Jason Terry didn’t look like his usual self.
The 18-year old freshman should have been riding high from Arizona’s upset win over Georgetown a few days earlier. Instead, he found himself struggling to keep up with exhibition opponent Marathon.
Perhaps Terry and his teammates were experiencing a bit of a letdown after their Preseason NIT championship victory against the Hoyas, which catapulted the Wildcats from preseason unranked to a top 5 team.
Plus this was Terry’s first time playing significant minutes in a college game, even if it was just an exhibition. Early season jitters of playing in front of a packed McKale Center can creep up on a freshman.
But to the close observer, what was missing from Terry’s game was obvious.
He had forfeited the high knee white socks in favor of low cuts. A rookie mistake.
When Terry returned his socks to their proper length the following game against Montana, it seemed to boost his confidence. He knocked down a pair of 3-pointers against the Grizzlies.
“Why change,” Terry said, according to the Tucson Citizen. “There’s not a specific reason but I like it like that. It just feels comfortable.”
Most of Terry’s freshman season would be a matter of finding out what did and didn’t work. The Seattle native seldom saw the court during conference play but learned from Reggie Geary and Michael Dickerson, the latter of whom grew up a half hour north of Terry in Federal Way.
Terry also gained some valuable NCAA Tournament experience as a freshman, scoring 11 points in 25 minutes in an opening round win over Valparaiso. Terry’s responsibilities grew dramatically as a sophomore when Miles Simon was ruled academically ineligible to begin the 1996-97, handing No. 31 a starting position.
At first it didn’t appear Terry was up for the challenge. He went 2-11 in Arizona’s season opening win against North Carolina and was soon overshadowed by freshman Mike Bibby.
A few weeks later, however, Terry turned the corner by scoring 19 points in an upset win over No. 3 Utah.
Two days after that, Terry shined on the defensive end, producing four steals in 38 minutes in a home win over No. 13 Texas. Terry was impressed with his steal total until he learned Bibby had doubled him in that category.
“Mike had eight so I guess that means I have to get nine one of these games,” a smiling Terry told reporters.
When Simon returned to the team for the spring semester, Terry willingly gave up his starting position for the betterment of the group. That selflessness would not be lost on his teammates.
Arizona’s ‘97 run has been well documented, but the recent narrative often portrays the Wildcats as a group who stumbled to a fifth-place finish in the Pac-10 before reaching their potential in late March.
In actuality, Arizona entered the last weekend of conference play in second place and may have held onto that position if not for an unfortunate mistake by Terry in the closing seconds of an 81-80 loss to Stanford.
Down one with six seconds to go, Terry received an inbounds pass and slipped at midcourt, forcing him to pass the ball to Bibby for an errant 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“It always seems if it comes down to a close game, I slip or something,” Terry told the Arizona Daily Star after the game. “I don’t know if it’s nerves, or I’m young or what. We come up short because of that.”
Two weeks later, Terry got his chance at redemption.
With Arizona leading by Kansas 81-79, Terry stepped up to the free throw line for a pair of shots to send the Wildcats to the Elite Eight.
He sank both.
“It was pandemonium out there,” Terry told reporters afterwards. “I wanted that game so bad.”
Terry stepped into his supporting role the rest of the way, including hitting a pair of key 3-pointers in the national title game against Kentucky.
The back half of Terry’s college career is less memorable, made possible perhaps by the fact that he accomplished more in two years than most players could dream of doing in four. Terry maintained his sixth man role as a junior, finishing second in assists (4.3 per game) behind Bibby.
One of Terry’s more notable performances that year came in a 127-99 win over ASU. He scored 17 points on 7-10 shooting as Arizona set a new McKale Center scoring record.
The ‘97-98 Wildcats reached 70 points or more in every game until their final contest, a 76-51 loss to Utah in the Elite Eight.
Terry’s senior year is his most forgettable despite it also being his best individually. He averaged 21.9 points, 5.5 assists and 2.8 assists, a remarkable display of efficiency.
Though freshmen Richard Jefferson and Michael Wright produced stellar debut seasons, the Wildcats couldn’t overcome replacing the backcourt of Bibby and Simon.
What’s best remembered from that ‘98-99 season is not that Terry was Pac-10 Player of the Year and a consensus All-American, but what happened off the court: Terry accepted $11,000 from agents and was retroactively ruled ineligible, forcing Arizona to forfeit its postseason results (a first round NCAA Tournament loss to Oklahoma).
The scandal created a gulf of animosity between Terry and Wildcats fans, and for more than a decade prevented Terry from having his jersey retired.
It’s also what makes the news of Terry’s return as assistant coach that much sweeter.