No tub of Gatorade could have done the moment justice. It took
young fingers to do the honors properly, digits belonging to
21-year-old Arizona forward Bennett Davison. Wildcats coach Lute
Olson--the man from Glad, the man off the wedding cake, the man
with a North Dakota upbringing marked by bitter winters and
stern moral stricture--was striding up the sideline in
Indianapolis's RCA Dome just before midnight on Monday with
every bit of his notorious stoicism intact. He was a fresh
claimant of a national championship, his and his school's first,
but he was absolutely stone-faced as he made his way to
congratulate Kentucky coach Rick Pitino following Arizona's
84-79 overtime victory.
That's when Davison caught up with his coach and began massaging
that famously perfect white coif. Olson's face cleaved into a
smile, and the world knew for sure what it must have momentarily
doubted: that Arizona had indeed just won an NCAA title. "Coach
can relax now," Davison would say later. "He can finally let his
In winning, Arizona had taken out three of the game's hoariest
programs, Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky, with no muss. The
fourth-seeded Wildcats had beaten those three, each a No. 1
seed, with no fuss. Now it was time for some serious
dishevelment. After his team beat North Carolina 66-58 on
Saturday to gain a berth in his first final in four tries, Olson
said, "As long as we've come this far, we might as well win it
on Monday." Say it with an upper Midwest inflection, and that
line could have been lifted straight from the script of the
Arizona, a team that had muddled through the season as 65% free
throw shooters, sank 82% of its foul shots in the title game. A
team that had played 12 games decided by five points or less
beat a team that had won only one close game all year and ended
its season 0-3 when pushed to overtime. How loose was Arizona?
Miles Simon, the Wildcats' imperturbable junior guard, played
more than a minute of the extra session with the laces of one
April 6, 1997
Arizona's Wildcats beat Kentucky's Wildcats in a game with the
same narrow contours as a catwalk. A sloppy first half gave way
to a magnificent second half and then five minutes more. Twenty
times the score was tied; 18 times the lead changed hands. Not
until 13.8 seconds remained in OT, and Kentucky's only hope
rested with desperate fouls, did either team seize a lead of
more than six points.
Such a game would be won in the backcourt, and two of Arizona's
guards, Simon and freshman point man Mike Bibby, made the
decisive plays. Again and again Simon danced into the lane,
either to squeeze off gentle floaters or to draw fouls from
late-arriving Kentucky defenders. As he paraded to the line for
17 free throws, Simon could think only of the film he had seen
on Sunday of South Carolina shooting 44 free throws in beating
Kentucky on March 2. "They can't stop me," he told his teammates
in the huddle at one point during the first half. In the end
Simon was named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player for his
30 points on Monday, 14 from the free throw line, where he spent
much of the night, thanks to his shoulder-dipping up-and-under
moves. "I can't believe they kept falling for the same trick,"
said Arizona's small forward, Michael Dickerson.
For his part Bibby contributed three three-pointers, three
steals and 19 points while routinely busting out of double teams
that often included Kentucky's 6'7" All-America, Ron Mercer.
Bibby is believed to be the first freshman point guard ever to
pilot a team to a national championship.
Both Simon and Bibby have athletic relatives who kept up with
the weekend's drama. Moments after the game ended Simon found
his sister, Charisse, in the stands. She handed him a cellular
phone so he could speak to her husband, a certain Yankee
outfielder who was on the line from Seattle, awaiting the
defending World Series champs' Opening Day game with the
Mariners. "What's up?" Simon asked Darryl Strawberry.
"Now we have two championships to celebrate," Charisse said.
Bibby's personal drama is still a work in progress. He's
estranged from his father, Henry, who is now the coach at
Southern Cal. But on Friday, Henry tracked his son down in the
lobby of the team's hotel. What Henry said, his son wouldn't
say; Mike spent the week robotically repeating, "I'm not
answering any questions about my father," each time one was
posed. But his mother, Virginia, wasn't so reticent--though it
must be noted that she is in the midst of an acrimonious divorce
proceeding with Mike's father. "[Henry] was hiding in the
hotel," she said on Monday night. "He just popped out and said,
'Can I talk to you for a second?' He spoke, not Mike. Then he
talked to a TV station and said he had a meeting with Mike. He
should have left the kid alone. He just wanted the stage. I wish
it was for the right reason, to be a father. Unfortunately, I
know it wasn't."
Bibby nonetheless did nothing to dishonor his dad, who was one
of the college game's great open-court guards when he played on
three national championship teams at UCLA. And at the foul line
Bibby showed the same sangfroid as Simon, sinking all six of his
Arizona's victory closes one of college basketball's longest
running stand-up acts. The roll call has been an easy laugh
line: East Tennessee State. Santa Clara. Miami of Ohio. Since
1992 each had taken out heavily favored Arizona in the first
round of an NCAA tournament. It's a legacy that helps explain
why last week, in an Indianapolis Star poll of 20 sportswriters,
none picked the Wildcats to win the national title, and why
several years ago one pundit did pick Arizona to win--the
Iditarod, such dogs did he consider the Cats.
