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Lute Olson never stopped coaching, influencing lives

Shortly after the opening tip of the 2015 College Insiders.com Tournament semifinals, University of Arizona coaching legend Lute Olson took a seat next to basketball types from Las Vegas who, like him, had come to the Walkup Skydome in Flagstaff, Arizona, in support of Jack Murphy, the Northern Arizona coach and former student manager at Las Vegas’ Durango High.

Olson, who by then was slowing because of health issues, was mostly reticent until the New Jersey Institute of Technology made a run and was at the free-throw line with a chance to draw within striking distance of Murphy’s team.

He tapped one of the basketball types on the knee and said something to the effect that if NJIT made the free throw, his former director of operations at Arizona would be wise to request a timeout.

NJIT made the free throw. Murphy called time. Olson smiled as if to say “See, I’ve still got it.”

That’s the first thing I thought of Thursday when Robert Luther Olson of Mayville, North Dakota, who spent 25 years as Arizona’s coach and guided the Wildcats to the 1997 NCAA championship, died at age 85.

That he really never stopped coaching.

Longtime Las Vegas high school basketball coach Al La Rocque, who played for Olson at Long Beach (California) City College, was another basketball type at the Skydome that night. He recalled a frosty night in Grand Forks, North Dakota, during the one season La Rocque helped Murphy coach NAU.

“We got off the plane and it’s 13 degrees, right, and it’s the coldest I’ve ever been, ‘cause I’m from Long Beach, and out of the blue my phone rings. It says Lute Olson on the caller ID. He goes, ‘What are you doing?’ And I say, ‘I’m freezing my butt off.’ And he says, ‘I was raised there; I just wanted to see how you liked it.’”

Olson and La Rocque were lifelong friends. La Rocque said he always will be indebted to his old coach, for teaching him the X’s and O’s, and for teaching him other things more important.

“One of my Long Beach city teammates, Randy Green — he was the coach at Douglas High School (in Gardnerville) when I was coaching Western — said when you’re coaching, you have so much influence on kids,” La Rocque added as the tributes for his old coach continued pouring in. “But, like Randy said, coach was the kind of guy who also made you a better person.”

Around the horn

— More on Lute Olson from one of the two Las Vegans who starred for him at Arizona:

“He actually never said a curse word in my four years, which is hard to imagine. His curse word was Judas Priest,” said Bishop Gorman’s Matt Othick, now living in Solana Beach, California, where he owns a pizza restaurant.

Othick and fellow Gorman standout Brian Williams, who later changed his name to Bison Dele, joined forces again in Tucson.

“I come from a basketball family; my dad (Buddy) was a college basketball coach,” Othick said. “But to go to Arizona and get to continue to learn the game even deeper … I’m now able to give my kids (as an AAU coach) something that he gave me.”

— The Bryan Brothers, who played team tennis for the Vegas Rollers, retired this week as the most prolific doubles tandem in the sport’s history. But Ryan Wolfington, co-founder of Las Vegas’ Inspiring Children Foundation, said what really set identical twins Bob and Mike apart was their humanity.

“They’ve become some of the most important people in my life, and in the lives of many of the children we collectively support through our Team Bryan program,” Wolfington said of the brothers who combined for 243 major doubles titles and jointly held the world’s top ranking for a record 438 weeks.

Wolfington spoke of the siblings taking time out at the Australian Open to write and record a song and send inspirational videos to Cherrial Odell, a Las Vegas girl who had been struggling with severe depression.

“It was these videos that brought Cherrial out of the repeating negative thoughts that were overwhelming her, to realize there were people who wanted to help her find happiness again,” Wolfington said of the brothers’ philanthropy.

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Jay Kornegay, vice president of the Westgate Superbook, recently took to Twitter to express what many sports fans also had been thinking:

“I’ve watched a lot of sports over the past month. Conclusion: That $5 #Subway jingle has got to go.”

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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