They would be with him. His sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters -- 18 picturesque folks-next-door, nearly all of whom live within a few miles of one another in Tucson ... because that's just how their family is. Somebody, anybody, would be with him when he took the long walks in the foothills; when he drove to the games; when he kibitzed afterward over some wine or the highlight tapes; when he got up in the morning and took time for lunch and came home from work and went to bed at night. "We aren't leaving him alone," one of them said. "It's to comfort us as much as Dad. We all need it."
But then, late one Sunday, after another weekend of pouring through cards and condolences and donation pledges and preparing all the thank-yous in return, the family gathered together around a table to sift through the sorrow. Jodi Rae Brase, the second-oldest of Lute and Bobbi Olson's five children, looked over at her father and realized that amid all the touching recollections about her, they hadn't stopped to consider him. "Dad," she asked, "are you going to be okay?"
Of all the sad, doleful passings that have shadowed this strange season -- Al McGuire, Billy and Christine Donovan's stillborn baby, 10 members of the Oklahoma State family -- none had a more oppressive impact on the life of one man and his team than the death of Roberta Rae Olson. No coach's wife was closer to her husband, his players, their university, an entire state; none was cherished more. When she unveiled her smile, a booster opened his pockets. When she prepared her apple pancakes, a recruit was sold. When she said what really mattered, her husband of 47 years melted. Bobbi once announced on the Wildcats' bus: "Okay, it's a loss. You got an hour to get over it, then let's have fun." Bobbi once saved Lute from forfeiting an international game because he was mad that the Russians kept his team from a practice session. "Get a grip," she laughed. "This is hardly World War III." The U.S. went on to win the world championship, but it was Bobbi who went on to fight a war.
Her youngest son, Steve Olson, is creating a cookbook in her honor. Nike rep Eric Lautenbach wrote a song for her, "Reflections," which her widower didn't stop playing her entire funeral weekend. At Arizona they have added Bobbi's name to her husband's on the McKale Center court, and vowed to memorialize her seat in Section 16, now covered by roses at every game. "As a parent, you could sleep better at night knowing your kid was in the hands of people like Bobbi," says Bill Walton, who placed his third son, Luke, in the hands of the Olsons. "Lute and Bobbi were the John and Nell Wooden of this generation."
Would Lute Olson be okay? That solid, stylish 66-year-old with barely a lock of hair out of place or a wrinkle in his walk? Under even the most dire of circumstances, from his NCAA first-round upsets (pick a year) all the way to his '97 NCAA championship, Olson was always okay. Cool Hand Lute. The most controlled, disciplined and elegant of coaches. He spoke like a senator and looked like a movie star. On him, a mundane navy blazer looked like an Armani dinner jacket; around him, a dusky locker room became the chandeliered lobby of the Savoy. What's the name that UCLA coach Steve Lavin still calls him? "Cary Grant."
And yet, of all the college programs that have trumpeted their familiarity into our living rooms -- Michigan State's gristle and grit, Kentucky's slick hauteur, Duke's blustery scholarship, Carolina's corporate organization -- Arizona has always exhibited a certain veneer of unapproachability. The Wildcats are not only from out there in the desert; they are simply out there -- detached, laid-back, seemingly indifferent to winning or losing or to any human emotion at all. When Arizona won it all in that '97 overtime thriller against Kentucky in Indianapolis and one of Olson's players gleefully mussed the ecstatic coach's perfect coif, the basketball globe just about spun off its axis. That's how stunning it was to observe Cool Hand Lute not so cool.
And then the suffering began.
The long-awaited championship seemed to unleash some sort of demonic plague on the program. Ricky Byrdsong, Olson's very first Wildcat assistant, was murdered. Sean Elliott, who had lifted Arizona to prominence, suffered kidney failure. Luke Recker, the Indiana transfer who would keep the Cats there, was almost killed in a car accident. Scott Thompson, another former assistant, was forced from the profession by cancer. And just before Christmas, 29-year-old Monica Armenta, a popular basketball secretary, was stricken with a brain tumor.
