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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Homecoming: Former Wildcats add to basketball family

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Rebecca Marie Sasnett

Arizona men’s basketball assistant coach Damon Stoudamire talks to guard T.J. McConnell during Arizona’s annual Red-Blue Game on Oct. 18 in McKale Center. Along with Joseph Blair, Stoudamire has continued the tradition of former Wildcats coaching at Arizona.

The lights dimmed, fans roared and fire soared. This was the scene for the player introductions at the annual Red-Blue Game. In the newly renovated, but not yet finished, McKale Center, the video board lit up with names, faces and footage from the past, present and future of Arizona basketball.

Everyone from Sean Elliott and Steve Kerr to Jason Terry and Nick Johnson were shown on the video board for the sold-out crowd to see. The Arizona greats drew “oohs” and “aahs” from seemingly everyone in the attendance.

However, there was one man who received more applause than anyone else, the greatest coach in Arizona basketball history: Lute Olson. The house that Olson built shook with excitement as fans broke out the customary, “Luuutteee” chants when he was showed on the video board. He raised his hand to the crowd as if to say, “It’s great to be back.”

Everyone knows his stats, the almost 800 total wins (almost 600 of which came at Arizona), his 23 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances at Arizona and, of course, the only national championship in program history.

What Olson did at Arizona was like nothing the men’s basketball program had ever seen before. Not to mention he could have left for “bigger” jobs like Kentucky on multiple occasions. But he stayed and created the culture that oozes through McKale Center and onto every Arizona basketball fan. In essence, he made Arizona basketball a family rather than just a basketball team.

Despite being off the sidelines for over five seasons, Olson’s message of family has stuck with the program under current head coach Sean Miller. In fact, the McKale Center video board said, “Past. Present. Future,” when former players were shown at this year’s Red-Blue Game.

Miller, who’s entering his sixth season at Arizona, has embraced that atmosphere and taken the responsibilities that come with continuing that tradition in stride, and the program has reaped the benefits both from a recruiting impact and national recognition standpoint.

“It goes back to what we always talk about: honoring our past and having a player’s program,” Miller said.

There are eerie similarities between the two coaches in everything, from how they came to Arizona to how they could’ve left but didn’t. Miller has followed in Olson’s footsteps by convincing former Arizona players to help out on the coaching staff.

Olson had Miles Simon, Josh Pastner and Reggie Geary. Miller has Damon Stoudamire and Joseph Blair. Each played under their respective coaches but have evolved in different ways.

Simon is currently a college basketball analyst with ESPN and Pastner is the men’s basketball head coach for the Memphis Tigers. Stoudamire and Blair have taken up different positions at Arizona under Miller, Stoudamire as a full assistant coach and Blair as a graduate assistant.

Stoudamire, who played 13 seasons in the NBA with five different franchises, works on the perimeter, while Blair, who was a member of the 1994 Arizona Final Four team, works with the frontcourt players.

“[Stoudamire] is obviously one of our full-time assistant coaches and has a huge responsibility and is a very talented coach,” Miller said. “[Blair] is extremely valuable in a different way, being that he’s in graduate school right now, and it’s nice to have him around because he has such a gift with our players, especially our big guys.”

As those two patrol the sidelines along with Miller, the players recognize how special it is to have the former Arizona greats helping out with the current Wildcats.

Senior forward Matt Korcheck said Blair sets the example for how to operate as more than just collegiate athletes and take it to the level of being a family.

“It’s so important to me and the rest of the big guys to have [Blair] to work with,” Korcheck said. “He brings so much knowledge of the game for us and can teach us so many things at a higher level that he picked up from his professional career. Another thing that’s really important is that he does so much in the community, and yet, he still makes so much time for us on a daily basis. It kind of shows what U of A means to him and how close we are as a family. Not just the people that are here now, but the people that have been here.”

As basketball approaches and fans began to clamor for their Arizona basketball, it’s clear that under Sean Miller, those fans will get to see much more than just a team on the court. They will see a family.

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Follow Roberto Payne on Twitter.

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