If South Alabama swingman Toby Madison hadn't launched an
imprudently quick shot with his team up eight on Arizona and
barely six minutes to play in their first-round game on March
13, another ignominious loss might have been added to Arizona's
list. But since coming back to win that game 65-57, the Wildcats
have played like a team from Carefree, Ariz., instead of Tucson.
They defeated 12th-seeded College of Charleston, top-seeded
Kansas and 10th-seeded Providence by a total of 11 points to win
the Southeast Regional. And after the Wildcats beat North
Carolina in the first of Saturday's semifinals, Olson told his
players, "The ghosts are gone now." Suddenly, instead of being a
chesty second or third seed from the pantywaist Pac-10
embarrassed by some loose and hungry 15th or 14th seed, the
Wildcats were the plucky and aggressive ones.
Arizona had fallen behind North Carolina 15-4 after the Tar
Heels converted a series of breakaways and dunks off alley-oop
passes. Olson interrupted that run with a 20-second timeout and
ordered his guards not to go to the offensive boards so
heedlessly. "Once we made them set up in a half-court offense,
our defense was pretty stingy," Simon would say later.
Indeed, the Wildcats soon pulled even at 24 and then began to
stage an eerily similar reprise of their upset of Kansas. The
team that had made the Jayhawks' 6'11" center, Raef LaFrentz,
appear slow now made 7'2" Serge Zwikker of North Carolina look
downright inert. A tag team of Davison, A.J. Bramlett, Eugene
Edgerson and Donnell Harris forced North Carolina forward Antawn
Jamison to struggle for each of his 18 points. Soon Zwikker, Ed
Cota, Ademola Okulaja and Shammond Williams were short-arming
and bricking open shots, and for more than eight minutes the Tar
Heels failed to score at all. North Carolina coach Dean Smith
had spent much of the week providing exculpatory spin on the
elimination of the Jayhawks, who are coached by his former
assistant, Roy Williams; here, going down to the same team the
same way, Smith seemed to be suffering a sympathy defeat.
Hitting only 33% from the floor, Arizona had suffered through
its worst-shooting game of the year, yet won comfortably. The
Wildcats' great advantage against the Tar Heels was that they
did most of their missing where it mattered least. Arizona shot
better from outside the three-point arc (37.9%) than inside it
(33.3%), sinking 11 treys overall, including four in a row in
the second half by Bibby. One of Bibby's bombs, banked in from
the top of the key, caused North Carolina assistant Phil Ford to
execute a full pirouette in exasperation.
Setting aside the first four minutes and change, Arizona wound
up outscoring North Carolina 62-43. The Tar Heels' nondunk
shooting percentage was just 25%. With the Wildcats quicker
across both the front and back lines, only Carolina's midsized
sophomore swingman, Vince Carter, who scored 21 often
spectacular points, was able to roam free.
"The experts have been picking against us all year," said
Davison. "They didn't pick us [in an exhibition] against the
Melbourne Magic. When we played our Red-Blue game, they couldn't
pick a winner in that."
One of the few people to foresee Arizona's title was UCLA coach
Steve Lavin. When guard Jason Terry plays alongside Bibby, Simon
and forward Dickerson, Lavin said before the Wildcats beat North
Carolina, "they've got four guys who can pass, catch and make
decisions at high speed. They stretch defenses because they can
all shoot threes, and then they break you down with dribble
penetration. Plus, psychologically, they're tailor-made for this
Final Four. All the other teams are Number 1 seeds for whom
anything less than a national championship would be a
disappointment. They've already beaten Kansas. They're young, so
they're going to play loose and relaxed. They're a fifth-place
Pac-10 team just having fun."
On Thursday four Wildcats jawboned a security guard into letting
them into the RCA Dome just to case the joint. "Are you sure
you're Arizona players?" the rent-a-cop wanted to know before
letting them pass.
The next day, before diving into a meal at the Milano Inn, an
Italian restaurant in downtown Indianapolis, the Wildcats were
so loose that they started a food fight as soon as their
appetizers arrived, pelting each other with ice, breadsticks and
sundry antipasti. When they noticed that Jaleel White, the actor
who plays the geeky Steve Urkel on Family Matters, was dining in
the same joint, they hurled calamari projectiles at him in true
haze-the-nerd fashion. "I thought maybe we should have clamped
down on that a little, especially when that green pea almost hit
Lute," said assistant coach Jessie Evans.
By Sunday they were loitering in the hotel lobby, ranking the
Pac-10 cheerleaders, and that night Terry actually slept in his
jersey, socks and sneakers. It's hard to get uptight at the
prospect of playing for the collegiate championship when you act
like you're still in junior high. "You can't make this larger
than life," said Olson. "Keep them cooped up in a hotel room,
and they'll come out so tight they can't do anything right."
Their coach has a reputation for being like the principal who
sends truants to detention. Instead he spent the weekend
reproaching unreconstructed "negativists" who still dwelled on
Arizona's various early tournament exits. But he did so gently.
