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COLLEGE BASKETBALL 1990-91 : They’re REACHING TO the Sky : Arizona’s Fans Will Raise Roof of Their Arena in Title Quest

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Well, it has really gotten to the brink of insanity. Completely out of hand, this Lutemania jazz.

Most observers thought basketball fanatics at the University of Arizona hit their nutty zenith last season. Nope.

Last month, for instance, some poor local businessman filed for bankruptcy. A court in Tucson seized the guy’s worldly goods and sold them at auction.

Turns out the highlight was when the judge auctioned off--in a packed courtroom--two season tickets each to U of A basketball and football. They went for $11,000, although they have a face value of $1,200. Now the people who bought the tickets can go bankrupt.

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It goes to show you that Wildcat basketball, as promoted by the ever-smooth Coach Lute Olson, is wildly popular here. The frenzy for tickets has not abated in Olson’s seven seasons--fanned in part by the fact that Olson’s team has not lost at home since March of 1987, or in 49 games.

All those games have been sellouts. In fact, sellouts at McKale Center are so regular there is a danger of lulling Tucson into a state of lethargy regarding getting to them--after so many years of lack of availability, people may eventually stop asking for tickets.

More stats: Arizona has led the Pacific 10 in attendance for the last seven seasons and has set attendance records the last four.

It’s a tough ticket, and it’s going to get worse. Arizona is ranked No. 3 in the nation and will play Wednesday night in the semifinals of the Dodge National Invitation Tournament.

“I’ve got more demand than I have product,” said Ted Kissell, Arizona’s associate athletic director, sounding sort of happy about it.

It’s a problem Arizona found another way to solve last week. For the first time in more than three years, Arizona basketball tickets will be available to the general public. After years of saying, “There’s simply no more room,” engineers at the university found some space.

They looked high and low and settled on high. Now, perched at the top of McKale Center, the absolutely last row, are 180 metal folding chairs. The phrase nosebleed section leaps to mind.

“Sit up there and raise your arms--they poke out through the roof,” said George Kalil, president of a Tucson bottling company and the man regarded as the Wildcats’ superfan.

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Kalil does not sit in the new seats. No, Kalil sits where he has for 19 years, which is anywhere he pleases. Kalil is the sort of kindly booster who speaks of “our team” and “helping where I can.” His is the sort of help that could translate into putting a stereo system in the players’ lounge. Kalil is a popular guy.

For 19 years, Kalil has been a U of A basketball fan. In fact he is the role model against which the program’s other fans measure themselves. He has set a rigorous standard. In 19 years, Kalil has missed one game. Home and away. Loyalty to the Wildcats is expressed in attendance; acceptable absences are measured in single digits only.

Kalil, who has sat courtside through the lean times, and would as soon forget them, can tell you why things are bigger and much, much better now: Lute Olson.

“He’s the one who has launched this program,” Kalil said. “People here love him, absolutely love him. If Lute Olson started selling pop tomorrow, I don’t care what kind it is, he’d sell it out.”

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BUT IT’S A DRY HEAT

Lute and his wife, Bobbi Olson, left the University of Iowa after nine snowy seasons. They packed their winter clothing, for good, and arrived in the desert, where they have built a lovely home in the foothills.

Funny thing, that move. Olson has remarked many times that the fishbowl life in the tiny college town of Iowa City was an unbearable episode. When Olson and his wife were building a new house there, basketball fans drove by the unfinished residence, simply to look at at the place where Lute would be laying his head. Iowa games regularly drew the highest rating of any televised program in the state.

“It was kind of refreshing to move here after Iowa,” Bobbi Olson said. “After being in the limelight so much, it got to the point that I couldn’t go to the grocery store. I saw moving here as a few years off (from the attention). I said to Lute, ‘Don’t be successful right away.’ ”

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Funny how that low profile has risen steadily. Olson has the requisite radio and television shows. He does his radio show from his Italian restaurant, Olson’s on Broadway. His popular new TV commercial pits him against Bill Frieder, his upstate coaching rival at Arizona State. They are pitchmen for a bank. Olson lends his name to many charities and is vice chairman of the local United Way campaign.

Doesn’t sound like a guy who is afraid of the heat. Olson seems to thrive in it. Why not? Two years ago, when he was being wooed by Kentucky, the state Board of Regents called an emergency meeting to discuss options to counter-woo Olson. Olson, who never said he was very interested in the Kentucky job in the first place, walked away with a greatly sweetened five-year contract.

