Few names resonate in the Old Pueblo quite like this one.
More than Jason Terry.
More than Steve Kerr.
More than Derrick Williams, even Sean Miller.
He’s the one person that, maybe, comes close to rivaling the love for Lute Olson in Tucson.
It’s Sean Elliott — a Wildcats star, an NBA All-Star, and, perhaps most importantly, a legendary Tucsonan.
A Cholla High School grad, Elliott put Tucson on the map when it came to basketball.
They just don’t make 6-foot-8-inch, 205-pound, do-everything forwards in Tucson. Not then, and, really, not now.
“People won’t just believe I’m from Tucson,” Elliott said toward the end of his Wildcat career. “I’m always running into people who tell me I must have moved from Chicago or something.”
If he had been from Chicago, maybe Elliott never ends up a Wildcat, Olson doesn’t get the signature player of his entire UA coaching career, and the trajectory of Arizona’s program is altered.
But Elliott was from Tucson, and certainly the Arizona faithful is thankful that.
After his time in Tucson, Elliott had a successful NBA career too.
Here’s a look back at Elliott’s path to the NBA draft.
At Arizona: Elliott committed to Arizona as a junior at Cholla. Arizona’s timing couldn’t have been better, either — Elliott burst onto the national scene as a prospect during his senior season, scoring 31.1 points per game, leading the Chargers to a 24-3 record and being named a McDonald’s All American.
It should come as no surprise that soon after his high school career ended, Cholla named its gymnasium after its former star.
“You weren’t sure early about Sean, because the competition in Tucson wasn’t good,” said then-UA assistant Ken Burmeister, who recruited Elliott. “But once we saw him match up against the best in the country, wow.”
Initially, Elliott didn’t want to play for Arizona. But Olson sold him.
“Nothing exciting had ever happened here, but I bought Coach Olson’s whole program,” Elliott said. “He said we’d be national championship contenders and we’d sell out our arena. I believed him and he turned out to be right. I just figured why go 2,000 or 3,000 miles away from home when you can get it all right in your backyard.”
From the get-go, his addition to Arizona was a resounding success.
As a freshman, he led the team in scoring — which he would go on to do in all four seasons — with 15.6 points per game, leading the Wildcats to a 23-9 record and a No. 9 seed in the NCAA tournament.
As a sophomore, Elliott improved to 19.3 points per game, and the Wildcats went 18-12 and earned a No. 10 seed.
As a junior, he became a force to be reckoned with, and catapulted the Arizona program to new heights in the process. Elliott was a consensus All-American, the Pac-10 Player of the Year and scored 19.6 points per game. The Wildcats went 35-3 and made their first trip to the Final Four.
“Sean is the most talented player I’ve had the good fortune to coach in 30 years,” Olson told the Star. “No one in America can do what he does.”
Initially, Elliott’s plan was to leave for the NBA if Arizona reached the Final Four. But, with some prodding from his mother, Odimae, to finish his degree, Elliott returned for his senior campaign and had the best season of his career.
He set career highs with 22.3 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game. He was a consensus All-American and Pac-10 Player of the Year again, and was the national player of the year as well. Arizona went 29-4 on the season, but lost in the Sweet 16 to UNLV.
Nevertheless, Elliott’s stock had never been higher as he entered the 1989 NBA draft.
The draft: After his college career ended, Elliott was considered a prime candidate — along with Duke’s Danny Ferry, Oklahoma’s Stacey King, Louisville’s Pervis Ellison and Michigan’s Glen Rice — for the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, belonging to the Sacramento Kings.
Then, rumors started swirling that Elliott had liver problems and a bad knee that would deteriorate in a few years and limit his potential. Elliott denied these rumors, but they still persisted throughout the draft process.
Throughout college, Elliott wore a knee brace stemming from an injury he suffered while in high school, which raised concerns among scouts. But as it turned out, Elliott had his knee tested by multiple NBA team doctors who deemed him fine.
So, his stock never actually fell. Before the draft, Elliott spoke with the Kings, but never worked out for them. He did work out for the Miami Heat (who had the No. 4 pick) and the Los Angeles Clippers (No. 2).
In the end, Elliott was swooped up at No. 3 by the San Antonio Spurs.
Said Red McCombs, the Spurs owner: “Everyone knows we would have preferred Danny Ferry, but we got a great player.”
From the archives: “Oh no, it’s not a disappointment,” Elliott said, when asked if he wanted to go No. 1 overall. “I wanted to go someplace where I’d fit in. I think this is a team with a lot of potential to be a good team.”
As a pro: Remember those injury concerns?
Elliott started his career playing in 546 of a possible 574 regular-season games in seven seasons.
In two of those seasons — 1992-93 and 1995-96 — Elliott was an All-Star. He had a stint in Detroit in 1993-94 after he was traded for Dennis Rodman, but was traded right back to the Spurs one year later and spent the rest of his career in San Antonio, winning an NBA title in 1999.
Shortly after the championship run, Elliott announced that he had been playing with a kidney disease and needed a transplant.
After getting surgery in August, he miraculously returned to the court in March. Elliott played one more season in the league after that before retiring, ending a pro career that lasted 12 seasons.
Not bad for a Tucsonan who was supposed to be out of the league quickly with injury concerns.
Since his playing career ended, Elliott has spent time as both an NBA and college basketball analyst, even calling some Arizona Wildcats games in the process.
His No. 32 is retired by both the Wildcats and Spurs.