Joe Cavaleri hasn't made his debut at McKale Center this season and Arizona's basketball games aren't the same without him. We worry about the Ooh Aah Man.
He sits in Section 9, Row 3, Seat 1, immediately behind the south basket. It can't be more than 15 feet from the court, but it might as well be 15 miles.
"I'm so afraid I'm going to fall down and embarrass myself," he says. "People are looking at me with my cane, walking like an 80-year-old man, wondering what happened to me."
Joe Cavaleri worked his first game at McKale Center 30 years ago, recruited by basketball coach Fred Snowden.
Cavaleri would throw off an old T-shirt, strip off one or two pairs of workout shorts, and use his body to spell out A-R-I-Z-O-N-A. It was an act that never got old.
"He's a momentum-changer," Snowden once told me. "Nobody else has anything like him." And that was long before Cavaleri hit his prime, long before Lute Olson arrived and the Ooh Aah Man became a part of the fabric of the McKale madness.
"I always knew the second Joe came on the floor, even when we were in a time-out huddle," remembers former UA associate head coach Jim Rosborough. "It would be in a tough game against Stanford or UCLA, three or four minutes to go, and all of the sudden there would be this crescendo. All this noise. He energized the whole place."
The corridor outside the office of UA director of athletics Greg Byrne is adorned with large framed photographs of many of the titans of Wildcat sports. Mike Candrea's picture hangs there. Frank Busch. And Joe Cavaleri, too.
At each of Arizona's visits to the Final Four, in 1988, 1994, 1997 and 2001, Cavaleri was part of the official traveling group. The UA still provides his up-close seats.
"He was an important part of the whole operation," says Rosborough.
But on Wednesday night as Arizona took apart Robert Morris 82-56, Cavaleri sat with his son, Nick, 14, and worried more about Christmas morning than he did about Sean Miller rebuilding the UA basketball program.
Cavaleri, who is divorced, has four kids at home. He worries about paying the mortgage. He worries about a lot of things and, for once, beating UCLA and Stanford aren't included.
He was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in February and the disease hasn't been kind. He has difficulty speaking clearly. He can't maintain his balance without the aid of a cane. He has been on disability since breaking his back in an automobile accident about 10 years ago, and, well, it's not enough to cover all the bills for him and his four children.
"It has been hell for him," says his 17-year-old daughter, Angelina. "He is constantly falling down. His feet freeze and he falls down trying to catch his balance. He is afraid that he will fall in public."
Cavaleri rolls up his pant leg to show you his scarred and scabbed-over right knee.
"Stumbling all the time," he says. "The medication doesn't help much."
Cavaleri moved to Tucson from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in 1973. He went to school for a while and became a full-time Wildcat fan. In May of 1979, during the race for the Pac-10 baseball championship, Cavaleri sat near the third base dugout at Sancet/Kindall Field. He didn't like it; the crowd was too quiet.
"I stood up and starting going 'Ooh, aah, sock it to 'em, Cats,'" Cavaleri remembers. "People responded. Pretty soon it was wild and noisy. The Cats won and they took me with them to the College World Series in Omaha. It just took off from there."
Cavaleri had been a fan of legendary Baltimore Orioles superfan "Wild Bill" Hagy, who would stand in the upper deck at old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore and use his body to spell "O-r-i-o-l-e-s."
Over the next 20 years, Cavaleri worked mostly as a bartender. At 58, unemployed and unable to work, he watches from Section 9, cane at his side.
"Although I don't have the strong tremors associated with Parkinson's, it has made my life pretty miserable," he says. "It has taken my ability to write, affected my speech. I fall down at least five times a day. You don't know how hard it is to sit in my seat and not be able to be the Ooh Aah Man like it used to be.
"At some point this year, I have to be brave enough to go out there and at least try to do my thing."
But right now, two days before Christmas, Joe Cavaleri and his family need help. He can be reached at email@example.com.
"He wants to be the Ooh Aah Man so much," his daughter Angelina says. "I know if he can't, it might destroy what little happiness he has."
"You don't know how hard it is to sit in my seat and not be able to be the Ooh Aah Man like it used to be."