New 'Cats, Old 'Cat In what was supposed to be a rebuilding year, reluctant returnee Jason Gardner and a slew of freshmen have Arizona off to a shockingly fast start

December 17, 2001

In Arizona coach Lute Olson's office, amid the burbling
miniature rock garden, family snapshots and guide-to-living
tomes, there's a photograph of Olson and junior point guard
Jason Gardner. Taken at a recent Tucson celebrity chefs
fund-raiser, it shows the two men wearing chef's hats, matching
aprons and identical shrugged-shoulder smiles that say, We have
no clue what we're cooking here, but this is fun so let's roll
with it. They could have been conveying the same idea about the
No. 6 Wildcats, whose three wins against Top 10 teams have
vaulted them from unranked afterthoughts to the surprise of the
young college season.

Left for dead after four starters from last year's NCAA
runner-up skedaddled to the pros, pooh-poohed by pundits for
counting five freshmen among its nine scholarship players,
Arizona was 5-1 through Sunday despite a preposterous
early-season schedule in which it played--and beat--then No. 2
Maryland, No. 6 Florida and No. 5 Illinois. (The only blemish
was a Hagler-versus-Hearns 105-97 loss to then No. 8 Kansas on
Dec. 1.) "I had no idea this would happen," says Olson, eyes
wide. "I looked at that schedule and said, 'This could be a
disaster.' The biggest thing you worry about with a young team
is losing confidence, and most people would have figured we'd be
1-5."

Instead the Wildcats have thrived, thanks to the steady play of
junior forwards Rick Anderson and Luke Walton, the quick-study
freshmen and, most of all, Gardner, the Iron Chef himself.
Rebuffed by NBA scouts after a humbling predraft camp last
summer, Gardner returned to Point Guard U to become, six weeks
into the season, the nation's most valuable player, averaging
24.2 points a game. "We've had a lot of great point guards at
Arizona," says Olson, "but given the level of competition, and
given the inexperience Jason has around him, we've never had one
have a stretch of six games like that."

"He's the best point guard in the country," says Walton,
rattling his saber at Duke's Jason Williams, who until recently
seemed to have that title locked up. After being named freshman
of the year over Williams by several media organizations two
years ago, Gardner saw his standing slip last season along with
his scoring average (from 12.6 to 10.9) while Williams soared in
both categories. "It was hard for Jason [Gardner] last year
because he had four scorers around him," says Gilbert Arenas,
one of those scorers, who's now a rookie with the Golden State
Warriors. "Jason Williams had a green light to do anything he
wanted, and when you let players do anything they want, their
true talent comes out. Coach Olson has given Jason the green
light this year, and people are seeing what he can do."

Gardner is shooting 48.8% from the field after clanging all but
38.0% of his shots in his first two seasons (talk about iron
chefs). Though he doesn't have Williams's height--at 5'10",
Gardner is four inches shorter--or his ability to slash to the
hole, he was outpacing his Duke counterpart in scoring (24.2 to
21.3 points per game) and three-point shooting (46.3% to 33.3%)
while staying about even in assist-to-turnover ratio (at roughly
1.2 to 1). In other words the gap between the two players has
narrowed. "Jason Williams had to score last year for Duke to
win," Gardner says. "My role was to get 10 or 15 points, a few
assists and steals, and keep guys happy. This year I know my
role is to score and be more of a leader."

Gardner's resurgence is an uplifting chapter in what could have
been a cautionary tale. Few observers thought he should have
considered the NBA after last season, but they underestimated
the influence of friends--particularly when three of them leave
school early for the pros--and family. Gardner evidently has no
shortage of relatives telling him how good he is. Take Don and
Greg Livers, two of Jason's uncles, who call themselves Team
Gardner and produce the fansite ShepherdOfTheCourt.com. In
addition to Uncle Don's and Uncle Greg's hyperfavorable analysis
of Jason's NBA prospects, the site comes replete with an
explanation of their nickname for Jason ("one who keeps watch");
the Web page's logo, a silhouette of a player carrying a ball in
one hand and a staff in the other (the kind of thing Nike might
create for, say, Moses); bewildering references to Redd Foxx and
The Wizard of Oz's "Julie [sic] Garland"; and the motto, There
are no shortcuts!--an odd choice considering Gardner wanted to
leave college after two years. In one commentary Uncle Greg
rates the facets of Jason's game, awarding him an 8 for NBA
readiness and 10s for quickness, ball handling, potential and
intangibles.

NBA scouts came to different conclusions when Gardner struggled
at the NBA predraft camp in Chicago last June. Gardner made a
total of six of his 28 shots in three games, jacking up attempts
from as far as 26 feet. Says Gardner, "I wanted to make every
shot, every pass, every steal. I was thinking too much."

When Jason returned to Tucson, he and his mother, Stephanie, met
with Olson. "I could tell he was down," Olson says. "I told him
that Damon Stoudamire ended up being NBA Rookie of the Year
after four years here, and he was no more ready than a man on
the moon after his sophomore year. Jason Terry wasn't ready
either. Steve Kerr wouldn't have made it in the NBA if he hadn't
hurt his knee and gotten a fifth year with us." Of Olson's
splendid point guards over the years only Mike Bibby left early
and reached the NBA. The day after the meeting with Olson,
Gardner announced he would return to school.

Not hiring an agent (thus preserving his college eligibility)
was one of many signs that Gardner had grown up since his
freshman year, when he and Arenas would shoot paintballs at
Walton's beat-up Cadillac and at the ceiling of Stephanie's
apartment. Another indication: Even while he thought he'd go
pro, he kept up with his grades as a business management major.
Also, his girlfriend, Jackie, whom Gardner has known since the
sixth grade, moved to Tucson this year from their hometown of
Indianapolis. Gardner is downright domestic these days.

