Hansen's Sunday Notebook: To Tucsonans, Odiemae was more than Sean's mom

Arizona Daily Star sports columnist Greg Hansen offers his opinion on recent sports news of interest to Southern Arizonans.

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  • In the 1970s, Odiemae Elliott attended Pima College and the UA on the GI Bill, a would-be nurse who was part of the women’s Army Air Corps from 1951 to 1960.

    A single mom, she worked the graveyard shift at Tucson’s VA Hospital, and when her middle son, Sean Elliott, became a consensus All-American at Arizona in 1988, Odiemae hoped to attend her first UA road game: the 1988 Final Four in Kansas City.

    Her co-workers at the hospital raised about $1,500. But before Odiemae made reservations, she called UA associate athletic director Bob Bockrath to make sure it was permissible to accept the money.

    It was, absurdly, against NCAA rules. Odiemae Elliott raided her small savings account to get to Kansas City.

    She asked Bockrath if she could get a copy of the cumbersome NCAA rules manual, which she read before and during her son’s senior season, in which Sean Elliott became the NCAA Player of the Year.

    In the 1988-89 season, Odiemae took out a loan for $20,000 to pay for her son’s insurance against injury leading up the 1989 NBA draft. She only attended one road game that season: the Sweet 16, in which No. 1 seed Arizona was shocked by UNLV.

    In the corridor near the UA’s locker room that night in Denver, a security man allowed Odiemae access in an off-limits area. She embraced Sean; he sobbed on her shoulder for what seemed like forever. That scene remains frozen in my mind. Never in history have a mother and her son so captured Tucson’s imagination.

    I didn’t see Odiemae again until 1995, when I ran into her in the waiting area at the Tucson airport. She talked about her upbringing in rural Holy Springs, Mississippi.

    “I grew up in a time and place that if a black person got sick and died, no one cared,” she told me that day. “They’d write down ‘heart failure’ on the death certificate and move on.”

    Now all of that has changed. Odiemae Elliott died last week of cancer. She was 77. She made us care.

  • Tucsonan Ronnie Black played in 559 PGA Tour events, winning twice, before qualifying for the Champions Tour in 2009.

    After three productive years, he lost his playing privileges and returned to Tucson, where this year he became director of golf at Green Valley’s Canoa Ranch/Torres Blancas/San Ignacio joint management.

    At 56 and operating three courses, Black doesn’t have a lot of time to practice. But in recent weeks, he played by himself, hitting five or six balls per hole, preparing for the U.S. Senior Open qualifier in Mesa. It worked.

    Among a Mesa field of 83 golfers, Black shot 69 to get one of two available berths at the ongoing U.S. Senior Open.

    On Thursday morning, he briefly took the lead with three consecutive birdies on the front nine. Black made the cut and will play in the final round today.

  • Salpointe grad Sara Brown, a former LPGA Tour regular who is playing on the Symetra Tour this year, received one of 40 invitations to the Big Break Invitational, to be broadcast by Golf Channel Sept. 30 to Oct. 3.

    The $300,000 tournament, for 20 men and 20 women, will feature only those who have appeared on previous Big Break events.

  • Robert Gamez, who in 1989 was the NCAA golfer of the year at Arizona and won the 1990 Tucson Open as a rookie on the PGA Tour, had quadruple bypass surgery last week in Orlando, Florida. Gamez, 45, hopes to return for his annual Team Gamez Foundation, benefiting Boys and Girls Clubs, in October.

  • After pitching her senior season at Arizona, Sunnyside grad Estela Piñon signed an endorsement deal with Mizuno, accepted a contract with the Chicago Bandits, and on Saturday morning in Irvine, California, pitched the game of her life. Playing for Mexico in the World Cup of Softball, Piñon held unbeaten Team USA to three runs in 6⅔ innings before losing 3-2 on a walkoff hit. She struck out seven.

  • Former Tucson High baseball standout Chris Moon died four years ago today, mortally wounded after stepping on a land mine in Afghanistan. In attempt to honor The Star’s 2006 Southern Arizona Baseball Player of the Year, Tucson National assistant golf pro Landyn Lewis will stage a benefit golf outing Aug. 3 at Tucson National. It would’ve been Moon’s 25th birthday. Lewis, a Tucson High grad, is in the process of raising $60,000 in attempt to erect a life-sized bronze statue of Moon at Cherry Field. Those interested in participating for the 7:30 a.m. shotgun start should contact Lewis at 520-282-2710 or at lalewis@omnihotels.com.

  • The Pima County Sports Hall of Fame’s 25th induction class will be announced Wednesday afternoon at the Holiday Inn Airport-North. Among the 14 honored (and much overdue) will be Ray Kosanke, who is probably the top big man basketball player in Tucson history, or at lest in the conversation with Santa Rita’s Dave Feitl. Kosanke became a starter at Stanford after leading Tucson High to an undefeated 1962 state championship. Kosanke was the first Tucsonan to play pro basketball in Europe; spending the late 1960s in Belgium. Kosanke has worked in the renewable energy industry, living in Southern California.

