EDITOR’S NOTE: Former Tucson High School and University of Arizona basketball standout Ernie McCray is a legendary figure to Tucsonans and Wildcat fans. McCray, who holds the Wildcats’ scoring record with 46 points on Feb. 6, 1960, against Cal State-Los Angeles, is the first African-American basketball player to graduate from Arizona. McCray, who now resides in San Diego, earned degrees in physical education and elementary education at Arizona. He is a longtime educator, actor and activist in community affairs in the San Diego-area. He wrote a blog for TucsonCitizen.com before the site ceased current-events operations last week. He agreed to continue offering his opinion and insight with AllSportsTucson.com with this piece about Sean Miller. McCray also writes blogs for SanDiegoFreePress.org.
BY ERNIE McCRAY
Special to AllSportsTucson.com
I recently wrote about Steve Fisher, the coach of the San Diego State Aztec men’s basketball team, about how masterful a teacher he is. Now I’d like to share a few words about another virtuoso teacher, Sean Miller, who coaches the University of Arizona Wildcats.
I remember when he first popped up in my life. I was settling down in my easy chair, with a beer, perhaps, all relaxed (a talent of mine), waiting to hear Ed McMahon say “Here’s Johnny!” with that brassy introduction by Doc Severinsen and the mighty Tonight Show Band. “Hi-Yo!”
After a few jokes and the usual kidding around you expect on a talk show, this 14 year old kid comes out, sits down, and, as if this was just another day in the neighborhood, started talking about where he was from and how he had once made 50 free throws in a row and the next thing I know he was putting on a basketball skills show. He spun a basketball with blinding rotations on his fingers and bounced and/or juggled and dribbled between his legs what seemed like, in those moments, a crate of basketballs – like it was no big thing. What a dazzling human being. What poise – in the midst of all the crowd noise.
Not too many years after that he popped up on my TV again, this time showing off even more of his basketball artistry at the college level as a passer extraordinaire at Pitt and as an obvious leader on the court. Then I watched him at Xavier, as a college coach, all these years liking everything I saw, aware that this man was made to dazzle.
But when Arizona set out to hire another coach I didn’t think that much about who it might be other than hoping somebody was found who could stand severe heat and the politics in a state that’s real scary some times. I remember thinking who could they find to remotely take the basketball team to the kind of prominence the school had enjoyed with Lute Olson? The answer came soon. Sean Miller. Mr. Dazzle.
I was stoked. Through the glimpses I got of him every-now-and-then on ESPN and other networks I could sense that my alma mater had inherited a coach who was quite the teacher, a coach who would hold their attention, instill in them his “never give up” attitude, demand their respect by first appreciating and respecting them so that they could fully buy-in to what he wanted from them as individuals and as a team. And was I ever right on as these guys he’s got this year play Miller ball, as good a team brand of ball as there is on the college scene, dazzling, showing in their actions that they believe in whatever the process is that’s making such winners out of them.
They’re learning all the little intricacies of the game, nicely, how each of them fits in the scheme of what their coach is trying to accomplish, the elements they need to polish to be dazzling. It’s fun watching them make something happen after a play is drawn up for them during timeouts. Everyone in the field-house knows what they need to do and they so often do it. They’re truly all for one and one for all. In every game I’ve seen them play, they, according to school lore have, “Fought Like Wildcats!” How dazzling is that?
They have no quit whatsoever, fully invested, intimidating on offense, dogged on defense. If somebody’s open they get the ball; if the ball is on the floor they’re diving and sliding and scratching and crawling to get it or tie the person up who has it; if you’re playing recklessly or too carefully they’ll pick your pocket and score on a fast break before you can shake your head; opposing team misses a shot and the boards are crashed and rebounds snatched with authority and somebody better get back on defense because they will be gone; teammate misses a shot and somebody’s sky-ing
with a tip or a put-back dunk on their mind.
You can see that Sean has this team focused like he was when he performed his magic in front of Johnny Carson and millions of people on late night television. They’re learning all the little intricacies of the game, nicely, how each of them fits in the scheme of what their coach is trying to accomplish, the elements they need to polish to be dazzling. It’s fun watching them make something happen after a play is drawn up for them during timeouts. Everyone in the field-house knows what they need to do and they so often do it. They’re truly all for one and one for all. In every game I’ve seen them play, they, according to school lore have, “Fought Like Wildcats!” How dazzling is that?
Sean’s teaching shows; his diligence has brought his teams along gradually, guiding them to a 16-15 record when he arrived on the Arizona campus for the 2009-10 season. 30-8 the next year. 27-8 last year. And here they are 21-1 at this writing. That’s a lot of dazzling.
I’m so proud of a basketball program that has, for years now, shined brightly and reached heights I couldn’t have dreamed of back when I was watching the U of A play in the 40’s and when I was playing on the team in the late 50’s. Fred Snowden gave fans the first hints of what could be possible and Lute took it from there and Sean has come along and kept it rolling.
Watching him and his guys go to work is a joy. I’ve always wished the best for my old school and hiring a coach who is such a good teacher, coach, leader, communicator, motivator, cheer leader, promoter, dazzling human being (proof on YouTube) – well, that’s one of the best moves the school could have made.
The man has been impressing me for parts of 30 years. To him and his brilliant players, I say: Go, Wildcats! Dazzle on! And leave my 46 points alone (smile)!