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Seasoned Seniors Lead Wildcats In Title Run
Courtesy: Arizona Athletics
Release: 11/11/2002
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Courtesy: Arizona Athletics
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Nov. 11, 2002

By BOB BAUM
AP Sports Writer

TUCSON, Ariz. -- One is the son of basketball's most famous Deadhead, an unflappable fifth-year senior who cruises the streets of Tucson in his 1970 Cadillac convertible, Pink Floyd booming from the stereo.

The other is a former Mr. Basketball in Indiana, a tough, quiet point guard who stayed in school when all around him bolted for the NBA two years ago and has started every game but one since he arrived on campus.

Coach Lute Olson could not ask for better leaders than Luke Walton and Jason Gardner for an Arizona team that might be his best.

"We've had a lot of outstanding leaders," Olson said, "and these two would compare with anybody that we've ever had."

The curly haired kid from San Diego and the stocky playmaker from Indianapolis are close friends.

When the team toured Australia this year, Walton coaxed Gardner into tubing down a roaring river, jumping off a big tour ship into the ocean and snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef.

Walton will kid Gardner about his height, listed generously as 5-foot-10.

"We tell him if he was four inches taller, he'd be in the NBA now," Walton said. "But he's such a tremendous competitor. He's the best at making the clutch shot at the end of the game of anybody I've ever seen."

Walton is the third of Bill Walton's four sons. All four play or played basketball in college. Luke was the family peacekeeper.

"I had to be," he said. "My brothers were fighting all the time."

Basketball and Grateful Dead music, his father's passions, were omnipresent. Bill Walton, an NCAA champion at UCLA and NBA champion with the Portland Trail Blazers, was perhaps the greatest passing center in the game's history. Luke Walton has the same on-court instincts.

"I think a lot of that is in the genes," Olson said. "And it's also the fact that he's played with his four brothers and his dad. They've played since they were able to walk, practically."

Bill Walton preached teamwork to his sons, as well as the importance of making other players better. Luke Walton listened and learned. The 6-foot-8 junior led the Pac-10 in assists at 6.3 per game, while averaging 15.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.6 steals last season.

When Arizona won the Pac-10 tournament last spring, Walton was the tourney MVP, averaging 22.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.3 assists in three games.

Gardner and Walton became leaders a year ago on a team that featured five freshmen in the rotation.

"They got them together the first week that they were on campus," Olson said. "They started going to moves. They do things at Luke's house. Jason and Luke talked a lot about what it was going to be like to play against the competition that we play against, the expectations of how they would conduct themselves, that kind of thing."

On the court, Walton has a knack for good-natured criticism.

"You'd see a freshman make a mistake. The tendency of an upper classman would be to get on the guy," Olson said, "but you'd see Luke wait until there was a dead ball, then he'd be over there putting them in a bear hug or hitting them in the chest, laughing and joking about it, which kept the kid from getting uptight."

As the latest in a long line of great Arizona point guards, Gardner has to be a leader.

"He's the guy that has to direct pretty much everything," Olson said. "It isn't a case of where he's saying a whole lot, but when he says something, a lot of times it's pretty stern. He's not afraid of getting into somebody's face. He's a tremendous competitor and he expects everyone to compete."

Walton is in his fifth year at Arizona. He sat out his freshman year as a redshirt. Gardner was part of the highly touted freshman class of 1999.

After the Wildcats were beaten by Duke in the 2001 NCAA championship game, three of Gardner's classmates left school for the NBA.

Richard Jefferson is a starter with New Jersey, Gilbert Arenas plays the point for Golden State. Michael Wright is playing overseas.

Gardner thought strongly about leaving, too, but returned when it became obvious that he probably would not be drafted.

"That was his mother more than anybody," Olson said. "She didn't want him to go. She felt he needed more time."

Gardner always has had to overcome his lack of height. Jefferson called him "our buff midget."

"Ever since I was a little kid, when I started up in basketball, I was the smallest, I was the skinniest," Gardner said. "I've picked up a little weight, but I'm still short. I just try to make up for it with heart and desire."

While Walton's basketball ability was suspect out of high school, Gardner was a blue-chipper. A McDonald's first-team all-American, he chose Arizona over Duke, Kansas, Purdue and Indiana.

Gardner said he's a much better player than he was two years ago, especially on defense and in his shot selection. As a junior, he was second in Pac-10 in scoring (20.4) and fifth in assists (4.56). He's a workhorse on the court, playing 40 minutes or more a game 26 times at Arizona.

This year, with the five experienced sophomores joined by a freshman class that could be Olson's best, Gardner won't play nearly as many minutes, and that should help his defense, the coach said.

This team is deeper than the one that made it to the NCAA finals two years ago. Walton and Gardner are the lone players left from that season of success and sadness. The team's other senior tri-captain this year, Rick Anderson, was a redshirt.

The 2000-01 Wildcats overcame the death of Olson's wife, Bobbi, to put together an inspired run that fell just short of a championship.

Walton was the sixth man on that team, part of the steady improvement he's made since he came to Arizona.

"When he was in high school, a lot of people weren't sure whether he could play at this level," Olson said.

Walton, though, is as smart as he is even-tempered.

"I knew that since I wasn't real athletic, I had to work on my skills as a basketball player," he said.

In December, Walton will get his degree in family studies and human development.

"I knew I wasn't going to leave without my degree," he said. "My dad would kill me if I did that."

Gardner, whose brother and sister have college degrees, plans to have his, in education, within the next year.

"That will put a smile on my mother's face," he said.

When Olson returned to his office following his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame this summer, two cards were waiting for him on his desk.

"They were from Luke and Jason," Olson said. "That's not something you would expect from a college-age kid.

"I think it has a lot to do with the way they were brought up."

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