Published October 26, 2012
TUCSON, Ariz. – Arizona's 1987-88 Final Four team is perhaps the most popular team in Wildcats history, a fun-loving group of talented players who brought the Tucson community together and became the impetus for a program's rise to prominence.
Turns out, they were just getting started.
Nine NBA championship rings, six Major League Baseball All-Star appearances, four Gold Gloves, six Grammy Awards and a Naismith Hall of Fame inductee — the '88 Wildcats left the desert and became even more successful than they were during that short-but-amazing time together at Arizona.
"There may not be, just in terms of one team, that's more accomplished the day their careers have ended than that group right there," current Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "I look at that '88 team and you talk about character. What they're doing today is remarkable."
What they did back in 1988 wasn't too bad, either.
Prior to coach Lute Olson's arrival in 1983, Arizona had been a middling basketball program, making the NCAA tournament three times in 79 years. Olson turned the Wildcats around quickly, following an opening 11-win season with three straight trips to the NCAAs.
His 1987-88 team pushed the program into the stratosphere.
A group of mostly unheralded players, the Wildcats became nearly unstoppable together, mixing athleticism, good shooting and scrappiness.
Arizona opened the season by winning the Great Alaska Shootout and raced through the Pac-10 schedule, winning the regular-season and conference tournament titles while going 17-1.
The Wildcats opened the NCAA tournament with two wins in Los Angeles and two more in Seattle, earning a trip to the Final Four to face Oklahoma. Arizona lost 86-78 to the Sooners, the eventual national runner-up to Danny Manning and Kansas, but finished the season 35-3 while becoming the first team in school history to be ranked No. 1, putting Arizona basketball on the map while bringing seemingly all of Tucson with them.
"There wasn't a ton of success in the program before we were here and I didn't really know much about the history of the program, but I know now after being around it for the last 30 years, I can appreciate what we did and how the fans received us," said Harvey Mason Jr., a guard on the '88 team. "We were pretty well-liked in town here, but I think it went both ways."
And the success kept going well beyond that one magical season, spreading out in a variety of directions.
Steve Kerr, the captain of the 1987-88 team, went on to play 15 seasons for six NBA teams and won five championships: three straight with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, and two more with the San Antonio Spurs. After his playing career, Kerr went into broadcasting, spent three years as general manager of the Phoenix Suns and went back into TV as an analyst for TNT's NBA broadcasts.
Sean Elliott, the leading scorer in 1987-88, grew up in Tucson and was a star for his hometown team, earning All-American honors his final two seasons and winning the Wooden Award as a senior in 1989. The high-scoring small forward was a first-round pick by the San Antonio Spurs and played 12 seasons in the NBA, winning the title with the Spurs in 1999.
Forward Jud Buechler, who was also an All-American volleyball player at Arizona, went on to play 12 NBA seasons, winning three titles with Kerr and Jordan in Chicago.
Tom Tolbert, a forward and second-leading scorer on the Final Four team, played seven seasons with four NBA teams and became a TV analyst after his playing career.
Power forward Anthony Cook also went on the play in the NBA, spending four seasons with four teams.
Olson became easily the greatest coach in Arizona history, leading the Wildcats to the 1997 NCAA championship, two other Final Fours and 23 straight appearances in the NCAA tournament on his way to being inducted in the Naismith Hall of Fame.
Four players from the same team playing in the NBA and a Hall of Fame coach are pretty impressive, but the '88 Wildcats didn't stop there.
Athletic, playmaking guard Kenny Lofton's post-Arizona path took him to the major leagues, where he played 17 seasons for 11 teams before retiring in 2008. The center fielder was a six-time All-Star, four time-time Gold Glove winner and twice played in the World Series.
Lofton is 15th all-time with 622 steals and is one of two players — with Tim Stoddard of North Carolina State and the Baltimore Orioles — to play in the Final Four and the World Series.
Then there's Mason.
The son of a jazz drummer, Mason was already musically inclined, so when multiple knee injuries ended his hopes of playing basketball professionally, he knew right where to turn.
Mason wasn't bad at the music thing, winning six Grammy Awards as a songwriter and producer, working with some of the most popular artists of multiple eras, from Elton John and Aretha Franklin to Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake.
"Everybody that was on the team was a very hard-working, very focused and driven individual," Mason said. "Being around Coach Olson, guys like Steve Kerr and Sean Elliott, people that are that driven and that competitive, it just rubs off on you. It gets into your gut and makes you who you are."
The 1988 team will always have a special place in the hearts of Tucson sports fans, not just because they won or went on to other successful endeavors, but because of who they were.
The '88 Wildcats were a tight, fun-loving bunch whose infectious attitude rubbed off on an entire city.
They truly enjoyed being around each other and shared their good cheer by being active in the community and with a now-dated music video called "Wild About the Cats," written by Mason and in the vein of the Chicago Bears' "Super Bowl Shuffle."
Arizona sold out the McKale Center for its annual Red-Blue scrimmage last weekend, in part because Miller brought in another stellar recruiting class and has expectations high in the desert again. But it's also a nod to the popularity of the 1988 team, which received some of the biggest cheers of the afternoon while being recognized on its 25th anniversary.
"I don't think you could have a better group of guys," said Craig McMillan, a guard on the 1988 team and Olson's first blue-chip recruit. "The chemistry then was great and even when we get together now, we still have it. A good team requires personality and unselfishness to be as successful as we were."
The 1988 Wildcats had all of that, at Arizona and beyond, earning them a prominent spot in the university's and city's history.