Tucson’s still wild about those ’88 Cats

TUCSON — Overheard at the reunion of the 1988 Arizona Wildcat basketball team this weekend:

“It’s been 25 years and they are STILL cheering us.”

“We should bury this team, but they won’t let us.”

Yes they are.

And no they won’t.

Sure, the ‘97 Wildcats are the gold standard in Tucson, and deservedly so. They were the last team standing. They got the ring and the banner and will forever be remembered for their title run as they knocked down the Mount Rushmore of college basketball — defeating Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky, all No. 1 seeds. That may never happen again in our lifetime.

And is anybody betting that Sean Miller is on the cusp of carving his own piece of that rock? Something’s happening at McKale Center. Heck, it already almost happened in what was supposed to be a transition year. You get the hunch that Miller doesn’t believe in or have time for transition years.

But for many in Southern Arizona, it still comes down to the team that set the foundation for it all, the 1987-88 Wildcats, the first to make it to the Final Four.

If you are judging by just personalities it would be impossible to top the gang fronted by Steve Kerr, Tom Tolbert, Sean Elliott and those Gumbys.

They had it all, including their own rap video. But they were more than three chords and the truth. They were good. Damn good.

Arizona, and Kerr, coming off knee surgery that cost him the previous season,  hit the road running after being ranked anywhere from 10th to 17th in the preseason polls. That all changed after rolling over ninth-ranked Michigan and No. 3 Syracuse at the Great Alaska Shoot-Out. In hindsight, we should have known something was up when Joe Turner came off the bench against the Orangemen and schooled Rony Seikaly. Turner made him look silly.

There were other iconic moments along the way. A season’s worth, it seemed. 

Lute Olson returned to Iowa as royalty, and his players rewarded him with a wonderful parting gift from the arena that he basically built.

There was the epic Duke game in the final of the Fiesta Bowl tourney. It was the fourth Top 10 team that Arizona played and defeated.

Even after a mind-boggling loss to the New Mexico Lobos at The Pit, they climbed right back atop the national polls. They were steamrolling teams in Pac-10 play by more than 30 points. They were No. 1 and enjoying it and playing to it. Only Stanford would get to them with a win in Palo Alto, but that seemed like an afterthought. Or one of those “healthy losses.”

Despite his protestations of the merits of a conference tourney, Olson’s team would capture the Pac-10 Conference Tournament title as well, setting the stage for the NCAAs.

There would be no first-round defeat to hang their heads down and around this time.

After dispatching Cornell by 200 points, or what felt like that, Arizona faced Seton Hall. Some national talking heads speculated that this Big East foe would be the end of the road for the Cats. There was only one problem, they heard about those comments. It wasn’t the end. Not hardly. This team didn’t need bulletin-board material but relished it when it occurred.

Iowa would fall, again, and Arizona was one win and Tom Tolbert’s highlight reel shot over J.R. Reid away from their first-ever trip to the really big dance. The Tar Heels fell. Arizona was off to Kansas City. A city’s identity was forged.
After winning the regional there was a late night celebration at McKale in which we will forever remember Lute and Bobbi Olson and their grand entrance, holding hands, and holding court, and holding the reins of a true juggernaut. There would be another public outpouring, saved for Arizona Stadium. It seemed to be destiny. This was the perfect storm of a season. The only thing left for this group to accomplish? Finish what they started.

But they never did.

It was gut-wrenching to watch. They crumbled. A 35-win season became a three-loss season.

We all know what happened in the national semifinal. Steve Kerr, who was lights out in warm-ups, fell into his worst nightmare and his worst shooting performance at the worst time. He was 2 for 13 against the Oklahoma Sooners, perhaps finally, just once, feeling the weight of a fan base and the program. A loss he still lingers on, even after five NBA Titles and a championship winning jump shot.

But you can argue that as history remembers this team and that time, it really wasn’t all about the ring and the banner and college basketball immortality.

Dan Majerle said it best about the star-struck 1993 Phoenix Suns, a team that wasn’t the last one standing, either. He said that not one more person would have come to the legendary Suns postseason parade had they won it all. That’s easy to say when hundreds of thousands turned out for that celebration. But he’s probably right.

For that Suns team it wasn’t about just 1993 and the emergence of Charles Barkley and the building a new downtown arena. No, it was about how they got there and three or four or five seasons that it took. It was about rising from the ashes of a drug scandal, the trading of a local legend. It was about finally beating the Lakers. It was about winning the big ones, not always losing them.

The same can be said about the 1988 Arizona Wildcats. This was a group that was an extension of Olson’s first teams back in 1983, ’84 or the first Pac-10 champs in ’86. Remember the progression? You knew you were watching a freight train building up speed and momentum. It also erased that dysfunctional debacle of ’87, complete with a homecourt loss to UTEP in the NCAAs.

This was a team that planted a seed in the hearts of the community the moment the sun rose that horrible day when we awoke to the news of the assassination of Steve Kerr’s father. A city adopted a son and his team then. He grew and prospered and he did not disappoint, just like the team and the program. There was, as Kerr admits, an “organic” connection between the city and its passion. Fans weren’t going to watch a college basketball team play back then. They were going to watch their family play college basketball. That was the sense then, and you could feel it again, this weekend.

In the early days of the program, Lute would take his teams barnstorming in state for public practice sessions in outposts like Sierra Vista and Nogales and Casa Grande. After each practice and meet and greet, he took out a bullhorn and paced around the floor of the local high school gym. He made his stump speech, and he was riveting. He promised that Arizona basketball was going to be a national player and that Arizona basketball tickets were going to be the hottest thing since sliced bread.

He was right.

In 1997 his team won the right to say that they were the best of the best. National Champions. It was an amazing run from out of nowhere that will never, should never, be forgotten.

But in 1988 the Arizona Wildcats were almost the best of the best. They almost played for a national championship. They were almost the last team standing.

They fell short. 

But did they really? 

When Arizona fans of a certain generation look back and remember the early days of the Olson era, they get a sparkle in their eye and a chill down their spine. They are moved to this state of being by the memory of this team, their run, and their journey.

Did it end with a net being cut down? Nope. But because of that, in many ways, their journey still never really ended, in a way. 

Who was it that jumped on the team bus that fateful night in 1997 in Indianapolis to deliver an impromptu speech to the soon to be national champs?

It was Sean Elliott.

His speech? “Have fun.”

Was he talking to Miles Simon and Mike Bibby, or was he talking to Steve Kerr and Craig McMillan in wistful hindsight?

No matter.  As Emerson reminds us, it’s not the destination, it’s the journey, after all.

And with all due respect to the 1988 Arizona Wildcats, 35-3, national semifinalists, Pac-10 regular season champions and conference tourney champs, and the still proud face of a community, they aren’t throwing dirt on you just yet. And when you are asked, take a bow. Enjoy every single minute of it.