We lived so many unforgettable days and nights together. On March 27, 1988, at the Kingdome in Seattle, we defeated Dean Smith’s North Carolina Tar Heels in the Elite Eight. For the first time, the University of Arizona Wildcats were going to the Final Four. When the buzzer sounded, the kids started celebrating at midcourt. But I stood in front of our bench, looking up into the stands, waiting for Bobbi to make her way down to the floor. This was our victory. I didn’t know it at the time, but the network had focused its cameras on us. She finally made it through the cheering crowd and, for an instant, we just looked at each other. We knew what it had taken to get to this moment. I took her in my arms, lifted her off her feet, and kissed her. As millions of people watched, we danced round and round.
It would be almost another decade before we would finally win the national championship. This time we beat Rick Pitino’s Kentucky squad in Indianapolis. The press conference after the game seemed to go on forever. As I answered question after question after question, Bobbi stood patiently on the side, occasionally leaning against the wall. If I close my eyes, I can still see her standing there. It was after one a.m. when I finally started to stand up, but a reporter asked one last question. I looked at Bobbi and asked her, “Will you wait one more second, dear?”
She smiled. “I’ve waited forty-five years for you,” she said. “I’m surely not going to stop now.”
We were blessed. I really believed we would be together forever.
It was love at first sight.
Or maybe love at first touch. I don’t know how old I was the first time I touched a basketball. Certainly too young to remember, but once I picked it up, I never put it down again. I knew right away what I was supposed to do with it. Nobody had to tell me. That was obvious: throw it up in the air, try to throw it through that hoop. That’s it, that’s the essence of the game. Shoot the ball through the hoop. I don’t know why it captured me so completely, but it was fun, it was a challenge, and it was something I could play by myself or with one friend or with many friends.
It’s an irresistable game. It’s fun to practice and even more fun to play games. Hand a basketball to a five-year-old or a sixty-five-year-old and if there’s a basket nearby, they’ll do exactly the same thing. They’ll take a shot. And then they’ll take another shot. It’s a simple game. In fact, it’s so simple I’ve spent my entire life trying to figure it out.
I don’t really know how to explain my passion for basketball. But when I’m out recruiting, walking through the halls of a high school looking for the gym, and all of a sudden from somewhere in the distance I hear that rhythmic spat-spat-spat-spat, it’s like a shot of adrenaline for me. I know this is where I should be. This is what I’m looking for. I’m home.
I’ve been a basketball player and a high school and college coach. I’ve been coaching for half a century. My teams have won more than a thousand games. We’ve won league championships, a national championship, even a world championship. I’ve been named Division I College Coach of the Year twice, and many of the players I’ve coached have had wonderful professional careers. I’m extremely proud to have been elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. Basketball has been the Olson family business as well as its passion; my five kids grew up with my players, and my late wife, Bobbi, was so very much an equal part of my success that after her death in 2001 the University of Arizona named the home court after both of us: the Lute and Bobbi Olson Court. My grandson played for me at Arizona, and my granddaughter was a great player and is currently a WNBA coach. I’ve spent more hours of my life than it’s possible to calculate, many tens of thousands of hours, teaching and coaching in gyms throughout the world, and after all that, after a lifetime of basketball, I’ve never lost my passion for the simple act of shooting the ball through the hoop. It is an amazing thing. One day I picked up a basketball and it never let me go.
The game of basketball has taken me around the world, several times. It’s provided me with an unbelievable range of experiences, from coaches in gorilla costumes to psychics, from real tragedy to great triumphs. It’s enabled me to form countless wonderful friendships, and do the one thing I wanted to do more than anything else, be a coach.
I learned how to play the game in the small town of Mayville, North Dakota. I also played football and baseball and even threw the discus and the shot put. I enjoyed them all, they were all fun, but mostly what those sports did was keep me occupied until basketball season started. I played basketball every chance I got. When two feet of snow covered the court, I’d sweep it off and start shooting. We’d play outside with gloves on when it was twenty below zero. Playing with gloves got to be easy. Mittens were tough, though.