But Bobbi too?
"Hi, Lute," the Arizona band would shout before every home game at McKale. And then: "Hi, Bobbi," the salute to "Mrs. O" in her seat. "We were always a team," Lute says. "Equal partners." In the summer of '98, while the Olsons were in Budapest on one of their annual exotic vacations, the coach's wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. But when the '98-99 season arrived, Bobbi smiled, waved and proceeded to beat the bejeezus out of the disease to such an extent that at Arizona's postseason banquet, her husband announced that her cancer was in remission.
Just one problem: Nobody fights the hell back like cancer. "Ovarian's a vicious sucker," Lute says. "It keeps everybody scrambling to find something that works. Life expectancy used to be less than a year. Now it's up to 63 months." Bobbi almost made it to halftime. She died on New Year's Day 2001. On the ride home from the hospital, 18-year-old Matt Brase, one of her 13 grandchildren, offered a magnificent epitaph: "She died today ... Oh-one ... Oh-one ... Oh-one ... No. 1 wife. No. 1 mother. No. 1 grandmother. Always No. 1."
Arizona was a lot of people's preseason oh-one. The five starters -- center Loren Woods, forwards Michael Wright and Richard Jefferson, guards Jason Gardner and Gilbert Arenas -- were all nominees for the Wooden Award, an unprecedented honor. Woods, the former Wake Forest head case, chipped into the hypology with some fool opinion about him and his mates being "the greatest team ever." As if. Or, as Olson puts it: "When you have a lot of good individual players, sometimes they all try to get it done by themselves. Our leadership is by committee, and that usually doesn't work. And then there were the distractions."
First, Woods was suspended six games by the NCAA for accepting gifts from a family friend. Then Jefferson was suspended a game for receiving NBA Finals tickets plus a plane ticket to San Diego from Bill Walton to attend roommate Luke Walton's brother's high school graduation party. If that sounds complicated, try reading the NCAA rule book. "The first rule should have something to do with common sense," an incensed Olson railed at the time. Meanwhile, the Cats were losing three of their first eight, including a game at UConn that Lute missed to stay home with Bobbi. In January, acting head coach Jim Rosborough kept sub Eugene Edgerson out of two games for disciplinary reasons, and in February Olson suspended Woods a game after booting him from practice.
But negative attitudes and player suspensions are merely distractions. Death is something else again. "The dying was always over us," Jefferson says. "Mrs. O, her smile, her greetings -- her presence was here even though we never saw her anymore. But take away a key element from any Top 10 team and they're not going to be the same. Loren and I came back. Mrs. O didn't."
In the hospital, Bobbi kept joking. "For two years she prepared us for her exit," says longtime booster "Big George" Kalil, a Tucson bottling company executive who was Bobbi's seat companion on Arizona road trips. "She wanted to go out twinkling." Lute kept the bad stuff from his players, even from his assistants. "We decided as a family that the most important thing was to maintain as much privacy as we could," he says. So nobody knew about the surgeries upon surgeries and the tubes and the scars and the weekly bouts with chemo and the 19-hour "procedure" and the nine days in intensive care after that. Toward the end, "Dad literally lived at the hospital, setting up with his briefcase and his cell phone," says Jodi Rae, 44, the vice principal of Orange Grove Middle School in Tucson. "He never wanted her to be alone. We kept hoping she'd come home by Thanksgiving, by Christmas ... "
But on Dec. 29, the doctors met with the Olson family and said there was nothing else they could do. The next day the coach told his players he was leaving them to be with his wife. He wept uncontrollably. "It was awful," says Rosborough, Olson's colleague for nearly three decades. "Nobody had ever seen Lute this way. He's been such a model of strength, a rock. The players were shocked." Luke Walton remembers feeling "scared, humbled, in a fog" as the Wildcats went through the motions of the championship game of the Fiesta Bowl Classic -- a loss to Mississippi State -- that very night.