Similarly, his maturity at the point has been crucial for the
young Wildcats. "I would take Jason coming back over any of the
guys who left," says Anderson, a guitar-playing,
big-wave-surfing SoCal product who was averaging 14.5 points
through Sunday. "People don't realize how good a point guard and
a leader he is."

Asked by the coaches to speak up more, Gardner has fulfilled
that request too. "He knows he needs to talk to us all the time,
because that's the only way we're going to win," says freshman
center Channing Frye. "Even once we start figuring things out,
his voice is still going to be in our heads."

If the Arizona locker room smells like teen spirit, that's
because the five freshmen have an underrated skill: They listen.
"With Jason, Luke and Ricky we have three good leaders, but they
need guys who are willing to learn," Olson says. The star pupils
are Slim, Willard, L'il Sean, IF and D-Lat, whose enthusiasm
would make them a latter-day version of the Gumbies--remember
those boisterous bench jockies at Arizona in the late 1980s?--if
they didn't get so much playing time.

Olson's strategy has been to start his three juniors and let the
freshmen compete for the last two spots. At shooting guard the
battle has seesawed between Salim (Slim) Stoudamire, Damon's
cousin, whom Olson calls the Wildcats' best on-the-ball
defender, and Will (Willard) Bynum, a Chicago-bred gunner who
was one of the subjects of last year's weekly Fox Sports
documentary Preps. At center Olson has started Frye, a 6'10"
shot blocker--known as L'il Sean for his resemblance to former
Arizona star Sean Elliott--and Isaiah (IF) Fox, whose thick
beard, massive bulk and James Earl Jones voice caused his
teammates to think they were meeting Fox's father when they were
introduced. Rounding out the crew is Dennis (D-Lat) Latimore,
who led the Wildcats in rebounds (nine) against Illinois and
leads them in tattoos (seven) every day.

Olson doesn't need his freshmen to carry the team, but they must
contribute. "The big thing is to have consistent rebounding and
solid defense from them," he says. "Then a lot of times one
freshman has stepped up with a good offensive game for us." Fox
(5.3 rebounds per game), Frye (3.7) and Latimore (3.8) have
helped take care of the glass--to say nothing of tough inside
matchups against Maryland's Lonny Baxter, Florida's Udonis
Haslem and Illinois's Robert Archibald--while Stoudamire (19
second-half points in a win at Texas) and Bynum (16 points
against Florida) have provided offensive sparks.

Remarkably the freshmen have yet to suffer the personality
conflicts that their internecine competition might have caused.
"We hit it off the first day of school," says Frye, who often
hosts his four classmates in his dorm room, where they listen to
his massive CD collection, raid his fridge and play
way-too-serious games of virtual tennis on his Dreamcast. As for
freshman initiations, forget about it. "We needed these guys, so
we had to make them comfortable from the get-go," says the
easygoing Walton, a frequent visitor to the freshman pad who
often accompanies the rookies to the cineplex. "There's not a
movie out there that we haven't seen together."

That camaraderie is paying off on the court. "The whole is
better than the individual parts right now," Olson says of his
team. "That's why I feel comfortable that they'll get better and
better."

He might have something to do with that, too. Nearly a year
after ovarian cancer claimed the life of Bobbi, his wife of 47
years, Olson, 67, has dived headlong into his work, spending
more time at school than ever before, watching videotape into
the evening hours and joining his players at the nightly
training-table meal for the first time in his career. "That's
been good," he says, "because the freshmen get to see me in a
situation other than as the dictator on the court."

Olson's daughter Christi and her four children, ages 6 through
12, have moved into Grandpa's house to keep him company. On most
mornings he wakes the kids for school and goes for a long walk
in the hills north of Tucson with the family dogs. Over the
summer Olson took another daughter, Jodi, and one of her friends
on a three-week trip to Europe, hitting all of his and Bobbi's
favorite spots, from London to Provence to Salzburg to Barcelona.

He returned home to more letters of condolence, which have
included several photographs and dinner invitations from
Southwestern widows and divorcees. It's a sensitive subject, but
with his considerable success, rock-ribbed Midwestern values and
Cary Grant looks, Olson is among the most desirable over-65
heartthrobs on the planet. "Who can say what the future holds?"
he says, bemused by all the attention. "But [dating] is nothing
I'm interested in right now."

Given Arizona's brutal schedule, who has time? This Saturday the
Wildcats travel to Michigan State, which has the nation's
longest winning streak at home, 49 games. It's the kind of test
that nobody would have given Arizona a chance of winning before
the season. "That's college basketball," says Gardner. "People
said we wouldn't even be .500, that Coach should retire. The
last two years were so difficult with injuries and Mrs. O and
all the guys leaving. This year I just want to win for Coach O."

Now reconsider that photo in Olson's office, of the two chefs,
proud of their work, and realize that those grins might be
smiles of knowing satisfaction.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK New kid on the block Freshman Latimore snuffed Illinois's Brian Cook in the Wildcats' 87-82 win. COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Vigorous veteran With a larger role on and off the court, Walton is contributing more, including 12.8 points and 9.7 rebounds a game. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Making his points His NBA dreams on hold after a poor predraft showing, Gardner returned to the Wildcats better than ever. COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Surprise attack Stoudamire made a great first impression with 12 points in the season-opening win over Maryland.

"I looked at our schedule and said, 'This could be a disaster,'"
says Olson. "Most people would have figured that we'd be 1-5 at
this point."

"Coach Olson has given Jason the green light this year," says
Arenas. "Now people are getting to see what he can do."

"We have to have consistent rebounding and defense from the
freshmen," says Olson, "but a lot of times one of them steps up
on offense."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
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