At night my brother Marv and I would play in our bedroom. We made a round basket out of coat hangers and hung it over the door. Our room was on the second floor and we’d close the door, roll up a couple of pairs of socks, and play H-O-R-S-E. We usually got away with it as long as we only took set shots. That was the basic shot of the time; you keep your feet planted on the ground. But as soon as one of us took a jump shot—boom! The whole house shook, and next thing we heard was Mom coming upstairs pretty fast and pretty angry, warning us we’d better stop playing and get to bed.
Mayville was a fine place to grow up. The entire population seemed like it was on a first-name basis. My high school class had only forty-three students. But it was the kind of small town where people cared about their neighbors and willingly helped out without needing to be asked. The values I learned in Mayville haven’t changed much throughout my life, no matter how far away I’ve gone.
My grandparents were Norwegian. When they immigrated to America they looked for a climate similar to the one they had come from: basically, cold weather and warmhearted people. They found it on the farms near Mayville. We once traced the genealogy of my family on my mother’s side all the way back to the year 872. Appropriately, as I’m well known among basketball fans for my seemingly immovable, perfectly groomed full head of gray-white hair, we can trace our lineage to King Harald the Fair-Haired.
Norwegians are strong, stoic, hardworking people. We accept life as it comes to us, even when it gets hard, and usually we do it without complaint or great displays of emotion. That’s probably an accurate description of my personality. Bobbi and I celebrated our four hundredth win at Arizona by warming up some leftover pizza in the oven. I’m also a product of the American Midwest. I believe the simple things of life are the most important: family, honor, integrity, teamwork, the open man gets the ball, and you win by defending well.
If I have a public image, it’s that I’m taciturn. It’s true that generally I don’t show much emotion in public. I don’t often yell at my players or officials—I’ve never once thrown a chair, the best I ever did was a clipboard—and I never curse. People like to joke that I once went on vacation to the Hoover Dang. But believe me, that emotion is there. I get just as excited and angry and tangled up inside as everyone else; the difference is that generally I show it through my facial expression. My wife for forty-seven years, Bobbi, used to say that I really did have a terrible temper; she’d call me a “very stubborn Norwegian.” But as anyone who has ever played for me will confirm, I have a way of letting people know when I’m upset. I have a withering stare. Mike Gatens, who played for me at Iowa, once said, “I’ve never seen anyone get so upset and not curse. But he can say more with a stare than anyone else can with words.” I admit it. There are times I just stand there glaring at officials. They feel it, too. I’ve had officials come over to the sidelines and ask, “Is there something you want to say to me?”
Usually I try to respond with a joke, “No, you’ve made all the right calls, so I was just looking at you so that you’d know I agree with every one of them.”
Technically, the person who literally has put his body in front of mine numerous times to protect the team from being charged with a technical foul is my longtime assistant coach Jim Rosborough. In major college basketball the assistant’s job is to know when the coach is truly upset and get between him and the official.
With my players I’m not one of those touchy-feely Jimmy Valvano–type coaches. I liked Jimmy Valvano a lot; he was a good coach and a good person. The difference between the two of us is the difference between Italians and Scandinavians. I don’t believe in being a buddy to my players until after they graduate. Then often we become close. I don’t know if that is the right way or the wrong way to coach a team, but I really didn’t have a choice. I am who I am.
I remember that after we’d beaten Missouri in the Elite Eight in 1994 to get into the Final Four, we returned to our arena, the McKale Center, for a celebration. The place was completely packed. Our fans were elated. I asked each of our players to say a few words, then I made some comments. Bobbi told me later that, as I began speaking, one of our players, Joseph Blair, came to her and asked, “Do you think it would be okay if we messed up the coach’s hair?” That was a big deal for the kids. My hair has always been a sort of symbol of my demeanor. It’s always under control.
“Oh, of course it would be,” she told him. When Joseph hesitated, she wondered, “What’s the matter?”
He asked her sort of sheepishly, “Think you could come with us?”
I learned at a very young age how quickly life can change completely and forever. My family lived on a small farm outside Mayville. One Sunday morning just before my sixth birthday we were in the yard getting ready to go to church. My father, Albert Olson, had just finished trimming my hair. He brushed the hairs off the back of my neck and began walking toward the house. As he started going down the cellar steps he collapsed and died instantly of a massive stroke. He was forty-seven years old. He was a good, hardworking man. And in an instant he was dead.