Two days later, Bobbi Olson died. The next weekend, the family held two services, private and public, sandwiched around Arizona's toughest game of the year -- a loss to Stanford. "I saw the hollowness everywhere," Rosborough recalls. "The season had lost meaning." In his bereavement, Olson was bolstered by the arrival of hundreds of former players, from Elliott and Kenny Lofton and Steve Kerr (whose own father had been murdered in Beirut during his freshman season) to the men he had mentored at Iowa and Long Beach State. "I guess they helped," Olson says. "All I remember is during that Stanford game, I took notes and diagrammed plays. It was like a film session."
"We told him this might be the natural break, a good time to retire," Jodi Rae adds. "But I think he was afraid of too much change at one time. Plus, he knew Mom would never hear of it."
Of course, Mom was the one he kept thinking of. "It wasn't real healthy," says Steve Olson, 38, who works in Los Angeles as a personal chef for actor Brendan Fraser. "All he did for two weeks was look for something to clean -- the garage, the house, anything. Coaching had to be his best therapy."
Olson went back to McKale on Jan. 15, just in time to prep for the USC-UCLA weekend. "I told the team I didn't know how I'd be," he says. "But somebody said it took about three minutes for me to jump Gardner. He was looking uncoachable." And when the coach crinkled up the practice plan almost to shreds -- another Lute trademark -- there was no doubt the old intensity was still there. In the second half against UCLA, Arizona outscored the visitors by 33 points. Since Olson's return, the Cats are 11-2 and looking like they'll be a tough litter to tame come the Ides of Madness.
It is a cool California afternoon as Olson sits in a hotel lobby several hours before that heartbreaking loss to UCLA ... No. Wait ... That's another thing about death. It changes the meaning of words forever. Olson's heart was already broken six weeks earlier, and right now it's still much too early to talk about here, looking out on the docks and the boats and the same type of bay that he and Bobbi viewed from their summer place down the coast at Coronado; here, not far from where she loved to major league shop in Beverly Hills.
Lute at banquet: "Bobbi lost our credit card, but it'll cost me less if I don't report it." Bobbi back at the room: "Keep talking, Comedy King. That'll cost you another $500 every time."
"It's just still so tough because she was always around," he says. "The consistency of her ... Before home games, we'd have some time to visit. She'd be getting dressed, and I'd get my final thoughts together, and then we'd drive to the arena. Or on road trips, on the bus, she'd always be positive."
Olson has gotten sustenance from Wooden, the UCLA icon who still speaks constantly of his own late, beloved Nell, and who recommended the younger coach stay as busy as possible. "I called him when Bobbi passed," Lute says. "We talked about family and how as the head of the household I had to stay strong, even though it wasn't going to be easy to stay strong."
No, it's the basketball that's easy. The games, the plays, the workouts, the players. "I lose myself in the basketball," he admits. But when there's a lull and he's not crunching up a practice schedule or barking a strategy or chewing out some referee ... "When I look out and see her name ... right there on the court ... " He stops to brush at his eyes. "That's very ... very ... hard."
Rosborough has thought a lot about winning the Tourney as a way to salvage whatever Arizona can from this dark, depressing season. Now his words are repeated to Olson while the coach sits and stares out at the water. "What would Bobbi want?" Rosborough had asked. "Do kids need to have fun? Do we need to go on? If we win it, would this be the most bittersweet experience any of us could have in our lifetime? Yes. If we dedicate every day to Bobbi and honor her memory by that, would winning it all still be fun? You bet."
But Olson the rock, the mighty Stonehenge, has taken hold once more. The head coach has fixed his eyes somewhere else -- past the docks and the boats, past the water, past everything. He is struggling here, battling for position, taking the charge, hanging on, running time off the clock, playing for the last shot. And so he remains silent.
This time, Cool Hand Lute isn't going to break.
This article appears in the March 19 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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