  • Tucson High grad Christine Clark, who was an all-Ivy League guard at Harvard in 2012, 2013 and 2014, has become a professional basketball player. She has signed with Lavezzini Parma of the Italian A1 league. Clark, who is in Tucson this summer working as an intern at the Arizona Cancer Research Center, will begin her pro career in September. She led the Ivy League with a 16.5 scoring average last year. Clark is holding a girls-only camp July 21-24 at the Sporting Chance Center from 8 a.m. to noon.

  • The “next Christine Clark” in Tucson girls prep basketball could be Tucson High’s Alexis Cortez who last week was selected to the all-star team at the End of Trail camp in Oregon. Cortez averaged 21.5 points in her sophomore season at THS and, prior to her sophomore season, was named the No. 1 girls basketball prospect in Arizona for the Class of 2016 by one recruiting service. Cortez will play for coach Chris Klassen’s Tucson Rattlers in the Nike Oasis Invitational in Phoenix July 23-25.

  • Nick Johnson’s NBA Summer League debut was a good one: He averaged 15.8 points, ninth overall in the Florida league. He also averaged 6.2 rebounds and looked like he belonged. As NBA TV analyst Isiah Thomas said: “He’s a real find; he can be a rotation player in his first year.”

  • Aaron Gordon predictably struggled offensively for the Orlando Magic rookie team, shooting .350 afield and .478 from the foul line. He’s not going to become a reliable shooter in a hurry.

  • Palo Verde grad Bryce Cotton made his NBA Summer League/Las Vegas debut in style Friday. He scored a team-high 12 points for the San Antonio club in just 16 minutes. He was the second man off the bench.

  • When Steve Kerr blew out his knee in the 1986 World Championships, Lute Olson famously said, “I hope Bruce Fraser is ready to be our point guard.” Fraser was then a junior college recruit from Long Beach, California, and although he didn’t become a starter at the UA, he was a good teammate and has always been part of Kerr’s inner circle and Olson’s basketball family. Fraser went on to coach for Larry Brown at Indiana and for Quin Snyder at Missouri before becoming a scout for the Suns, and Kerr, then Phoenix’s GM. At 48, Fraser is now Kerr’s player development coach at Golden State.

  • You can imagine how proud Catalina Foothills athletic director Jody Brase was last weekend. On Sunday, her daughter, ex-UA guard Julie Hairgrove, was on ESPN as the top assistant coach of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, followed a few minutes later by her son on NBA TV, former Arizona Wildcats backup forward Matt Brase, who sat on the Houston Rockets bench in a Summer League game as the club’s player development coach.

  • Rather than send Sahuaro High School grad Pat McCoy back to the minors when injured Detroit pitcher Ian Krol returned from the disabled list last week, the Tigers put McCoy on the 15-day disabled list with a “hamstring issue.” McCoy pitched five games in his first stint in the majors and allowed just one run. He earns about $40,000 every two weeks in the big leagues, much more than his minor-league deal.

  • The richest event on the PGA Southwest Section annual golf schedule is the $35,000 Sedona Open. It was won last week by CDO grad David McDaniel, who shot 64-67-69 (or 16 under par). McDaniel, who also won the Sedona event in 2012, earned $4,000 in a field of 112 players. David Yarnes, a Sabino High grad who won the 1999 Tucson City Amateur, was third.

  • Sahuaro grad Alex Verdugo has been turned into a leadoff hitter by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Arizona Rookie League. And why not? Verdugo, the Dodgers’ second-round draft pick, struck out just twice in 62 plate appearances through Friday. He was hitting .299.

  • Arizona distance running coach James Li appears to have found a worthy successor to eight-time NCAA champion Lawi Lalang: incoming UA freshman Bailey Roth. In June, Roth, of Colorado Springs, Colorado, broke a 23-year-old national high school record in the 2,000-meter steeplechase in Greensboro, North Carolina. Last week at the Junior Nationals in Eugene, Oregon, Roth won the 3,000 steeplechase. Roth’s final event of note before he enrolls at Arizona next month will be the IAAF World Junior Championships later this month in Eugene.

  • Arizona’s video department last week produced another football film it hopes will accentuate Rich Rodriguez’s insistence on playing fast. This one is called “Arizona Fast #TheNewNormal.” Nothing was more eye-catching than RichRod working out on a punching bag. Bam! Bam! Bam! Even at an increased speed, it was clear RichRod knows how to use his fists.

  • ASU will pay new baseball coach Tracy Smith $375,000 annually in base salary. It won’t break the salary market in the Pac-12 — Arizona’s Andy Lopez has a contract whose maximum value is $420,000 per year, and Oregon’s George Horton was paid $628,000 last season.

  • Arizona track coach Fred Harvey has been a consistently strong challenger to Pac-12 track and field power Oregon for the last five years and a top-10 NCAA program.

    The difference between the Ducks and Wildcats? Oregon last week released a dynamic video of their new track and field plant that coach Robert Johnson referred to as “bold and bodacious.”

    After spending close to $2 million to re-do its on-campus track and field presentation, Oregon’s track offices are more splashy, more eye-catching than Arizona’s men’s basketball and football offices.

    The power of Nike rolls on.

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