My older brother, Amos, came home from college to run the farm. One afternoon eight months later, he was out plowing. It was a cold North Dakota day. Once you get a tractor moving in a furrow it’ll pretty much stay on course, so my brother hopped out and was walking alongside, probably trying to stay warm. Nobody knows what happened, but somehow he tripped, and the plow blade cut open his leg. He died from gangrene. I never really got the chance to know him. I know he was a talented musician; he played the piano and sang in a quartet that was planning to go to Europe. I remember just staring at his picture in his high school yearbook. Within a year my father and my brother were dead. I have no doubt that if my father or my brother had lived I would have spent my life as a farmer.
I had terrible, terrible nightmares for a long time. Funerals have always been very hard for me.
I never heard my mother complain. Never. She just accepted tragedy and went on with her life. She did what was necessary. Alinda Olson was her name, and she was a beautiful woman. We sold the farm and moved into town. She worked as a short-order cook in the morning and cleaned rooms at the hotel in the afternoon. My first job was filling the salt and pepper shakers and stocking the soda cases for her at the restaurant. It was a good job for a second-grader.
It seems like I was always working somewhere. Hard work was also part of that Midwestern ethic. I’ve done some strange jobs in my life. By the summer of seventh grade I was flagging for crop dusters. My partner and I would get up at 3:30 in the morning so we could be at the field at sunrise. We’d stand at the corner of a field waving a white flag. That plane would fly right over our head and hit us with the DDT and everything else it was carrying. We didn’t think anything about it. We never even wore masks. When the plane completed its first run, we’d pace off a certain number of feet and he’d make another pass. We’d probably do six fields a day.
In eighth grade I had a paper route. I know a lot of young people have paper routes, but it’s a little tougher in North Dakota, where, at 5:30 in the morning, zero degrees would be considered a heat wave.
I spent several summers working on a farm. Cleaning out the barn was bad, but the worst job I ever had was banking grain inside the bins. The grain had been harvested before it was ripe, so it would “heat” inside these bins. I’d go in there first thing in the morning and move the grain so it would air out. The dust and the smell and the heat were just horrible. That was more than sixty years ago and I can still taste it. I was also a corn shocker. After corn had been cut it was wrapped in twine. Those bundles were about six feet tall and weighed as much as fifty pounds. My job was to stand up two of them at the same time and balance them up against each other, then start piling on additional bundles. Trying to hold up one of those suckers while lifting up a second bundle and balancing them was not for the weak or the poorly coordinated.
I was an egg checker for a little while. I was actually the overnight guy in a gas station, but it was the place farmers brought their fresh eggs. My job was to look at each egg under a light to make sure there wasn’t a little chicken in it. If it didn’t have a chicken, it went in the egg container.
The most embarrassing job I ever had was dressing dummies. I had a part-time job at a ladies’ store called Buttery’s in Grand Forks. My primary job was vacuuming the carpet, but I’d also have to change the clothing on the anatomically correct female dummies in the window. That may not sound tough, but just imagine being sixteen years old and standing in the window of a ladies’ store on the main street trying to put the clothes on a naked female dummy. Sometimes it made me wish I was shocking corn.
So as a coach I never worried much about keeping my job. I did what I thought was right and was willing to live with the consequences. I knew if things got bad, I could always earn a living dressing dummies. Feel free to make your own joke right here.
No matter what job I was doing, as soon as I got some free time I would go to a court and shoot baskets. Whatever I was doing, there was never any question in my mind what I intended to do. When I was thirteen years old, my high school social studies class had a unit on occupations. We studied occupations that we thought would be of interest. Even then there was only one thing I wanted to do: I wanted to be a teacher and a basketball coach. And, truthfully, I didn’t really want to be a teacher if I couldn’t be a coach.
That decision became the driving force of my life. I continued my education pretty much so I could earn my teaching degree so I would be able to coach.
