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At the Starting Point, Olson Is King of the Mountain

November 14, 2002|Robyn Norwood

Lute Olson's mountaintop experience came on a hillside in Italy.

He is a newly minted member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and his Arizona team is No. 1 in the preseason poll for the third time in six years.

But on the night of his Hall of Fame induction in Springfield, Mass., in September, Olson was in Positano, Italy, with his family, preparing for the wedding of his son Steve.

Somewhere amid the five big family dinners -- one on a beach accessible only by boat, one al fresco on a mountainside, another in the little town the bride is from -- Olson and the wedding party tried to tune in for his Friday night induction.

"We could not find ESPN Classic anywhere," Olson said, laughing. "I had to call somebody the next day to find out what had gone on."

Pete Newell presented Olson in Springfield, and Olson delivered his acceptance speech by videotape, thanking 46 seasons' worth of players and calling his late wife Bobbi "truly the Hall of Famer in our family."

Next fall, Olson, his five children and their families will attend the induction ceremony together as he receives special recognition alongside the class of 2003.

By then, some people figure he might have added a second NCAA championship to the one Arizona won in 1997.

"I think now that he's in the Hall of Fame, he wants to get another national championship," said Jason Gardner, the senior point guard. "Not too many get to say they even have one. I think he wants to collect national titles."

Arizona entered last season unranked with one starter back from a Final Four team, but defeated eventual national champion Maryland in the first game. The Wildcats have every starter back from that team, which went 24-10 and reached the Sweet 16.

"A year ago, frankly, it was a really stressful off-season," Olson said.

This season, seniors Luke Walton and Gardner are first-team preseason All-Americans. Along with Rick Anderson, they give Olson a three-senior nucleus now rare among college teams. Sophomores Salim Stoudamire and Channing Frye are the other returning starters on a deep roster bolstered by the addition of Hassan Adams, a freshman guard from Westchester High.

That is plenty to make Arizona the preseason No. 1, just as the Wildcats were before the 1997-98 and 2000-2001 seasons.

One difference: The Wildcats are well aware how little that means.

"People were talking about an undefeated season [in 2000-01] and us being one of the best teams ever to play college basketball before we'd even played a game," said Gardner, a starter on that 28-8 team that lost to Duke in the NCAA title game.

"A couple of things come to mind," Olson said. "One, I've always said to win the national championship you have to be very, very good and very, very lucky. You have to avoid key injuries and illness at the wrong time. And rarely does the preseason No. 1 end up winning the national championship."

Still, together with the Hall of Fame induction, the expectations for this team put Olson, 68, at the pinnacle of his career.

That he reached this point without Bobbi, who died of cancer in January 2001, is particularly poignant.

In his induction speech, Olson called it "the most difficult thank you."

"Bobbi was the real head coach, the No. 1 recruiter and the team mom," he said. "Every player who has ever played for me knows these things to be true."

Bobbi also was close to her family's thoughts at the wedding of Steve, a chef trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and Sandra Belcredi, a publisher and stepdaughter of an Italian diplomat. She also had lost her mother as well as her stepfather in the past year.

"It was a really tough week from the emotional standpoint of Bobbi not being there, and Sandra was very, very close to her mother," Olson said. "She said to me at one of the dinners, 'This was truly a wedding made in heaven.' She was sure, knowing how close she and her mom were, and knowing how close Steve and Bobbi were, they were probably up there planning to make sure these two got together."

After the wedding, high on a hillside, most of the guests took vehicles down to the reception.

"But the tradition is for the males, all the men and good friends on both sides, to walk the bride through the streets down to where the reception is," Olson said. "It's the side of a mountain, so it was quite a walk, and Positano isn't very big, so everyone in town knew what was going on."

For that, they didn't even need ESPN Classic.

The Big 12's Big Three

Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas are No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 in the preseason poll, making the Big 12 the first conference other than the Atlantic Coast ever to have three teams in the preseason top five.

The ACC did it twice, before the 1973-74 season with No. 2 North Carolina State, No. 4 Maryland and No. 5 North Carolina, and before the 1997-98 season with No. 3 Duke, No. 4 North Carolina and No. 5 Clemson.

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