Arizona honors pioneers of hoops hysteria

TUCSON, Ariz. – It was 25 years ago and the scene at McKale Center wasn’t much unlike it is these days – the place was rocking.

Packed house. Anticipation high. The Arizona Wildcats men’s basketball team had plenty of potential.

“It was like the Arizona fans and our team knew that it was going to be a special year,’’ said former UA Matt Muehlebach, a freshman that fall of 1987. “I remember Steve (Kerr) leading our team out for layups. At some point before the game started, I remember him pausing and sort of smiling and acknowledging the crowd, almost like a baseball player would doff his cap at the All-Star game introductions — it was almost like he was saying, ‘This is going to be a good year.’ ”

Indeed it was. The Wildcats, behind Kerr and Sean Elliott and a host of talented and unselfish players, became the first team in school history to reach the Final Four, sending the city and Wildcat Nation into a hoops frenzy.

Everyone was “Wild about the Cats,” as then UA player Harvey Mason penned in the popular song.

And they still are. For 25 years now, Tucson has been swept up in a love affair with college basketball that endures today. The names of the players and coaches have changed. And, oh yes, the haircuts and length of the shorts, too.

The passion remains. On Sunday afternoon the team that started it all will be honored as the current edition of the Wildcats are introduced to the public at the annual Red-Blue Game. The 2 p.m. affair is sold out.

“It was the team that put us on the map as a program,” said former Arizona coach Lute Olson, the man who brought them all together to comprise one of the school’s all-time best teams (arguably in the top two). “It was just a great group of guys. Fans are going to love having them back.”

Kerr, Elliott, Mason, Muehlebach, Tom Tolbert, Kenny Lofton, Anthony Cook, Jud Buechler and more are scheduled to be part of the show.

“It was just an incredible group of guys,’’ said Kerr. “The thing you want to accomplish with a team is everyone pulling in the same direction. And we did. No one had an agenda, and everything came together.”

Kerr called the season a “new and organic phenomena that was so much fun.”

The Cats started the year with 12 consecutive wins, eventually getting ranked No. 1 midway through the season. Then it went on a super run behind the dynamic Elliott, a Tucson native, the sure shot and leadership of Kerr and the supporting contributions of Cook, Tolbert and Craig McMillan.

How good were those Cats? Here were the second teamers: Mason, Lofton, Buechler, Muehlebach and Sean Rooks.

“We could have finished second or third in the Pac-10 Conference,” said Mason.

Arizona was the runaway leader of the Pac, finishing 17-1 in conference and 35-3 overall.

“That ’88 team had great talent top to bottom,” said Muehlebach, a successful attorney and the team’s radio analyst. “We had Olson, a Hall of Famer, and four starters that not only played in the NBA, but three were incredibly successful (NBA players).”

Muehlebach said he believes that team is still “the highest-skilled team ever at the U of A.”

It shot 54.5 percent from the floor and 48 percent from 3-point range.

“No other team has ever been close to those numbers,” Muehlebach said. “There were very high-character guys combined with tons of personality. For some reason the chemistry was perfect from Day 1.”

Arizona rolled through the NCAA tournament, dispatching the likes of North Carolina behind a signature game from Tolbert. Who can ever forget that up-and-under move that was one of the season’s on-court highlights? But then came Oklahoma in the Final Four. Kerr suffered through the worst shooting day of his career, going 2 for 13 from the floor, and Arizona was eliminated 86-78.

Storybook over. And still Tucsonans turned out by the thousands to welcome the team home.

It all started on that fall day in 1987. Kerr’s premonition was spot on – as usual.

“Running onto the court made the hair on your arms stand up,” Muehlebach said. “Five and half months later we were riding in convertibles in a ticker-tape-like parade through Tucson. It was an amazing experience the entire year. Every season is definitely hard work and you face your share of challenges, but that year was just plain fun from start to finish.”

And it hasn’t been forgotten, by the players and city alike.

“It was a magical time, once in a lifetime,’’ Mason said. “I still get emotional when I talk about it and the experience. I might again this weekend, but I’ll try to keep it together.”