I was a pretty good player, too. I was about 6'3" in high school and I was a good athlete. I played basketball, baseball, and football for Mayville High. But in 1950, at the beginning of my junior year, my mother decided to move to Grand Forks to be closer to my sister, Kathleen, who was working there as a nurse. She moved in October and allowed me to stay in Mayville for the basketball season. I wanted to stay there. These were my friends, the people I’d grown up with, my teammates. So I lived with their families, a week with one of them, two weeks with another one. That way no single family would be responsible for feeding me the whole time. It seemed to work out very well: The basketball team went to the state Class B tournament that season. We’d played together most of our lives; we were confident we could win the state championship our senior year.
My mother wouldn’t let me stay in Mayville alone. At the end of the basketball season she told me she wanted me with her in Grand Forks. That was almost fifty miles away, much too far to commute, so I had to go. I accepted the move without too much complaint and just went on with my life. I played American Legion baseball that summer for a man named Fritz Engle, who had just become the basketball coach at Grand Forks Central High School. Fritz Engle was a big Cleveland Indians fan. At that time the Indians had a fine player named Luke Easter. Mr. Engle told me I reminded him of Easter. Luke always had a wad of chewing tobacco in his cheek and I had a wad of licorice or sunflower seeds in my cheeks, so, for the only time in my life, I was known as Luke Olson. I remember that one of the kids I played against that summer was Roger Maris, who was a senior at Fargo Shanley High School. Roger Maris was a North Dakota high school legend; he was all-state in football and basketball as well as baseball.
I pitched against him one time. My recollection is that he was one for three against me. He was a left-handed hitter so I threw him curveballs that broke in on him. He hit one of them foul a long way. A long, long way. There was the ball field, there was a grassy area behind the field, and beyond that there was a road. I think that ball landed on the road. Fortunately, foul.
The story we all heard was that Roger Maris had turned down several offers from major-league teams to play football for Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma. I don’t know whether this story is true, but supposedly he took a bus all the way down to Oklahoma. When he got off the bus, there was no one at the terminal to meet him. So he turned around and came back to North Dakota and signed a baseball contract.
The year before we moved to Grand Forks, the high school basketball team had been favored to win the state Class A tournament but had been upset by Bismarck. The entire starting lineup had graduated and in my senior year I was the tallest player we had, so I became the starting center. In Mayville, we had played a run-and-gun game, get up and down the court as quickly as possible. We didn’t spend a lot of time setting up plays. We got the ball, we shot the ball. We played the way kids wanted to play. But Coach Engle played a ball-control offense. We played slow and deliberate. The slowest, most deliberate, torpid offense in the entire world, pass after pass after pass. Coach Engle would have made Princeton’s coach Pete Carril, who was famous for his slowdown offense, seem like a wild and crazy guy. Coach Engle didn’t believe in things like the fast break. He stressed fundamentals; he was extremely methodical and detailed. He understood the game of basketball. Take advantage of every possession. We defended very well. But our offense was just pass, pass, pass, pass, then pass, and if you didn’t see an opening, pass it back out and start again.
Nobody complained about it. We did just as we were taught. And we won. We won games by scores like 28–24, a big offensive game would have been 32 points, but we won. I played center. We had a forward named Duke Evenson, so our team became known as “the Luke and Duke Show.” I was “Leaping Luke.” It was a very smart group of players: Every single one of the fifteen people on that team graduated from college, which was pretty amazing at that time.
The 1952 state championship was held in the new field house at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. In the semifinals we upset favored Bismarck, which had been the number-one team in the state all season, by cutting off their outlet passes and slowing down their up-tempo offense. We played Williston High in the finals. They had a 6'8" big-bodied center named Jon Vohes whom I had to guard. He probably outweighed me by sixty pounds. I don’t remember being nervous about it; confidence was an important part of Coach Engle’s strategy. It was a very close game. With about a minute left I got the ball on the right side of the lane and hit a short hook shot to put us ahead. We won the state championship. I’ve been part of at least two thousand games. I’ve had some thrilling victories and some truly excruciating defeats. But that game, that’s a game I never will forget. North Dakota State Class A Champions.
