2001-04-07 / Sports

Opoh Says… The Thrills And Chills Of A Bygone Season

Opoh Says… The Thrills And Chills Of A Bygone Season

By Emanuel Jalonschi

Oh, you probably thought you got rid of me. No such luck. The over-caffeinated hippy with a chip on his shoulder and a mop on his head has returned.

This week, I’ll probably be all over the place, so you’ll have to put up with me a little bit.

As spring nears us and there’s no more snow to be seen (but this is Rockaway, so you never can tell) our eyes turn to summer sports.

Lacrosse, baseball, softball and, (since a whole bunch of us live within minutes of the Atlantic) beach volleyball are all awaiting our participation.

First, a quick look back at the winter sports would be nice.

On the national level, there has been a lot going on for the local teams. The Giants made it to the Super Bowl and had us all hitting the local merchants with our requests for Big Blue jerseys. In basketball, the Knicks are looking like a strong team in the East again and will probably make a playoff run. In hockey, the Devils will once again do the tri-state area proud.

As for the Jets, the Nets, the Rangers and the Islanders, well what can you say? They are the teams of "there’s always next season."

The real story of sports, I think, lies not on the national super-rich professional front, but rather on the amateur level.

The NCAA sure did give us a good show in basketball this season. The race to the national basketball championship, as usual, gave us a whole series of David-and-Goliath games, evenly matched powerhouse battles and absolute slaughters on the court.

When it finally got to the final game, we were presented with one of the best games to be seen in NCAA basketball championship history.

The game featured the Duke Blue Devils (34-4) versus the Arizona Wildcats (28-7) in what would turn out to be a great game. Furthermore, the intricate sub-plots and storylines that were involved in the game, which fans had gotten to know by game time, made the match-up all that more interesting.

The teams involved were both considered strong from the beginning of the season and sports fans new that they would do well. How they would do well differed greatly.

On one side we had Duke. This was a team that two great leaders that the team’s game plan and general "heart and soul" focused on: Shane Battier and Carlos Boozer. Besides having one of the coolest last names in all of basketball, Boozer was a critical part of Coach K’s plan to reach the top. When he went down early on in the season, critics summarily called it a season on behalf of Duke. The weight all fell on the massive shoulders of 6’8" Shane Battier. He held the team together and then some. Battier went on to have one of the best seasons of his life to complete what turned out to be one of the greatest and most balanced careers in all of college basketball.

On the Arizona side, we see a different story. They had eight guys on their team that could start at most Division I schools. They would seem to have it perfect this season.

No such luck. They had their own obstacles to overcome—more obstacle than even Duke. On the one hand you had a whole load of great players on your team. On the other hand you can only put five of them on the court at one time and there are only forty minutes in a game. I mean these guys would be a great team if they lost their top two starters. I can say this for sure, because they did lose their top two stars temporarily this season. Loren Woods was suspended for six games and Richard Jefferson missed a game for NCAA infractions. The result was the Wildcats going on to win 5 out of 6 games during that stretch. These guys were good. Still, there were serious pride issues to be overcome by this group of talented young men. They had to decide between their pride and their team. They decided in favor of their team and the product this yielded showed the wisdom of their decision.

The other story, probably the biggest story for both the Wildcats and the final game, was Lute Olson.

To me, Lute Olson exemplified everything that is good and right about sports. Olson is that coach that rose through the ranks, paid the dues and stayed true to everything he believed and stood for.

He has been called "an icon of his profession" and has been looked as a perfect figure for how one should treat the game of basketball.

This past season was probably the most difficult one of his life. His companion and wife of nearly fifty years Bobbi Olson died. She had been with him since 1951. They went through everything together and they went through a lot.

Starting in 1953, when he exited college and married his sweetheart, Bobbi, he worked like a dog to coach and accomplish his goals within the game of basketball. He worked nights and he worked days. He worked at a bottling plant, he worked as a trucker, a painter and anything that he needed to work so that he could keep coaching. He even worked his dad’s farm, when his brother died in a tractor accident. He busted his hump coaching twelve years of high school sports. Olson would coach three sports at a time for 60 dollars a week. He paid his dues.

When he got to Arizona, he turned it into a program that demanded respect. He made the Final Four four times and even took Arizona to a championship victory in 1997. He made great players like Michael Bibby.

The most impressive thing about Lute Olson, besides his career and his work ethic, is the way he puts basketball in the perspective in which it belongs. After Bobbi died, he was asked by a reporter, "Does this make you look at things differently?" He responded, "No. It’s always been family up here and basketball below."

He understands the priorities of life. The glories of sports, just like most glories, fade as the memories of those who glorified you do. What you have left after that is what really counts.

It’s been a really entertaining winter season of sports. But as we step into the spring and forget about NCAA basketball, let us not forget about the great men that make titles like "Head Coach" mean something.

Lute Olson will be retiring this year and he will fade into a nice normal life of a grandfather. Let us not forget what he meant to sports. He is an example of all that is right in sports and we should hope that we meet more like him.


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