a 24-season tenure in Tucson with resiliency, passion and one final kick.

    But prior to Tuesday, the final chapter of Olson’s uncharacteristic past year remained cloudy – up until his doctor announced the 74-year-old suffered a small stroke that occurred sometime during that year-long span.

    At a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Dr. Steven D. Knope said a blood clot likely traveled from Olson’s heart to his brain – the stroke occurred in his frontal lobe – and caused a year’s worth of severe depression and uncharacteristic behavior and decision making.

    The MRI exam conducted Monday revealed the stroke, which Knope believes to be the missing link in Olson’s recent personality changes.

    And with that comes closure in Olson’s legacy at Arizona.

    “”I think the circumstances here will clarify and explain some uncharacteristic behavior over the past several months,”” Knope said. “”For those of you who know Lute well, you probably said, ‘This doesn’t seem like the same Lute we know and love’ on a couple of occasions.

    “”I think that these behavioral changes can be attributed to that stroke,”” Knope added.

    The most notable instance of Olson’s out-of-character personality shift came April 1 at his first press conference afer a season-long leave of absence. Olson defensively and combatively fired back at reporters’ questions about his leave.

    On Oct. 21, Olson apologized for such a breakout at this year’s annual media day – two days before his retirement – and even said, “”I wish I had that hour back.””

    Olson’s high-profile divorce throughout the 2007-08 season – a contributing factor to his leave of absence – resulted in depression and anxiety, but all illnesses responded “”perfectly”” to therapy and antidepressants, Knope said.

    This year, Olson began the season in great spirits and eager to move forward. However, when Olson began experiencing more of the same symptoms recently, Knope thought Olson was experiencing a recurrence of the depression.

    “”Over the past several weeks, again, I became aware that Lute was having difficulty with his coaching responsibilities,”” Knope said. “”Obviously most people who have a depression simply have a depression. They respond to medications and the story’s over.

    “”When people don’t respond to medications and they don’t respond to standard therapy and there are clues that something else is going on, then we need to do brain studies to make sure there is not an organic cause of the problem,”” Knope added.

    Knope began serious discussions with Olson over the past few weeks regarding a permanent retirement, due to the fact that he wasn’t responding to the medicine when his symptoms reappeared.

    “”He was having difficulty putting pieces together,”” Knope said. “”It started to form a picture of an atypical depression.””

    Olson, however, wasn’t quite ready to give it up.

    In recent conversations between the two, Olson blamed himself for not meeting coaching expectations and developing an inability to “”pull himself up by his bootstraps,”” Knope said.

    But given his passion for the game, Olson couldn’t accept abandoning the team for a second consecutive year and became frustrated with the possibility of giving up, Knope said.

    “”He said to me, ‘Look, it was never basketball. It was never the game, I love the game,'”” Knope said. “”‘I can’t wait to get back.’ That was the state of affairs in April and I cleared him to return.

    “”There’s no such thing as an extraordinary person, just ordinary people who do extraordinary things,”” Knope added. “”And I think that embodies who Lute Olson is.””

    Olson returned for the 2008-2009 season at media day on Oct. 21 and told reporters he felt more energized and happier than last season.

    Then, less than 48 hours later, reports circulated throughout the day that Olson was going to retire – eventually confirmed at 5 p.m. by UA athletic director Jim Livengood.

    Livengood selected newly hired assistant Russ Pennell to take over on an interim basis.

    “”We miss Lute. The Arizona basketball family will always support him,”” Pennell said in a statement. “”Today’s news, as odd as this may sound, is comforting only in that he now knows what he’s up against as he works to return to good health.””

    When contacted by phone Tuesday afternoon, last year’s interim head coach Kevin O’Neill paused for a moment before responding to the news of Olson’s stroke.

    “”Wow,”” O’Neill said. “”The only comment I really have is that nothing is more important than Lute’s health and it would be my hope that he gets the proper care and he’s able to put himself in a position to live a great life.

    “”He did a great job as a coach,”” O’Neill added. “”He’s a Hall-of-Fame guy that everyone has great respect for.””

    Added Livengood in a statement: “”Our hopes and prayers go to Lute Olson and his family for a swift and full recovery. He has meant the world to this university and college basketball for a quarter century. His Hall-of-Fame legacy speaks for itself.””

    Five-year forward Kirk Walters, who played under Olson from 2003-2008, shot hoops around McKale Center after the press conference Tuesday as he trained for next week’s NBA Development League draft.

    Walters was taken aback by the news.

    “”It’s surprising – it’s surprising to everyone,”” Walters said. “”When last season got done he was in the office the next morning. I fully expected him to be coaching for the next three years.””

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