A little while ago I read a book by longtime Tucson Citizen sportswriter, Steve Rivera: The University of Arizona Basketball Vault, the History of the Wildcats.
What a nice trip down memory lane the book was for me as I’ve followed Wildcat basketball since the 40’s. And, never in my wildest dreams, did I ever think the program would evolve to what it is today although the school had a couple of pretty good teams in my childhood.
The picture that jumped out at me when I took my first peek into the vault summed up just how far the program has come. A U of A player, it seems, is about to inbound the ball in McKale Center on a floor that’s surrounded by four sections of filled seats, each looking like it could hold a capacity crowd in dear old Bear Down, the gym that my round balling heroes like Linc Richmond and Roger Johnson and I played in.
At about the same time I began the book I ran into an ex-Wildcat, Jud Buechler, at a cafe in Solana Beach who personifies the program’s rise in stature over the years as he played a role along with Arizona great, Steve Kerr, in helping Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls pull off a three-peat in the NBA. We didn’t get those kinds of opportunities back in the day.
I enjoyed the read and, of course, was delighted to see myself mentioned a couple of times, wincing at the painful reminder that in my junior year my team went 4-22, then smiling as I was made to recall a game when I thought we were finally going to put it to Arizona State and my friend and nemesis, the great Al Nealey, from my high school days. We couldn’t put them away yet another time. But with the turning of a page, a warm feeling flowed through me, as I feasted my eyes on a picture of me signing an autograph after a 46 point night that still stands in the record book. The picture took up the entire length and almost half the width of page 68, reflecting just how big a high that was. We were doing it that night. What a memory.
Oh, I’ve had a life full of wonderful moments, a satisfying career turning kids on to learning, playing interesting characters on stage, entertaining with the spoken word, seeking peace and justice, and shooting hoops is right up there with the best of those times.
I had no idea when I was playing that I would take so much delight in those days so many decades later. It’s an honor having my name still mentioned occasionally along with so many absolutely amazing athletes, in all sports, who hail from the University of Arizona.
Sean Elliott, perhaps the greatest Wildcat, up to this point in time, when it comes to playing basketball, wrote in an afterward, that when things started for him they were not a big-name power. He said they had “Arizona” written across their jerseys “but not a lot of people respected us for that.” He then recalled that Billy Packer, the stellar sports color commentator, had once said regarding his junior year that his team “had one of the all-time best November and Decembers in college basketball history” as they “won the Great Alaska Shootout, beating all the big teams with the names on their jerseys.”
Well, my teams never came close to even fantasizing beating any of the big teams, let alone “all the big teams.”
But it sure resonated with me when Sean wrote in reference to Steve Rivera’s masterful writing: “What a book and what a concept! Arizona is a special place and always will be for me.” To that I say yessirree.
And I agree with him that when an athlete looks back on his playing days it isn’t just about all those moments, but “about the future, how the players evolved as people and men. You see success stories all over.”
That, to me is what going to college is all about, isn’t it, acquiring knowledge and outlooks and using that to help you become all that you can be? It worked for me. Playing ball gave me keen insights into working with other people around common goals and as a result, like Sean Elliott, “I’m Proud to be a Wildcat.”
And proud to be in the vault.