A question I’ve often been asked is, What did I pick up from the coaches I played for? I’ve always responded that you can learn from every coach; you pick up some good points as well as negative points. They end up shaping your own philosophy of the game. From Coach Engel I learned the importance of even the smallest details, but I also knew that this was not the way I would want my teams to play the game. Coach Engel had great success playing a slowdown offense. He had an outstanding high school coaching career, proving to me that it wasn’t necessarily the type of offense you use, but rather how well you execute it. But I knew that just wasn’t my style of play.
I hadn’t wanted to move to Grand Forks—I wanted to stay with my friends in a place I knew and loved—but the move turned out to be the most important of my life. In Mayville I’d played in the band and sung in the choir at the Lutheran church. The first Sunday morning I went to the Lutheran church in Grand Forks the pastor said, “I understand you sing?”
My mother had been talking to him. I nodded, “Yeah.”
“Why don’t you come to choir practice?”
It was at my first choir practice that I met a young woman named Bobbi Russell. Roberta Rae Russell officially, but I never knew anyone who called her anything but Bobbi. She had dark hair, brown eyes, and olive skin, and she was beautiful. Growing up in Mayville, I’d thought every Norwegian had blond hair and blue eyes, so for me she was very exotic. Her mother was Norwegian, her father was a mixture of European cultures. Whatever it was, I was immediately attracted to her. It really was love at first sight.
At least it was on my part. Bobbi always told me that she didn’t like me at first. Actually, what she said was she couldn’t stand me. She thought I was arrogant. The second time we met was at a dance. Supposedly one of her friends pointed me out to her. “Look at that new boy over there. He just moved in from Mayville. Isn’t he cute?”
Supposedly she replied, “I don’t think he’s cute at all.” Maybe that’s all true, maybe she wasn’t attracted to me right away, but within a couple of weeks she was letting me walk her home.
She lived in East Grand Forks, about three miles away. She’d grown up in Grand Forks, but her father had built some apartments across the Red River in Minnesota and they’d moved into one of them. Her father owned the local Dairy Queen and a small restaurant in which a lot of the kids hung out. It turned out her aunt was the choir director and all her friends still went to this church. Bobbi was a year behind me in high school, and she was a cheerleader at East, our biggest rival. We got to know each other on those walks home. I was really lucky we’d met in the spring. In the spring, summer, and fall the weather was beautiful and the walks home were enjoyable, but in the winter the temperature went way below zero, so that walk became a true test of my love for her.
I never missed one of them. I hadn’t ever taken the time to wonder about the meaning of love. It wasn’t very complicated for me. I was happy when I was with her; I missed her when I wasn’t with her. I wanted to be with her all the time. And I just couldn’t imagine not being with her. I guess that’s as good a definition of love as I’ve ever known.
After we met I only went out with one other girl. I was going to Augsburg College, a small Lutheran school in Minneapolis. It was a very conservative school. No dancing at parties; the girls weren’t even allowed to wear makeup. I went to a school party with another girl; maybe we went out three times. We were friends. But for the next half century, it was Bobbi. Only Bobbi. We got married in 1953, less than two years after we’d met, right after she graduated from high school. I was nineteen years old, she was eighteen.
She’d moved to Minneapolis to be near me and was living at a woman’s boardinghouse on Lake of the Isles. She even had a curfew. Getting married seemed like the right thing to do. We got married during Thanksgiving vacation because it was between football and basketball season. We were married in the Lutheran church in Grand Forks, North Dakota, but then we had to go to her mom and dad’s house in East Grand Forks, Minnesota, with our pastor, who married us a second time because we’d taken out our marriage license in Minnesota. I couldn’t afford an engagement ring, so we had simple but lovely wedding bands. Bobbi always had great style. We were planning to go to Minneapolis for our honeymoon, but we got caught in a snowstorm and spent the night in the Westward Ho Motel on the outskirts of Grand Forks. That was our honeymoon, one night in the Westward Ho. I had $40 in my pocket when we got married. That was our entire savings. So we know for sure she didn’t marry me for my money.
Copyright © 2006 by Lute Olson and David Fisher. All rights reserved.