I grew up in a town called Batavia. We didn't have the quaint shops or sundry amenities of our tonier neighbors Geneva and St. Charles (those came later in life along Randall Road). Batavia was a frustrating place to live as a kid because it just wasn't awesome. But then, in the early 90s, we had basketball.
Not only did we have basketball, but we had Corey Williams, a lanky 6-7 forward who is the first person I ever saw dunk a basketball live. I remember it well. It was a game against Waubonsie Valley. He got the ball around the top of the key, slashed through the lane with a single dribble, leapt, and I swear, in slow motion, reached the ball far back behind his head with one hand and hung suspended in air for what had to be seconds as an entire packed gymnasium held its collective breath. And then -- BAM! He slammed the ball through the rim with such ferocity that I was certain something had broken. Something had to have broken!
He was truly, in the eyes of this 11 year old, a God among mortals.
But no one knew how powerful a God Corey Williams was until big names in college basketball started attending games at Batavia High School. Lute Olson was one of those names.
The game he attended was absolutely packed. You had to get tickets in advance back then to see Corey play. There was a rumor going around that Lute Olson was in the crowd, but we figured it was just that -- a rumor -- like the Prestbury Waterheads, the haunted house near Johnson's Mound and other local legends.
But there he was -- a shock of white hair and tanned skin sitting in on the risers at Batavia High School with a University of Arizona Wildcats polo on. It was surreal.
Toward the end of the game, I scampered to the opposite side of the court with some friends so we could stalk Lute Olson and approach him after the game. We had no plan after that. We had no pens to ask for an autograph. Nothing clever to say. We just wanted to position ourselves in front of him. To cross paths with greatness.
And we did it. Three of us little dudes waited for the crowd to clear and went up to Lute Olson. He towered over us. For a second, we all just stared at each other. Then he asked us if we were Arizona Wildcats fans. We lied and said we were -- as if we knew you were allowed to cheer for any non-Big 10 school. Then he told us to get good grades and maybe we could go to University of Arizona. And soon it was over. But we'd done it. We'd crossed paths with Lute Olson.
What he said stuck with me though. The thought of actually being able to some day go to Arizona was entirely foreign before that moment. But coming from Lute Olson it was the truth. We could leave Batavia, leave Illinois and do whatever the hell we wanted.
Lute Olson made me believe that great things could happen in my hometown. His presence -- just his presence -- made me realize that being from Batavia didn't mean that people won't recognize what you do.
I followed Corey's career at Arizona -- and the Wildcats -- very closely until I went to Mizzou and invested my college basketball fandom into that program.
Arizona is losing more than a coach. They're losing a class act that will be terribly hard to follow and an ideal figure head.
It's strange to think that Arizona won't have Lute Olson on its bench this season. And it's strange to think he won't be making anymore visits to small town gymnasiums.
Update: Dick Vitale has a nice farewell to Olson at ESPN.com. He writes, "He is the ultimate Frank Lloyd Wright and has built the program into something very special over the years. Arizona had been in the depths of despair, and he took the school to greatness. There was an excitement in the desert that was so special."