"If I talk about respect, then I become a whiner," Olson said.
"All I've tried to do is say, Look at the facts. Over the past
10 years Arizona has the best winning percentage of any team in
America." He's right. The Wildcats' .812 mark is the nation's
best over that span.
In the March 27, 1952, edition of the Purple and White, the
student newspaper at St. Leo's High in Minot, N.Dak., a
columnist named Dale Brown chose one Luke Olson, then a forward
at Grand Forks Central, as St. Leo's "Best Opponent Player." For
the record, that's the same Dale Brown who just retired as coach
at LSU, and that was no typo--Lute went by Luke in those days,
thanks to a baseball coach who thought he played with a style
reminiscent of Luke Easter. Brown, a master of
stream-of-consciousness even then, listed Olson's virtues as
"rugged rebounder, plenty of scrap and good team man."
If you thought Brown's retirement meant you'd never hear another
college-coach-growing-up-in-North Dakota story, you're out of
luck. Born on a farm, Olson was five when his father suffered a
stroke and died. Lute would help his mother at the cafe where
she worked, and he'd get a free breakfast for filling napkin
holders. While this isn't quite as hardscrabble as Brown's tale
of using popcorn boxes from the local movie house to cover the
holes in the soles of his shoes, "it wasn't," Olson says, "a
silver spoon existence."
After his team beat North Carolina, Olson found himself at the
wheel of a vehicle that bespeaks prosperity, a golf cart. He was
driving Simon, Bibby and Dickerson through the catacombs of the
RCA Dome to the postgame press conference when he turned to
Simon in the backseat and asked, "Do you feel safe, Miles?"
"What have I got to fear?" Simon replied.
Well, there was the Kentucky press. It had so frustrated
Minnesota in Saturday's other semifinal--a 78-69 Kentucky
victory--that the Gophers coughed the ball up on their first
four possessions and reached their goal of turnovers for the
game, 15, by halftime. But Arizona's profile is much like that
of the three teams that beat Kentucky this season--Clemson,
Mississippi and South Carolina. None has an All-America, and all
are amply deep, balanced and quick.
Pitino knew that, and thus he hadn't intended to press Arizona.
"I looked at the film and knew they would handle the pressure,"
he would say. "We wanted to make sure of our half-court
man-to-man defense." But Kentucky shot so poorly at the game's
outset that Pitino decided his Wildcats needed the press to
generate some offense, so four minutes into the game he ordered
up a full-court trap. From that point on, Arizona turned the
ball over only twice while trying to advance it into the
Meanwhile Olson's Wildcats showed that they had some defensive
tricks of their own. They ran two defenders at any Kentucky
perimeter player who had the ball, with Mercer getting
particular attention. He could get off only nine shots, and he
committed five turnovers. Dickerson, Arizona's leading scorer on
the season, ended up shooting 2 for 18 in the two games in
Indianapolis, but he was the man most responsible for
frustrating Mercer. "I figured if I couldn't hit anything,"
Dickerson said, "he wasn't going to hit anything, either."
"I've never seen anybody shut down Ron like that," said Kentucky
forward Scott Padgett. "They smothered him. It's hard to score
if you can't catch the ball."
"We've never had a height or weight advantage over anybody,"
said Bramlett. "But when you have speed and quickness, you can
use it to offset other things. And most of our big guys are as
quick as other people's guards."
The all-feline final--no lumbering canines allowed--only
reinforced the overriding impression of this season. The success
of such teams as South Carolina and Colorado, and the struggles
of such others as Indiana and Villanova, suggest that speed now
trumps size. The Final Four confirmed that notion, as did
another result from last weekend: At the McDonald's High School
All-America Game in Colorado Springs, the East beat the West
94-81, even though the West suited up six players 6'9" or
larger. "They were much taller," said Elton Brand, a 6'9",
Duke-bound recruit from Peekskill (N.Y.) High, who led the East
squad with 16 points. "But we were faster."
Just as Miami's spate of national titles in college football
caused a rush to recruit speed at places like Nebraska and
Washington, so are the light feet of the two basketball
finalists and other teams built for speed touching off a new
wave of thinking--and, surely, recruiting. "The days of the
6'11" or 7-foot slow guys are numbered," says Olson. "Right now
the toughest people to contend with are the 6'7", 6'8", 6'9"
athletes because they don't restrict what you do defensively or
Well, some restrictions still applied. After Davison finished
the mussing, Olson reflexively patted his hair back into place.
Other players took their turns--and just as resolutely Olson
donned a national champs cap before matters could get out of
hand. But there has been progress. "When I was a freshman, in
practice nobody could bounce the ball when coach was talking,"
says Dickerson, who's now a junior. "Now he doesn't say anything
when Mike Bibby is bouncing the ball all over the place."
The possibilities are intriguing: Kevin Costner, making his
usual Final Four appearance, showed particular interest in
Arizona because lately he has been in Tucson working on a
futuristic western that recently put out a casting call for bald
Hey, Lute: Interested in being an extra?