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September 12, 2012

Arizona's '88 Final Four team 'pretty special' to Kerr

Today, Arizona is viewed as one of the bigger basketball schools in the country. But Steve Kerr remembers the days it was tough to "give away" his four complimentary tickets he would receive when he first started to play at the school during the 1983-84 season.

Kerr estimated that maybe 6,000 people each game would show up to McKale Center and watch the Wildcats play.

"Nobody really was supporting us," Kerr told GOAZCATS.com via phone call Wednesday night.

But when the former UA guard returns to Tucson for the Red-Blue intrasquad game Oct. 21, a full house of 14,500-plus will likely be on hand. Kerr and the 1987-88 team that reached the program's first-ever Final Four will be honored as part of a 25th anniversary celebration.

Kerr said last week that many of his former teammates including the school's all-time leading scorer Sean Elliott, Jud Buechler, Matt Muehlebach and former assistant coach Bruce Fraser plan to attend, but that he "would assume everyone's coming."

"I'm not exactly sure what's going to happen, other than that they're going to introduce us at the Red-Blue game," Kerr said. "But it's going to be fun. I'm looking forward to it.

"We've got such a close-knit group from that year that we're all pretty good friends, anyway - in fact, best friends, many of us. So it's not like we haven't seen each other, but it's always good to come back to Tucson and be together."

Led by Hall of Fame head coach Lute Olson, the Wildcats finished 35-3 that season and were ranked No. 1 in the country six different weeks - including four in a row from the week of Jan. 11 to Feb. 1.

But while the run to the Final Four was memorable, Kerr said it was a Dec. 12, 1987 contest at Iowa that stood out about that season. Both teams were ranked in the top five by The Associated Press - Arizona at No. 4 and Iowa at No. 3 - but it took on a special meaning for the Wildcats because it was Olson's first game back in Iowa City, where he coached for nine seasons, since leaving in 1983.

The 'Cats prevailed, 66-59, and jumped to No. 2 in the poll the following week.

"It was a pretty big moment for him, and just a really intense atmosphere," Kerr recalled. "Lute was so happy after the game, and we were all so happy for him.

"The whole team went out that night and had a great time after the game. It's one of the most fun games and nights I've ever had."

A senior and team captain that season, the former 6-3 guard said UA had "the perfect mix" of upperclassmen and incoming freshmen - including Elliott, the Pac-10 Conference's player of the year that season, his junior year. But more than just talent, Kerr, a second-team AP All-American in 1988, said the Wildcats had a "really, really mature group" that meshed well together - both on and off the court.

"It was the best chemistry of any team that I've ever seen in my life because everybody understood their role and embraced it," Kerr said.

"We had a lot of personalities, too. We had funny guys on our team. (Tom) Tolbert kept everybody in stitches, and Sean Elliott was hilarious.

"They all were just really, really good guys, and a lot of fun."

But Kerr also cherishes the tougher years when he first arrived on campus, and the journey along the way. It was Olson's first season, and the Wildcats missed the NCAA tournament after an 11-17 finish in 1983-84.

But UA would improve its win total each of the following two seasons, winning 21 and then 23 games during Kerr's sophomore and junior seasons, respectively. The total dipped back down to 18 wins in 1986-87, the year Kerr was forced to redshirt after injuring his knee in the summer while playing for the U.S. men's national team at the FIBA World Championship in Spain.

The Wildcats started their magical year with 12 consecutive wins en route to the first of four straight regular-season conference titles. Then, for the first time in what would be Olson's 24-year tenure at the school, Arizona made it past the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Kerr, whose No. 25 jersey is retired at Arizona, said "it's pretty special" to look back now and realize he was part of the foundation that would eventually become a rich tradition and a basketball-crazed town.

"Lute made it that way," Kerr added. "It took about a year-and-a-half, I think. We made the NCAA tournament in Lute's second year in '85, and that year people really started to take notice and come to the games.

"The program was so down, and for it to turn around that quickly and to be apart of it - really, from the ground up - I think, means a lot to all the guys on that team. We realized, at the time, we were doing something special. But what we didn't understand was that there'd be 20 years of incredible success that followed with the program. It's kind of nice to know that we were there in the beginning, helping to build the foundation."

Kerr, now 46, eventually went on to enjoy a 15-year NBA career. A second-round draft pick, 50th overall by the Phoenix Suns, Kerr also played for the Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic, Chicago Bulls, San Antonio Spurs (twice) and Portland Trail Blazers before retiring in 2003.

Many remember him for his championship-clinching shot in the closing seconds of Game 6 of the 1997 NBA Finals, or the unique fact that he's called Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Tim Duncan and David Robinson teammates and won five championship rings - including four straight from 1996-99. The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls even won an NBA-record 72 games, which still stands, and Kerr remains the league's all-time career leader in 3-point accuracy (45.4 percent).

Along the way, however, Kerr had a chance to share his first four championships with Buechler (1996-98) in Chicago and Elliott (1999) in San Antonio.

"We'd sit next to each other on the plane and on the bus," Kerr said of his time in San Antonio with Elliott. "We're great friends and we still see each other to this day. So to experience that after going to the Final Four together with Arizona, it's pretty incredible.

"Same with Jud. Jud is one of my best friends.

"It just kind of gives you an idea of what college sports can be about. If you have a good group of guys and a strong program, you end up with lifelong friends and that's pretty amazing."

But some of the legendary teams with superstar talent he played on also had Hall of Famers at the head coaching position.

Olson, Lenny Wilkens and Phil Jackson all have been enshrined at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich will likely join that group some day. Between the four coaches, 4,115 victories, 16 NBA titles and one national championship have been collected - and Kerr realizes the rare company he keeps in claiming each as a head coach at one point in his life.

"Oh, I think about it all the time," Kerr said. "So it's crazy just how fortunate I've been in my personal career.

"And the one thing that I always have remembered is that none of it would've happened without the experience I had at the U of A. That's when the foundation for me was built - not only in my career, but just kind of my post-adolescent development. That's why I feel so strongly about the school and the program. That's why I'm still such a huge Wildcat fan in every sport today. I just have this incredible bond with the place."

Tracy McDannaldTracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor

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