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Lute Olson’s influence reaches well beyond Arizona’s basketball program

(Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)

Lute Olson was Tucson. If you’re not from there, don’t have family there, didn’t go to college there or have never been there, you’ll think that’s hyperbole.

It’s not.

The Hall of Fame coach built a college basketball program out of nothing. His presence helped him recruit, and his reputation, records, accolades and 1997 championship said it all about him as a basketball coach. But his impact in the Old Pueblo and the status of the Wildcats on the court were embedded into that city’s culture.

Just consider how good Olson was as a recruiter for non-basketball players.

I grew up as a basketball-obsessed kid in Mesa, Ariz. Looking back, I probably went to the University of Arizona because Lute Olson was a very good basketball coach.

I entered college as a biology major. But I liked basketball enough that I started a Blogspot blog that hopefully you can’t find on Google, then dumped that biology degree for a journalism one so I could write about basketball as a career path. And here we are.

So I could credit Lute for that.

Tucsonans regard Olson in much greater terms. They would talk about which of his kids or grandkids they knew and how they knew them. If they had the same barber as Lute, it’s a big deal. It’s some small-town vibes.

Reminder: This is a top-35 city by population in the United States and there are no freeways. It takes a good 30 minutes to an hour to get from some parts of town down to campus, but everyone would be damn sure to make their way to McKale Center early to attend an Arizona basketball game.

The brand is still pretty powerful even with the recent ongoings of Sean Miller’s tenure.

That’s all because of Lute.

His list of NBA players produced at Long Beach State, Iowa and Arizona can’t fit in a single window on a computer screen. His coaching tree in the NBA and college is equally as extensive.

Olson recruited Arizona products like Sean Elliott, Mike Bibby, Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye. He helped them find massive success in the NBA. He recruited nationally, pulling in 2015 NBA Finals MVP Andre Iguodala out of Illinois, giving Gilbert Arenas a platform to vent his frustration at the world for slighting him and offered a scholarship to Steve Kerr, who would succeed as a college player, NBA player, general manager of the Suns and championship coach of the Golden State Warriors.

You aren’t finding me list out Pac-10 titles won or coaching records or Final Four appearances in here for a reason.

It matters more that Olson altered a lot of human beings’ lives.

He gave less talented people opportunities as well. Kyle Fogg, one of his last recruits, stuck with the Arizona program, won four The Basketball Tournament championships and has played overseas while committing funds to help educate those who are less fortunate. Journalists like Jeff Goodman, far apart in age from Olson, become good friends with the head coach because Olson cared a little bit about getting to know him.

My one interaction with Lute was my first time working as a reporter for a Phoenix Suns game. I was still in college and writing on Frye’s turn from a traditional center at Arizona to NBA stretch power forward. Olson happened to be there to watch Frye face fellow Wildcat Chase Budinger.

My memory isn’t super great — thanks University of Arizona social activities — but I’m pretty sure I approached Olson cold near the opposing locker room.

He was nice enough to say “yes.” I asked him why he didn’t let Frye fire all the threes he wanted like he did as an NBA player.

“He kids me sometimes now that, ‘Coach, you should’ve really let me shoot that 3,’” Olson said. “Yeah, I could have let you shoot the 3 and I could have had (former UA point guard) Jason Gardner or somebody underneath rebounding, that makes a lot of sense.’”

On Thursday, after I tweeted I probably wouldn’t have gone to the University of Arizona if not for Lute Olson, others still in the sports business in one way or another echoed the same thing.

Lute Olson hasn’t coached for Arizona since 2008, but his legacy lives on with that coaching tree still coaching at all levels. Former players like Frye, Arenas and Jefferson are growing into media roles after their playing days. Even regular dudes who had nothing to do with basketball or the program have their Lute stories.

When news of his death was received Thursday night, incoming Arizona freshman guard Kerr Kriisa was standing by the statue of Olson outside of McKale Center, taking it all in. That’s an Estonian named Kerr, after Steve Kerr, one of Lute’s first recruits.

That’s what you call influence.