So you hear that Lute Olson died. Hall of Fame coach. Won an NCAA title at Arizona. You can picture him still, always cool.
You can’t resist. This is Philadelphia. You put a text out, place the call.
“A number of times,’' Phil Martelli said over the phone, asked if he ever ran into Olson over the years, say at the Final Four. “Not only at the Final Four. Sometimes more intimate than that. Nike would take their coaches on a quote, unquote retreat. You went to a lot of places. Lute was there and I was there.”
“Never was a word exchanged,’' Martelli said. “Never once.”
If you were around Philly when Martelli was a first-year St. Joseph’s head coach in 1995-96, you remember it all. Even a year later, the 1997 night Olson won his NCAA title, a Daily News reporter called Martelli. Hey, this was the local angle. In this city, Olson will always be the coach who blew off the Hawks because of the snow that never arrived.
It was a thing. A scheduled Palestra visit from Arizona, a big-time thing for the St. Joe’s Hawks if you think about it.
The day before, Arizona put out a statement. They had decided not to make the trip because of “safety considerations.” They might have gotten away with it except their flight showed up in Philly basically on time, just a few minutes late.
“People were able to track the flight,’' Martelli said.
Also, Arizona put it out there that the schools had by “mutual agreement” decided to call it off. Big mistake.
“What mutual agreement?’' Martelli says a quarter-century later.
Last week, Martelli didn’t throw any more dirt on the grave. He let the facts speak for themselves. He just remembers it all so vividly.
“We’re going to the Palestra anyway,’' Martelli said, thinking back. “We’re showing up. I’m going to make sure they know we’re showing up for the game.”
Martelli told the Arizona Daily Star: “Lute Olson thinks he’s big-time. This is what big-time basketball is about? I tell you, it doesn’t get any more small-time than this, to pull off what they did.”
When the Hawks showed up at the Palestra that Saturday afternoon, Martelli remembers that so many cameras were there, “it was like Selection Sunday.” His players went through the pregame like they had a game, even tipped off to themselves, scored a bucket.
“To the players’ credit, none of them blinked,’' Martelli said, remembering how there was one Hawk die-hard fan in the stands, a guy from the Jersey shore. “He hadn’t heard anything about them not coming.”
Martelli explained publicly back then how he called out to Arizona and got to the basketball office and someone told him Olson wasn’t there, he was out recruiting.
“We’re in total disbelief,’' said Don DiJulia, St. Joe’s athletic director, the day of the no-show. “The newspaper report was totally incorrect, saying we had agreed to this. I spoke to [Arizona’s AD] around midnight Thursday, and he told me the weather information he was getting looked bad. I told him we were expecting a storm on Friday, but no red-alert kind of thing. So we left it that he’d check with the airlines. I have to believe they simply didn’t want to make an attempt to get here.”
DiJulia eventually sent Arizona a bill. Was it ever paid?
“Yes, 50K,’' DiJulia confirmed last week, explaining that they had to go to the board of trustees since it was over a certain spending threshold. DiJulia had offered to fly out and make the case personally if needed. Not needed.
“This is not a critical game because it’s out of the Pac-10,” Olson said of it at the time. “It doesn’t have significance as far as the NCAA Tournament is concerned. We’ve had a couple of parents call and voice their concern about kids flying into that kind of weather.”
What further frosted Martelli was they had just gotten back on a crazy trip featuring a legit postponed game at Virginia Tech -- he didn’t understand why at first, until told to open his drapes, the snow as high as his first-floor window at the hotel -- then a crazy trip home on a yellow school bus, then a UMass game postponed for a day. That blizzard was historic. But it was over.
The day of the scheduled Arizona game, Martelli said the Wildcats’ refusal to play was due to the fact that the Hawks had just taken UMass, then ranked No. 1, to overtime Wednesday before losing. “It’s clearly based on the competitive level of our last game,” Martelli told the Associated Press. ”In my neighborhood, if you didn’t want to fight somebody, you ran and hid, and that’s exactly what they did.”
So over the years … Arizona and St. Joe’s ended up in the same hotel one time in Spokane, Wash. No Lute sighting in the lobby. But those Nike junkets, there was no avoiding each other.
“I would go through in my head and say, ‘Should I?’ ‘' Martelli said, meaning, Should I say something? “Nah, I’m good. There wasn’t any ambiguity in what I did and what I said.”
So the news came, Lute Olson died on Aug. 27, age 85. His lifetime record was 781 wins, 280 losses. Just in one American city, he’s still remembered best for a game that doesn’t officially appear in either column.
The saga that will never die.
“I got letters from Arizona,’' Martelli said. “I have them somewhere, I could dig them out. They called me everything short of the devil. ‘Who do you think you are?’ ‘'
Not even a terse hello between him and Olson?