Raising Arizona

Behind every triumph and heartbreak in the NCAA tournament, there’s a story.The Players’ Tribune presents Tales of Madness, a series of first-person accounts from iconic basketball players recalling their most memorable tournament experiences. In this installment, Steve Kerr remembers Arizona’s victory over North Carolina in the Elite Eight in 1988.

I’ll always remember being taken out of the game with 20 seconds left.

Arizona, 70. UNC, 52.

Coach Olson was taking the starters out. It was the greatest feeling I had ever felt in my life. We had done it. We had just accomplished what we set out to do at the beginning of the season: conquered Carolina and earned our ticket to the Final Four. It was just awesome.

But that’s only part of the story.

When I arrived to the University of Arizona, the basketball program was in shambles. That was back as a freshman in 1983, the same year Lute Olson was hired. The Wildcats had been to maybe three NCAA Tournaments. In school history. The year before Lute got there, the team went 1-17 in the Pac-10 and 4-24 overall. Shambles — see what I mean? Today, Arizona is almost always in the top 10 or 15 and we’ve been to 25 consecutive NCAA Tournaments. But it wasn’t always that way.

Coach Olson got the program turned around in literally two years. He’s a Hall of Fame coach for a reason. It was just incredible. He put his stamp on everything.

But for the players — man, it wasn’t an easy road. The first two years were just a lot of really, really hard work. Brutal, three-hour practices. Charge drills. Dive on the floor drills. He wanted to establish a mindset: the Wildcats were going to outwork everyone else.

Coach also cleaned house. He suspended some players before the season ever started, a few for academic reasons and a few because they weren’t buying into his program. He wanted guys in there who wanted to play hard. And so that first group was not necessarily very talented, but we were committed.

Coach Olson’s first year we went 11-17, carried by a couple of junior college transfers. The second year was when it really started to kick in. We had a really good recruiting class, we got more talent, and it started to all click and come together. That year we went 21-10 and made the Tourney (we were a 10 seed and lost in the first round).

Now back to the North Carolina game. It was my senior year, my last shot. I had never been past the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

It was a big-time matchup. We were a 1 seed, UNC was a 2 seed. They had all that tradition. We were trying to get to our first Final Four as a school.

They had a legendary coach in Dean Smith and superstar college players like J.R. Reid, Rick Fox and Jeff Lebo.

But we were coming off a spectacular season — we were 34-2 going into that game and either 1 or 2 in the rankings all year long. We had Sean Elliott, a consensus All-American and one of the best PAC-10 players of all time, and Tom Tolbert holding it down in the paint.

When it came down to it, we felt a lot of pressure. It would’ve been such a shame not to get to the Final Four with a team like that and after a season like that.

The game was close at half — I think it was tied. We didn’t play particularly well and Coach Olson was — how can I say it? — not pleased.

Then, at halftime, everything changed.

Coach got right in Tom Tolbert’s face in the locker room. He was all over him.

“Do you want to go to Kansas City?” he yelled.

Tom nodded without saying anything.

“Then play like it.”

It was the moment of truth: were we going to break through and become a big time program or just be close but no cigar?

The second half was night and day. Tom couldn’t be stopped.

One play might have changed the momentum of the second half. Tom fooled J.R. Reid on a cut to the basket. In the process of being fouled, Tom made this wild, reverse flip shot.

And one.

It was right in front of our bench and the guys were going wild. It gave Reid — their best player — his third or fourth foul, and it got our bench and crowd into it.

You can’t forget about how good Sean Elliott was. He was one of those all-time phenomenal college players. A total nightmare matchup — he could shoot the three, get to the rim, he was a great passer and on top of that, he was 6’8”.

My game in college was all about being a floor general: entering our offense, distributing the ball to our scorers and not turning it over. I don’t remember too many particular plays that I made, but I had a good, solid game, maybe had 14 points, including a few threes.

We pulled away and ended up winning by 18. When Coach Olson brought the starters out of the game, all the emotion hit me.

Coach Olson was usually serious, but after the game he was thrilled. His wife Bobby came down on the floor and gave him a kiss.

The thing about Coach Olson was that he created a family atmosphere for us. We admired him and respected him, but feared him a bit too. The best coaches have that. Fear and respect, a combo of both. You just can’t run a successful team or operation without that discipline and structure, but you also want the human side, the family side, the connection. Lute provided all that. Now that I’m a coach, what’s rubbed off on me the most about Coach Olson is the importance of doing the work. The way you practice is the way you play.

The day after our win, the team flew back to Tucson and that night we had a huge pool party. Everyone we knew was there. It was a huge moment for us and a bigger moment for the school — it was one hell of a night.

We were still college students, after all.

For more stories like this, visit our Tales of Madness Page.