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THE FRONT ROW with MARK NELKE: Lute Olson will be missed — but his 'gift' will remain forever

| August 30, 2020 1:15 AM

When the news broke a few days ago, one of the first things I thought about was the time I received a birthday card from Lute Olson.

It was ... years ago. College basketball was exploding in popularity. Coaches were iconic figures. Teams were easier to follow, because the players stuck around for three years, four years, five years.

College basketball, with a few exceptions, wasn't the one-and-done rest stop it is now. Back then, if your team came up short one year, well, most of them will be back next season, another year older and wiser.

These days, there's so much roster turnover that your favorite team this year doesn't look anything like last year's team. And next year, when that team should be better, most of the good players are off to the pros.

Even the lovable Zags might run into that problem here in a few years, as they continue to bring in more high-profile players. Then again, with the volume of studs they bring in, maybe it won't matter. Lose one player early? Well, there's two more right behind him that are almost as good.

ANYWAY, ONE day many years ago, around my birthday, I went out to my mailbox on Ella Avenue in Sandpoint, and there was an envelope from Bloomington, Ind.

Hmmm ...

I opened it up, and there was a team photo of the Indiana University basketball team, along with a note which concluded, " ... best wishes, Bob Knight."

Bob Knight?

Turns out that Renee, my friend and fellow college basketball junkie, had sent birthday cards to many of the college basketball icons of that era, along with a self-addressed, stamped envelope.

All they had to do is sign and put the card in the envelope.

Some did just that — or, perhaps a staffer signed for them.

Others, like my new friend Bob Knight, instead sent a team picture, or a card with their team's logo on it. Dick Vitale included a photo and a card containing "Dick's Dictionary."

Anyway, over the next few days, my mailbox was filled with birthday greetings from many of the folks involved in college basketball that we had been watching on television back in those days.

Not only did I get mail from Bob Knight and Lute Olson, but also John Thompson, Dean Smith, Jerry Tarkanian, Mike Krzyzewski, Lou Carnesecca, Ralph Miller, Denny Crum, Bob Ley, Billy Packer, Tom Davis, Eddie Sutton and others.

Olson sent "A Shot from the Cats," a card which included a team photo of the 1987-88 squad, signed by everyone — including Olson, Steve Kerr, Sean Elliott, Tom Tolbert, Jud Buechler and others.

It was one of the best birthday presents ever.

BACK TO Lute.

Especially back in the 1980s, I rooted for Arizona for many of the same reasons college basketball was so popular back then.

At that time, West Coast teams weren't getting much love from "East Coast bias" media, so when Arizona looked good, the West Coast looked good.

Of course, I didn't completely cheer for the Wildcats. By that time, they were better than UCLA, and owned Oregon State, two teams I'd rooted for forever.

And when UNLV upset Arizona in the 1989 Sweet Sixteen in Denver, I smiled.

Like I do when I head to my basement to revisit the mail I received from Lute Olson, and other college basketball icons.

Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via email at mnelke@cdapress.com. Follow him on Twitter@CdAPressSports.