What the Board of Regents knew then, and what the rest of the country has come to know, is that Olson wins. His record at Arizona is 162-62. In the last three seasons, Arizona’s winning percentage, .864, is the best in the NCAA’s Division I.

While they were quietly winning all the while, the Wildcats burst into the Final Four in 1988 with an improbable team: Sean Elliott, the local player who made good; Steve Kerr, a modest talent whose hard work paid off after his educator father was murdered in Beirut; Tom Tolbert, the unpredictable big man.

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To many, Arizona became the mascot team of that Final Four. If it was possible to pat a team on the head and muss its hair, that Wildcat team would have been the one patted.

To this tradition arrives the 1990 version. This team is quick, experienced and very, very tall. Some NBA teams should have such size. The Wildcats’ starting front line boasts Brian Williams, a 6-foot-11 forward; Chris Mills, a 6-6 forward, and Sean Rooks, a 6-10 center. Wayne Womack, a 6-8 forward, and Ed Stokes, a seven-foot center, have also gotten plenty of playing time in the Wildcats’ two NIT victories so far.

The team has seven lettermen and three redshirts from last season. There is one senior. Two of the freshmen are 6-8 and 6-9. In Mills, a sophomore transfer from Kentucky, the Wildcats have one of the finest players in college basketball. Williams is an up-and-down player who many think might be ready for a big year--he blocked 41 shots last season. The Wildcats have one of the nation’s top recruits, freshman guard Khalid Reeves from New York City.

Olson, not much of a praise giver, said last week he wasn’t sure what his team’s weaknesses were. The Wildcats’ depth is remarkable, since Olson can effectively platoon during games to keep his team fresh. Seven Arizona players scored in double figures in the team’s first NIT game, a 122-80 victory over Austin Peay.

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Although the high expections and rankings are the norm at Arizona, it’s not likely to turn heads in the program.

“Where you are rated at the beginning of the season is not high on my list of things I pay a lot of attention to,” Olson said. “You hope in your program that you get to the point that you are solid, year in and year out, and when it comes to people thinking about a top 10, that Arizona would come to mind. That’s what we work for. So we are not going to get there and say, ‘We don’t like it and we wish they would pick someone else.’

“Our players would be very disappointed if they weren’t thought of very highly. I think they take great pride in that. They also recognize the challenge that it holds for them. That’s what we came here for as a staff. That’s what the players came here for. We hope we can prove that we belong there.”

JOIN THE PAC-10, SEE THE NAVY

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McKale Center is a fearsome place for visiting teams. The fans’ habit of wearing red clothing to the games has engendered the term Red Sea to describe the crowd’s visual effect. It is a point of pride for the program that the atmosphere in McKale is, if not hostile, then lacking in some of the more key elements of hospitality.

“We take pride in our fans,” said Wildcat guard Matt Othick. “We let them know we appreciate them. Our crowd is one of the best. They have helped us so much. I think if we had a 60,000-seat arena, we could get that many people in here. This is just a sports-crazy town.”

The fans finally got to rally around something last season when the McKale’s Navy gimmick took off.

Jim Curran, district manager for ABCO Markets, knew a good publicity stunt when he saw one. Curran, a Kalil-like booster who has missed five games in four years, came up with a promotional idea that would benefit his two favorite things--his business and Arizona basketball.

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Curran promoted McKale’s Navy, members of which are identified by red T-shirts. Fans bought the shirts then, after an Arizona victory, came to Curran’s markets for a free decal showing a sinking ship with the defeated team’s name on the side.

“Oh yeah, we love it,” Olson said of the fans’ antics. “But yet they do it in good taste. That’s not to say you don’t have incidents sometimes when a fan that is not (well behaved). The point we try to make to them is, come here and cheer and support your team, don’t come here to yell at, scream at, downgrade other people. We want you here to support us. If you support us we will accomplish what we want to accomplish.”

So far, Olson has accomplished nearly all he has wanted to. Nearly.

This season might be the one when Arizona brings a national title home to Tucson--and to McKale’s Navy and the Red Sea and the people in the nosebleed section and George Kalil and the other wildly loyal Wildcat faithful.

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