By EMILY GAUCI
Creative Director/Arizona Sonora News
With the start of the 2016-2017 Arizona Basketball season approaching 20 years after the 1996-1997 team won the national title, three former basketball players and a former Arizona coach from the championship team reflect on the winning season.
“There were a lot of questions heading into the season…”
They were a young team. One had only played 8 to 10 minutes a game the season before. Another was a transfer from a California community college who had never played in a NCAA game. The starting point guard was a true freshman. There was only one senior on the team, and he was a walk-on from a Maryland community college.
You could see why coach Lute Olson had some questions going into the season.
It’s been almost 20 years since they lost their last two regular-season games on the road at California and Stanford. It’s close to 20 years since they finished fifth in the Pac-10. And it will soon be 20 years since No. 4 seeded Arizona beat three No. 1 seeds — Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky — to win the national title.
One of the founding fathers
Whether or not he knew it at the time, junior guard Miles Simon was pretty important to the success of the team.
Olson said that when Simon was eligible to play again after missing the first semester of playing due to academic issues, sophomore guard Jason Terry had come into Olson’s office, telling him that Simon needed to be put back into the starting lineup.
“That’s fine JT, but who are we going to take out of the starting line up if that’s the case?” Olson had said to Terry.
“Well, take me out. I’d like to be the sixth man and be able to see what’s going on in the game and when I get in the game I’m ready to go,” Terry told Olson.
Simon said Terry’s selfless decision to take a seat on the bench and let him play was a learning experience.
“There’s probably not one player in the world that would really be willing to make that sacrifice, and he did,” Simon said.
Terry’s decision to become the sixth man and let Simon return to the starting lineup paid off.
He scored 30 points during the championship game, and was the top scorer for the whole tournament, at 132 points. Simon ended up receiving the Most Outstanding Player award for the Final Four.
Receiving that award was the “best feeling I’ve ever had basketball-wise, no question about that,” he said.
Simon attended many Final Fours when he was younger with his dad, and he had dreamed of playing in one and winning it all.
“It was like a dream come true. I don’t even think words can describe the emotions or feelings that I had on the inside,” he said.
In overtime, he was holding the ball when the clock hit zero. He knelt down on the floor and cradled the ball, in disbelief that they had just won it all.
“There’s no question about Simon, [he] was the leader of that team and was able to get it done…he goes down in history as one of the founding fathers of Arizona Basketball,” said ESPN analyst Corey Williams, a former Arizona basketball player from 1992 to 1996.
Coach O’s hair
Even now, 20 years later, all of Olson’s former players still refer to him as Coach, a sign of the respect they have for the man who coached them towards a title, who shaped them into the men they have become today.
For freshman guard Josh Pastner, Arizona was the only college in the country that replied to his letter about joining a team to become a player-coach. Pastner wanted to be a basketball coach since he was a kid. And so he joined to learn the art of coaching college basketball from one of the most recognized basketball coaches in the country.
“I think Coach Olson was the greatest practice coach on fundamentals in the history of the game,” Pastner said. “His practices were clinics, and there was nothing like it, he was just as sound as could be.”
It’s the only thing Olson misses about being a coach.
“That’s when you really get a chance to know the young people, and that’s when you can have the biggest effect on them,” Olson said of practice.
The effect Olson had on Jason Terry was similar to a father taking care of his son.
“He’s been a father figure for me since the day he recruited me,” Terry said. “He’s always treated me as one of his own, and we still talk to this day. What he did is, he made me accountable for my actions and he helped me mature into a man at an early age, so I give him a lot of credit for where I am today.”
He made the game of basketball simple and easy, Williams said.
Of all the memories of Olson, from the practices, to the home games, to the tournament, players will never forget the moment shared between the Hall of Fame coach and junior forward Bennett Davison after the team had won the championship.
“The lasting memory is watching Bennett Davison run his fingers through Coach O’s hair, because nobody in the history of man had touched Coach O’s hair before that day, and seeing the smile on Bobbi Olson’s face in that one shining moment,” Terry said.
An unusual group
With a minute left in the second half of the championship game, Arizona was winning 72-68. The Kentucky Wildcats scored, then the Arizona Wildcats, then back to Kentucky. 74-74. Overtime for the Cats.
“In the huddle before we came back out, I said, ‘There’s no question the toughest minded team is gonna win this game,’” Olson said. “I looked at the Kentucky players and they were bending over at the free throw line, holding onto their shorts and you could just tell that they were ready to crack, and our guys were very confident that they’d get it done.”
