Greg Hansen: 1997 Cats enjoyed a magic moment

2011-08-28T00:01:00Z 2012-11-30T13:48:08Z Greg Hansen: 1997 Cats enjoyed a magic momentGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
August 28, 2011 12:01 am  • 

In celebration of Arizona's centennial, the Star is featuring our picks for the 100 best athletes, moments and teams. Throughout the summer, we have been showcasing our list. Here is the ninth of Greg Hansen's top 10.

1997 National Championship

In the final hours before Arizona was to meet No. 1 Kansas at the 1997 Sweet 16, Lute Olson embraced the psychology and magnified the burden of playing the 34-1 Jayhawks.

He looked into the TV lights and asked, defiantly, "Who is David and who is Goliath?" which seemed to be coaching suicide. What coach would provoke the Jayhawks, who had won 16 consecutive games and were 10 1/2-point favorites?

At his team's shoot-around several hours before the game in Birmingham, Ala., Olson tossed white towels to his interior players, A.J. Bramlett, Donnell Harris, Gene Edgerson and Bennett Davison.

"White towels," Olson said. "Surrender flags. Step up if you want to surrender."

Edgerson threw his towel to the floor and stomped on it. The others followed.

Arizona stunned KU, 85-82, and Olson announced that "the ghosts are now gone."

No longer would he, nor his basketball program, be remembered for stinging NCAA tournament exits against Santa Clara and East Tennessee State, or for tears-inducing setbacks at the doorstep of 1988, 1989 and 1994 national championships.

Olson's 1997 team - with no seniors in the playing rotation - finished fifth in the Pac-10, its worst finish in Olson's final 23 years at the school. And yet it became the defining team in the history of UA and Arizona college sports.

After eliminating Kansas, the Wildcats survived an overtime game against Providence and then swept the bluebloods of college basketball, North Carolina and Kentucky, in a classic Final Four.

Ninety minutes before national championship tipoff, UA legend Sean Elliott climbed aboard Arizona's bus outside the Crowne Plaza hotel in downtown Indianapolis and spoke to the team.

"Don't make this bigger than life," he said.

Now, 14 years later, it has become just that.

"It was one of the all-time marches," said assistant coach Phil Johnson, now an assistant coach at UTEP. "Beating Kansas was like a national championship game to me. And then beating North Carolina was like a national championship game, too. It's almost like we had three national championship games. Every game was a mountain to climb."

Arizona reached the summit when it was least expected. Southern Arizona was engulfed by the madness. Remember?

• Driving to the airport for a flight to Indianapolis, I stopped at the corner of Benson Highway and Park Avenue to chat with a man at a makeshift souvenir stand.

"A guy from Willcox just stopped and bought 20 T-shirts," the vendor said. "He said you couldn't get them in Willcox and that he was sure he could sell 50 or 60 of them when he got home. But he only had money for 20."

• On game day, workers at the Viscount Suites Hotel rolled out eight big-screen TVs. Fans began to arrive at 12:30, seven hours before tipoff. By 3 p.m., the capacity of 480 people had been reached at O'Malley's tavern on North Fourth Avenue and the doors locked.

• Later that day, the electronics department at the Park Mall Sears was to close at 9 p.m. That's when the Kentucky-Arizona game hit the homestretch. Scores of fans stood next to the 25 TV sets, watching to the end. The store closed an hour late that night.

• After midnight, legendary UCLA coach John Wooden walked in the lobby of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Indianapolis. "This was Lute's turn," he told reporters. "He's been maligned and it's not very fair. I was very impressed."

• At 5:30 a.m., the morning after the game, I saw freshman guard Mike Bibby walk out of the Steak N' Shake restaurant in downtown Indianapolis. He was surrounded by fans, signing autographs in one hand, chomping a hamburger - breakfast - in another.

• Olson slept for 25 minutes, arose, made himself presentable and sat for a live shot on Good Morning America. "I didn't want to sleep," he said. "I wasn't ready to let go."

About 50,000 people jammed into Arizona Stadium later that day, capping a parade from the airport.

The '97 champs soon splintered, and not all of the splintering was good or predictable.

MVP Miles Simon would sue the UA, accusing his school of leaking academic transcripts to a Kansas City newspaper. Beloved sixth-man Jason Terry, who slept in his jersey the night before the last four tournament victories, would admit he took money illegally from an agent. The NCAA forced Arizona to repay $45,000 from 1999 TV revenues and decreed that Arizona could not retire Terry's jersey.

Donnell Harris, who played so well as a reserve center in victories against Providence and Kentucky, was kicked off the team a year later for off-court issues. And, after returning intact for 1997-98, picked unanimously to win a second championship, the Wildcats came apart in an embarrassing 25-point loss to Utah in the '98 Elite Eight.

If nothing else, Arizona's national championship proved that the magic is the moment. The future would never be as good as those six unforgettable games in March and April 1997.

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