Moments before Sunday’s tipoff at McKale Center, Arizona’s trendy video presentation flashed the images of Dave Strack and Bob Elliott for maybe 73/100ths of a second each.
It wasn’t a slight to either man. If the UA displayed images of every deserving contributor to the school’s basketball lineage, referees would assess a delay-of-game technical foul.
Strack died 24 hours before the game and those who closely follow Arizona’s lofty position in college basketball know this: Without Strack, there would’ve been no Lute Olson.
Without Lute Olson, there would’ve been no Sean Miller, no 20-0 record and no No. 1 ranking for the last eight weeks.
Without Strack there would’ve been no Fred Snowden, no Kiddie Corps and no Bob Elliott.
“I believe in that ‘Back to the Future’ model,” said Elliott. “If you change one thing, you change everything.”
The timing of Sunday’s video was a bit ironic because Elliott has written a book about the whole Strack-Snowden-Olson-Miller connection. It will be released through the UA Bookstore on Feb. 26, and will reflect on the 1970s, the formative yet oft-forgotten period of modern Arizona basketball.
“My whole premise is that Tucson is a basketball town, a city whose love affair with UA basketball began in 1972,” said Elliott. “And it all started with Dave Strack.”
The son of school teachers from Ann Arbor. Mich., Elliott grew up watching as Strack coached Michigan to the 1964 and 1965 Final Fours. He attended the Dave Strack Basketball Camp and hoped to be a Wolverine. By the time Elliott was a 6-foot, 8-inch, four-star prospect at Pioneer High School, Strack had left to become Arizona’s athletic director.
McKale Center was about to open. UA basketball would move from 3,000-seat Bear Down Gym to the 14,500-seat arena. It was on Strack to fill those seats.
Strack and UA president John Schaefer offered Snowden, then a 36-year-old Michigan assistant, a $23,500 salary to coach the Wildcats. He would be the second black head coach in college basketball, following by a few months Illinois State’s Will Robinson.
It was a daring move by Strack and Schaefer; only 11 years earlier Arizona star Ernie McCray set the school record with a 46-point game. He later told me he was refused service that night at a Tucson restaurant “because of the color of my skin.’’
Elliott watched from Ann Arbor as Snowden successfully recruited inner-city Detroit prospects Coniel Norman and Eric Money, both of whom are black, and coveted Michigan City, Ind., standout Al Fleming.
All three would ultimately reach the NBA, filling McKale Center almost overnight. Snowden and his top assistant, Jerry Holmes, soon followed by recruiting more of the nation’s top black high schoolers, including Elliott and Herman Harris from Chester, Pa.
“If Dave Strack had not hired Fred, there would’ve been no Popcorn Norman, no Eric Money, no Al Fleming and no me,” Elliott said Monday. “McKale Center would not have been the place to be.”
And when Strack’s successor, Cedric Dempsey, boldly hired Olson three years removed from Iowa’s 1980 Final Four, there would have been no way Dempsey could have sold Olson on Tucson, a place he would win 11 Pac-10 championships.
I visited with Strack in his Oro Valley assisted living facility a few days before his 90th birthday in April.
“Filling McKale Center was potentially a big problem for us,” he said. “We thought we could sell a lot of tickets on novelty alone the first year; Tucson had never seen anything like it. But our average attendance had been close to 2,000 per game.
“We had to have a coach who could get us the kind of players UCLA and Michigan were getting. We couldn’t flub this chance; I thought of Fred, and president Schaefer supported it 100 percent.”
Elliott was part of Snowden’s second recruiting class, and in a way, somewhat destined to be a Wildcat.
His father was a first-chair drummer in the Michigan Marching Band. In those days, the director of the percussion section at UM was Jack Lee, who later wrote “Bear Down, Arizona’’ and became director of the Arizona Marching Band.
“But still,” said Elliott, who operates an accounting business in Tucson and is former president of the NBA Retired Players Association, “none of it happens without Strack.”
Elliott scored 2,165 points at Arizona, No. 2 on the career list, played three seasons in the NBA before he blew out his knee, and spent 27 years as an analyst on UA basketball broadcasts.
He collaborated with UA teammate Money on some of the book, but did almost all the formative work and writing for “Tucson: A Basketball Town.”
“I knew this book was something I had to do,” he said. “There’s a gap missing in the larger story of Arizona basketball. This book fills that gap.”