Wildcats buy in to message from 1988 team


TUCSON, Ariz. —
Former Arizona star Tom Tolbert, part philosopher, part sports talk-show host, part jokester, got serious when asked about his advice to the 2012-13 version of the Wildcats.

It’s simple, and it’s the same advice he gives to 8-year-olds, 10-year-olds or 20-year-olds.

“At the end of the game, be sure you are able to look your teammate in the eye and say, ‘I gave it everything I had,'” Tolbert said. “That’s all you can do.”

It’s not about the score or the overall performance but how you play together.

“If you are able to say that and say that to yourself,” Tolbert continued about his message, “you’re going to be fine. They have the talent to be fine. There’s no doubt about it.”

In receiving the message from Tolbert, one of the leaders of the 1988 Final Four team that gathered at McKale Center on Sunday prior to the annual Red-Blue Game, Arizona senior leader Kevin Parrom said it was “about team.”

“They tell us it’s not about anything individually, like stats or how well you’re playing,’’ Parrom said. “(But) try to play as a team. It’s not about individual accolades or anything like that. It’s about how well you you’re doing as a team.

“They just told us they all had one goal, and that was to win as many games as they could.”

It’ll be the essence of today’s team going forward. Can it find that special mix of substance and style? Arizona’s 1988 team was a case study in chemistry and was honored for it Sunday in front of a sold-out crowd of 14,000-plus.

Oh, and Red beat Blue 62-58, if it matters. It doesn’t, really.

What matters is whether lightning can again caught in a bottle — again. It was in 1997, when Arizona went on a magical run to a national title. It was in 2001 after former UA coach Lute Olson lost his beloved wife, Bobbi, to cancer and Arizona was able to overcome all the emotions to reach the NCAA finals.

Could it happen again? Arizona coach Sean Miller, the resident mixologist and chemist, will be asked to find a way. It doesn’t just happen. And nothing is ever won in October, so the work is always in progress.

Figure that two years ago, the Wildcats didn’t hit their stride until March but eventually caught onto the coattails of Derrick Williams and ended up one missed jumper short of the Final Four.

“Today is the last day that we’re on different benches,” Miller said, referring to the split in the Red-Blue format. “We will all go to one bench. And not everybody will shoot the amount of shots they want or score the amount of points that they hope to or play the amount of minutes they aspire to play.”

Admittedly, how the coaching staff handles all the unhappiness and doubt will be crucial to the overall success. Roles will be defined. Minutes will be monitored. Success and failure will be gauged in the form of team results.

Sacrifice will be in order. Humility will be right behind it.

“I think, if you have a team of depth, you really start to look at how things are going to happen,” Miller said, knowing this year’s team is as deep as he’s ever had. “When it doesn’t work out as an individual player (finding success), it’s important that they handle it well. If they don’t, it’s going to be met with force. This isn’t the place to pout. We are a true team, in every sense of the word.”

After all, it’s the true teams that win championships — or get close, anyway — more than
not. The 1988 team was proof of that.

This year’s version has every chance to duplicate it. It has talent, size, speed, leadership and basketball IQ.

“This year if we are going to reach our pinnacle, reach our goals and be the best we can be — and much better than a year ago — we certainly are going to have to have sacrifice,” Miller said. “We’re not there yet, because in the Red-Blue game, everybody plays.”

And everyone goes home happy, just as the sold-out crowd did Sunday afternoon after honoring their stars of the past, present and future. Miller has embraced that history; it’s been pointed out numerous times that he’s been able to weave the past into the future, and the 1988 team’s appearance in front of this year’s players was evidence of that.

“I have no idea of how well the team will do, but it’s exciting to see how well Sean has built the program. There’s a stability to the program. It’s good to see where it’s heading,” former UA star Steve Kerr said last week.

“Sean has done an amazing job of building the program from the ground up but using the tradition and resources that he has to do so. He’s done an amazing job of embracing those of us who helped build it during the Lute era. Sean has not only embraced us but leaned on us while trying to build it.”

The rest, of course, is dependent on the players buying into the message. After all, these are not just 40-something guys who used to play at Arizona. These guys have been there and done that — winning streaks, Pac-10 titles, Sweet 16 appearances, Final Fours, NBA titles — and it was chemistry and talent that helped them get there.

Miller said he’s more than sure they took the advice and will do their best to heed it.

“The one thing that players always respect is guys who have done what they aspire to do,” Miller said. “What we had in our locker room (on Sunday) was a collection of players who have done what our current players aspire to do, whether it’s team or post-Arizona career. So any time that’s in place, there is ultimate respect.

“We talk a lot about respect of the past. I believe that every word that was spoken to them that they hung on every word.”

The Wildcats’ chemistry test results will be revealed in March. Perhaps April, if they aced it.