Arizona Basketball

Greg Hansen: A feel-good chemistry

1987-88 team defied odds, became 1 of city's most popular teams
2012-10-19T00:00:00Z 2012-10-19T06:38:30Z Greg Hansen: A feel-good chemistryGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
October 19, 2012 12:00 am  • 

In the spring of 2007, University of the Incarnate Word basketball coach Ken Burmeister drove from the school's San Antonio campus to watch Kenny Lofton play baseball for the Texas Rangers.

At 40, Lofton was a celebrity ballplayer: six All-Star Games and four Gold Gloves. But when he greeted the man who recruited him to play basketball for the Arizona Wildcats, the conversation was hoops.

"I always wanted to play for the Globetrotters," Lofton told Burmeister, who was Lute Olson's super-recruiter, one of the men keenly responsible for assembling the UA's 1988 Final Four team. "I still think I could've played in the NBA."

Burmeister just laughed.

"Kenny," he said, "Look at that check stub."

Lofton earned an estimated $61 million in his 17-year baseball career, an overwhelming success story from a basketball team of success stories, a 35-3 team that, except for a tearful Final Four loss to Oklahoma, seemed to be kissed by a good and lasting fortune.

The '88 Wildcats are almost without question the most popular sports team in Tucson history. What other team recorded a song and was the subject of a feature video? What other UA team drew 30,000 celebrating fans to Arizona Stadium after a loss?

What other team had a life-sized comic book character, Gumby, as a court-side symbol of its feel-good chemistry?

On Wednesday, UA coach Sean Miller phoned Craig McMillan at his Cloverdale, Calif., home to discuss details for this weekend's celebration, the 25th anniversary, of the school's most beloved team. Miller mentioned that Sunday's Red-Blue Game was a sellout.

"Lute Olson's selling point when he recruited me was that Arizona wasn't very good, but that it was going to happen, and that the opportunity was good for me to play right away," McMillan says. "But none of us could've expected it to happen that quickly and to last this long.

"It's amazing, after all these years, that the community support remains so strong. Who else sells out an intrasquad scrimmage?"

The 1988 Wildcats were the first to do so.

After coaching at Marquette, Tennessee and in the European League, McMillan returned to his hometown and is the head coach at Santa Rosa Junior College. Rather than pursue coaching opportunities in Division I, McMillan prefers his boyhood turf, fishing in the Russian River, watching his teenage sons, potential major-college recruits John and Jason, grow up the way Craig did in the late '70s and early '80s.

"It seemed like the karma for that team was always pretty good," says McMillan.

If you don't believe in basketball karma, the origins of the '88 Wildcats almost defy belief. Olson, Burmeister and the late Ricky Byrdsong assembled the school's first No. 1-ranked team in a series of too-good-to-be-true scenarios:

Here's how it came together:

• Most UA fans know the Steve Kerr story by heart. Olson discovered him in a SoCal summer league game a month before school began, unwanted but fully available. TV-movie-of-the-week stuff.

• At Cholla High School, Sean Elliott was on nobody's radar. He did not take a recruiting visit to anywhere but Arizona. His high school coach, Mel Karrle, helped to raise money for Elliot to attend several elite-level summer camps; Burmeister watched Elliott play in Rensselaer, Ind.

"You weren't sure early about Sean, because the competition in Tucson wasn't good," says Burmeister. "But once we saw him match up against the best in the country, wow."

• Joe Turner phoned Olson the night before letter-of-intent day, November 1983, and told him he would play at Fresno State; the Bulldogs had promised Turner's high school coach, Dan Shannon, a job.

Here's where karma kicks in: Turner's minister, William Earl Edwards, showed up unannounced at Turner's house and spent three hours chatting about Joe's future. By midnight, Turner signed Arizona's letter and gave it to Edwards to transmit.

So, in reality, Joe Turner, not Tom Tolbert, created the legend of Midnight Lute.

• Tolbert initially signed with Cal-Irvine without even taking a recruiting visit. When that experience fizzed, Tolbert enrolled at Cerritos College with the intent of being a football player.

But in an early football workout, Tolbert dislocated his hip, quit football, and was so good on the Cerritos basketball team that UNLV's Jerry Tarkanian offered him a scholarship. Tolbert agreed to accept it.

Tolbert began to waver when, of all people, Clemson assistant coach Len Gordy, a former UA basketball player and assistant coach, spoke highly of Arizona and Tucson while recruiting Tolbert at Clemson. What's more, Clemson point guard Michael Tait, a Southern California kid who played at Arizona as a freshmen, in Olson's first season, 1983-84, also recommended Arizona.

Upon returning from a summer camp in Colorado, Tolbert found Olson at his home and accepted the UA offer that day. Tark called him "Midnight Lute." Good story, but it fits Turner better.

• At Poway High near San Diego, Jud Buechler took recruiting visits to Pepperdine, Cal, UC-Santa Barbara and UCLA. Several schools told him volleyball would be his best college sport. He was a beach boy; Arizona seemed to be his last resort.

But Buechler waited, choosing not to sign until April of his senior year at Poway. His visit to Tucson included time at Spring Fling, two nights at the new Ventana Canyon resort, a team party at Olson's Foothills home and dinner at the then-trendy Bobby McGee's restaurant.

"I got the feeling that basketball at Arizona gets special treatment," he said then. "The players are well known and the program is treated like a pro team."

• At Van Nuys High near Los Angeles, Anthony Cook took a visit to Loyola Marymount and seemed on the verge of becoming a Lion. His stepfather discouraged Olson from making a home visit, so Olson's only contact was at Cook's school gymnasium. He did not make a recruiting visit to Arizona. He became an NBA first-round draft pick.

• At Washington High School in East Chicago, Ind., Lofton was offered scholarships by Butler, Illinois State and Arkansas State. Because he wasn't a flashy scorer, the marquee basketball schools of the Midwest didn't consider him a prospect. "Once Tait transferred to Clemson, we had a spot for a quick guard," Burmeister remembers. "It's funny, we were looking for someone quick enough to guard (Cal all-conference guard) Kevin Johnson. We ended up getting an All-Star center fielder."

Initially, Olson's top recruiting targets were Johnson and Reggie Miller, both of whom rebuffed being part of Arizona's reconstruction project. By the time they moved on to the NBA, Arizona was No. 1, in the Final Four, deploying a lineup of once overlooked and undervalued prospects who came together for the most endearing basketball season in UA history.

"When we got to Arizona, we were competing against Long Beach State and Cal-Fullerton, schools like that," says Burmeister. "A few years later, everybody wanted to be like Arizona. Pretty good story, huh?"

If you go

• What: 25th anniversary of the 1988 Arizona Wildcats men's basketball team

• Where: McKale Center

• When: Sunday, 2 p.m.

• Info: arizonawildcats.com

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