Lute Olson is synonymous with Arizona men’s basketball. Before he arrived from Iowa in 1983, the program was a doormat and had no national following, but within a few seasons he had the Wildcats in the Final Four and turned them into one of the sport’s perennial powers.
A lot of people in Tucson got to know Olson over the years, but maybe none as well as longtime local sportswriter Steve Rivera. He began covering Olson’s teams back at the Tucson Citizen, traveling with them to all three Final Fours including the 1997 national championship, and the two remained friends after Olson retired in 2008.
Rivera, who currently writes for AllSportsTucson.com and co-hosts an afternoon sports talk show (Eye on the Ball) with Jay Gonzales on Fox Sports 1450-AM, has recently released his sixth book, “Lessons from Lute.”
We reached out to Rivera to get some insight into this book, which is a collection of stories from former UA players, coaches and staff members as well as opposing coaches. Here are his eager answers to our apathetic questions.
AZ Desert Swarm: What inspired you to write a book about Lute Olson, and why did you choose to go with interviews with former players and coaches?
Steve Rivera: “Someone – a friend – said it would be a good idea to write a book about mine and many others’ experiences with Lute. It was about a year after his passing. I thought it was a very good idea given there were plenty of people to talk to. I figured I’d be able to speak to numerous people, but then realized there would probably be too many to talk to so I figured I’d talk to 25 people, the same number of years he was part of UA. I’ve had my share of experiences but who better than those who played for him, competed against him and coached with him?”
If someone who knew nothing previously about Lute opened this book and only wanted to read one chapter, which would it be? Which would best sum up Olson?
“Good question ... Probably two but it would be Steve Kerr and Jawaan McClellan. Both suffered tragedies while at Arizona. Kerr’s father was assassinated, and McClellan’s father had a heart attack. Lute was there for both of them. As Steve said, Lute wasn’t much of a ‘touch-feely’ type but he was there when he had to be. McClellan said the same thing. Some might say Lute was aloof, and he may have been in certain circumstances or appeared that way, but that’s not necessarily true. He was accommodating when it was possible and at times emotional (when those weren’t looking). Most importantly, he was a father figure to all of them, no better examples than with Kerr and McClellan.”
Was there anyone you tried to talk with for this book that you couldn’t connect with? What do you think they would have said about Olson?
“Yes, Richard Jefferson. Here was a Phoenix kid who came down the road to play for a man who he had admired for a long time. Richard, now part of the media after a long stint in the NBA, is well spoken and in fact did a eulogy for Lute’s late wife, Bobbi, more than 20 years ago. He was one of the players who benefited from Lute letting his players speak their minds and be men. Richard was one of those who took advantage of what Lute allowed. In turn, Richard played his ass off for Lute.”
What’s your favorite personal anecdote from all the years covering Lute?
“He wasn’t as tough to deal with as I thought, or you’d think. Of course, it wasn’t always easy, either. But after years of covering him I knew when and how to approach him. That said, in writing my second book more than 20 years ago, he didn’t have time to talk to me during regular hours so he said if I wanted to speak with him at length I had to get up early in the morning and meet about 6 a.m. to walk near his house. So, I did. I wore sweats and a heavy sweatshirt given it was February and still cold(ish).
“Well, this out-of-shape sports writer was taken on a 5-mile walk that proved to be too much. We walked and walked and walked. As we concluded – so I thought – as we neared his home on the hill, he passed it and walked more. I was beyond beat. We finally reached his house. Bobbi offered me some orange juice. I stayed a bit. The next day I could not get out of bed. I was too sore. I had to take ibuprofen to function for a couple of days. True story.”
Any plans to do a Sean Miller book, or are you skipping ahead to the Tommy Lloyd Chronicles?
“Wouldn’t that be fun? I have no plans given I wouldn’t know who would talk. I wouldn’t be able to do it in this format, but I would be curious to know what happened behind the scenes with many of the players who came and went in Sean’s time here. We knew or got to know very few former players. I might have to wait for Tommy to have a Lute-like career to get the next one going.”
“Lessons from Lute” is available on Amazon or can be purchased directly from the author (520-661-5302).