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Tucson and the U of A – A love affair

Just a match made in heaven

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Editor's note: Toby Lason will be joining the AZ Desert Swarm staff moving forward. This is his first post for the site. Please welcome Toby to our growing group of writers!

We may have been in the nosebleeds, but it was certainly a privilege to witness the biggest game in town. Perhaps some would scoff at the notion that a perpetual middle-tier program in an aging stadium, notably the only team to have never represented the conference in a Rose Bowl, would be Tucson’s pride-and-joy can’t-miss product, but Arizona Wildcats football is unquestionably on center stage in the fall regardless of the standings.

Even a single mother on a budget would go to great lengths to ensure her two sons could occasionally attend such an event, teaching them the meaning of what it is to Bear Down in the process. But it was always more than just watching some game – rooting for the Wildcats is simply what you do as a member of the community, and regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or any other demographical differences, it was part of what made you a Tucsonan.

As I reflect on my childhood, I’ve come to realize many things about such experiences, notably that the only way to truly understand and appreciate Tucson’s unique relationship with the University of Arizona (in particular the athletics programs) is to move away after having lived there for most of your life. The U of A is a significant component of any Tucsonan’s identity, whether said individual is still a Sonoran Desert resident or has since moved on to greener, less cacti-ridden pastures.

It’s quite simply not the same in other places. When it becomes known that I’m from the Old Pueblo, there is no mention of the sunsets, the Biosphere, Davis-Monthan or any other product the prideful locals may hold dear; people invariably ask about the Wildcats. Tucson is unquestionably better-known for its energetic, cowboy-hat-toting mascot (and his lovely girlfriend) than for its contributions to the technology sector or missile defense systems.

This may come as no great surprise – there are no professional sports in Tucson -- and other than utilizing the great outdoors, there truthfully isn’t that much to do relative to some other places. But I would argue that Tucson’s love affair with the UA goes far beyond a lack of alternative options. The University is the second-largest employer in the city. Our friends went there, our family went there, and perhaps it’s our own alma mater as well.

It is also the only thing that consistently puts Tucson on the map.

Having lived elsewhere for the last 15 years I can tell you with a straight face that generally speaking, the only time the City of Tucson makes national news is when the University accomplishes something, whether it’s sports-related or not. The U of A gives the city a sense of identity, one that is needed for an amazing town that is too often dismissed as Phoenix’s little brother. It is part of us, and this directly extends into our passion for sports.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that so many athletic programs are consistently national contenders. Baseball, softball, swimming, golf, track & field, and of course basketball are considered elite. And while basketball is the undisputed king, it is worth mentioning that this love affair extends far beyond the hard wood.

Don’t get me wrong – no one will deny that UA is first and foremost a basketball school. As we all know, the ever-charming Mr. Lute Olson, with his unfathomably perfect head of white hair (although this notion was once briefly put to the test by Bennett Davison), took the love affair to a new level and deserves credit for such. He created a perpetually competitive program in a major sport, which was something previously lacking on the national stage. With the remarkable championship run of 1997 when the Cats blazed through three one-seeds to capture their first national title, Mike Bibby, Jason Terry, Miles Simon and co. stole our hearts, perhaps forever.

But U of A is far from the one-trick pony it is often considered to be with a fan base perhaps as diverse as the desert flora and fauna spread throughout the city.  Names such as Bobby Dalbec and Zach Gibbons have become and shall remain house-hold names and there are just as many non-athlete alumni, such as Bob Baffert and Arte Moreno, who extend the connection beyond the boundaries of sports.

Perhaps the most endearing quality of this love affair is that long after the departure of our heroes, it remains.

Once a Wildcat, always a Wildcat.

This was perhaps as evident as ever when the Golden State Warriors won the NBA title in 2015 and the local news programs committed significant resources to highlighting the Arizona connections. The city was nearly as proud of Steve Kerr, Luke Walton and Andre Iguodala as it would have been if they had brought another title to the desert.

But this really came as no surprise – the Tucson community has and always will follow their athletes for the rest of their careers. I will forever be thankful to my mother who so many years ago taught me what it means to be part of the Wildcat community, way up there in the nosebleeds.