Odiemae Elliott spent her retirement years as a quilter, scouring craft stores for the perfect pieces to stitch into personalized gifts.
She was a collector of both fabric and friends.
Odiemae, the mother of Arizona Wildcats basketball legend Sean Elliott, died Monday following a long illness. The longtime Tucsonan lived to age 77, though her accomplishments would fit snugly into two or three lifetimes.
“She was kind and sweet to everybody,” Sean Elliott said Wednesday. “You’d be hard-pressed to find somebody who said my mom was ever cross with them — or rude, for that matter. She was compassionate.”
One of eight children born to subsistence farmers in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Odiemae Lucas rose to become a high school valedictorian before joining the Women’s Army Corps. She graduated from the University of Arizona College of Nursing in 1977 and spent her professional career as a critical care nurse at the Tucson VA hospital. She worked the overnight shift, leaving sons Bobby, Sean and Noel at their west-side home every night starting at 10:30.
The Elliott boys never took advantage of the empty house, or of the woman who raised them mostly by herself. Odiemae and her husband, Robert, divorced when Sean was a boy.
“We would never, ever violate the rules of the house,” Sean Elliott said. “Subconsciously, we respected seeing her do the work that she did.”
Basketball was a large part of Odiemae’s personal patchwork, and not just because her son was the greatest Wildcat of all time. She played the sport in the Army, and watched — both in person and on television — with a superfan’s demeanor.
She attended Sean’s games, first at Cholla High School and then at the University of Arizona. Odiemae was by her son’s side in 2000, when Sean — by then a member of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs — became the first athlete to compete professionally following a kidney transplant. The donor: Sean’s brother, Noel.
“She would yell and scream at my high school games, and she would yell and scream at her granddaughter’s games the same way,” Sean said. “I’d come visit her, and she’d say she wanted to watch a game. Any game. She’d watch the WNBA. You could catch her watching a EuroLeague Game on NBA TV — all of it. She could not get enough.”
Doctors diagnosed Odiemae with cancer in February, telling her sons that she had between two weeks and two months to live.
As her health failed, Odiemae watched — “out of the corner of her eyes,” Sean said — as the Spurs won an NBA title.
“She was,” Sean said, “the biggest basketball fan.”
The Elliott family will hold a small, private service in the near future, Sean Elliott said. In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting donations to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Tucson.
Odiemae Elliott is survived by two sisters, Rosa Lucas and Vera Lucas Pied, her sons and six grandchildren.