Arizona won on free throws. No two or three-pointer shots. Just ten free throws.
And each player had something different going through their head during overtime.
Terry thought about how Sean Elliott and Steve Kerr came on the team bus before they left for the game. “They said, ‘Hey guys, this one is for all former Wildcats, we made it to the Final Four, but we never made it to the championship game. You guys have the opportunity to rewrite history and to become the first team ever. Don’t let this opportunity pass.’”
Terry wasn’t about to lose that opportunity.
Pastner, on the other hand, had a different reaction.
“I was sick to my stomach, but I’ll tell you what, don’t forget I was sick to my stomach in the first-round game, when we were playing South Alabama we were down 10 with under five minutes to go,” Pastner said. “Or how about the Elite Eight game when we were headed into overtime with Providence? Or when we played North Carolina we were down 27 to 8 to the start of the game in the Final Four?”
The fear of losing in the first-round game was all too familiar to the Wildcats, who had lost in the first round in 1995 after making it to the Final Four in 1994. But Arizona was the 4th seed in the Southeast bracket, and battled three top-seeded teams to take the title.
“You got to be good, and you got to be lucky…to knock off three number 1 seeds, when you’re in an underdog situation, and that was an underdog team, and they kind of had that chip on their shoulder,” Williams said. “It’s a great historical footnote, and I think what makes that team unique, is that nobody will ever be able to claim that for quite some time.”
Simon chuckled as he recalled the atmosphere after returning to Tucson with a title.
“Craziness. The fans lined the streets all the way from the airport to the football stadium and they drove us in some convertible cars right inside to Arizona Stadium,” he said. “We couldn’t go to the mall for the next couple weeks.”
When Simon, Mike Bibby and several other teammates tried to go to the mall, word had spread quickly that they were there and soon the young athletes were ushered out the back door.
Olson said, “It was an unusual group of young people and it was kind of the thing that once they got on the run, they didn’t think anybody could beat them.”
So close to my heart
Jason Terry is starting his 18th season in the NBA. Josh Pastner is the new head coach of the Georgia Tech men’s basketball team. Miles Simon is currently a basketball analyst for ESPN. And Olson is retired, attending Arizona basketball games and supporting his player-turned-coaches, such as Pastner, Kerr and Luke Walton, by attending their games as well.
And on Oct. 14, 2016, Arizona basketball’s first, and only, national championship team returned to McKale to honor Simon during Arizona’s annual Red-Blue Game.
Olson, Assistant Head Coach Jim Rosborough along with Pastner, Bennett Davison, and Bibby were among the eight 1997 teammates who returned to McKale to support Simon.
It was an event for the ages.
The cheers from the fans were louder than ever. Simon, Bibby and former teammate Eugene Edgerson all entered the arena with thunderous applause and cheering louder than any other player introduction in McKale that night — from the current and 1997 team.
There was Simon, watching the video board with his wife, Kristy Simon, and their young children, all with wide eyes and smiles on their faces as they watched footage of Simon playing during his time at Arizona.
There was the crowd, who stood for 10 minutes as Simon spoke.
There was silence, and a feeling of sadness and sympathy, as Simon teared up when he spoke of his late mother in his speech. But there was also a feeling of awe, of being in the presence of one of the most respected Arizona Basketball players, and other former Arizona greats such as Bibby, Davison, sophomore forward A.J. Bramlett from the 1997 team, and even former center Bob Elliott, who played at Arizona from 1973-1977. There was loud cheering after Simon had ended his speech with dropping the mic to the floor and walking away from it.
“So much emotion for me, because Arizona is so close to my heart, and being able to have my number up there in the rafters with some of the greatest players in Arizona Basketball history,” Simon said. “It’s just an amazing feeling and having nearly all of the ’97 team there made it that much better just because I went through so much with those guys, obviously win a national title but having so many fun times and memories and kind of reliving some of those in our time together this weekend.”
And for a split second in time, the McKale Center was celebrating the championship, celebrating a champion, as No, 34, the junior guard from Fullerton, California, held up the trophy that he helped bring home.
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Emily is a senior studying journalism and government & public policy. After she graduates this December she hopes to become a professional sports photographer, but is open to trying other jobs in journalism. In her free time you can catch Emily reading, napping or playing with her cat Whiskey, who also likes to nap.