“Hey little Wildcat fan.”
Fifteen years later, those words still echo in my mind. They bring me back to when I was a 10 year old living in Southern California, searching for an identity after moving away from Tucson months earlier.
When my parents packed my brother and I into our Honda Odyssey and headed down I-8 for a new life, I had thought it was best to leave most of my connections with Tucson at the California border.
My new friends wouldn’t care much that I’d grown up in their arid neighboring state. They’d think I was strange for preferring to ride bikes in the desert than skateboard along the beach.
So I did what any kid would do: I tried to fit in. I put on a maroon and gold shirt and fibbed that Reggie Bush was my favorite college athlete. I memorized the lyrics to Sons of Westwood as if I’d be tested on it in music class.
Even as a third grader, Pac-10 team allegiance helped determine one’s social order at my school and I was fighting to stake my claim in the conference’s upper echelon.
But when I was in the safety of my own home, those outward demonstrations vanished and my true, singular obsession took over.
Like many kids from Tucson, UofA basketball ruled my life throughout childhood and into adolescence. Despite being 500 miles away, I still followed the team closely thanks to the advent of college sports programming, but nothing compared to seeing Arizona basketball in person.
So when the Wildcats visited the LA schools in February of 2005, my dad drove me up from Orange County to Westwood so I could see my team.
Before the game, I walked down courtside to meet John Wooden, who signed my ticket stub and gave a quizzical stare at my Arizona shirt. My dad and I then sat down at our seats behind one of the baskets.
Back then Pauley Pavilion still used aluminum retractable bleachers which made a ringing noise whenever UCLA went on a run. The bleachers were mostly quiet that day.
Arizona won by 10 points, and when the final buzzer blew my dad pushed me down the stairs onto the Pauley court.
There, we waited for the silvered-hair fox to stroll by.
“Hey little Wildcat fan,” Lute Olson said looking down at me as he signed the blank side of the ticket stub.
He gave me that classic Lute wave and then joined his team in the opposing locker room.
For a brief moment, I felt like I was back home.
The home that consisted of weeknight trips to a sold out McKale Center. The home where I dribbled a basketball in my backyard, imitating Jason Gardner. The home where Luke Walton would walk by me at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, or where Josh Pastner would show up to help run a camp my mom had organized.
That day Lute Olson brought me back to the home he built for me and all of us so many years ago.
Today, I repeat what I said to Lute then. Thank you.