The Underestimated City apparel company signifies Tucson’s resolve for respect

Shirts produced by The Underestimated City honoring Arizona’s 1996-97 national title team will be on sale Wednesday night, starting at 7, at the relaunch party at Mr. An’s restaurant on Oracle in Tucson.

The Underestimated City — or TUC — prides itself on being a Tucson-based apparel company that signifies “a city that is underestimated, overcoming odds with a chip on its shoulder,” business manager Gabe Grateron said earlier this week.

“It fits well with sports and it’s a vision our creator had in mind when he started the business in 2010,” said Grateron, referring to Tucson native Israel Zavala, who prepped at Desert View and Cholla high schools and is a veteran of the U.S. armed forces.

How fitting, therefore, that TUC — the same University of Arizona-licensed business that produced the U.S.S. Arizona memorial shirts — is launching a T-shirt that features the championship ring worn by Lute Olson from the historic 1997 national champion Arizona Wildcats.

The vision of Tucsonan Israel Zavala for his apparel fashion business is taking off in his hometown (Zavala photo)

The vision of Tucsonan Israel Zavala for his apparel fashion business is taking off in his hometown (Zavala photo)

That team, which finished fifth in the Pac-10 that season, set a record beating three No. 1 seeds en route to the national title. Nobody other than Olson and his team, and a few diehards, thought Arizona would go that far in a season in which the Wildcats lost nine games.

“What that team achieved fits our ‘underestimated city’ theme, and it also allows for fans to see what the championship ring looks like,” Grateron said. “We had no idea what Lute’s championship ring looked like. We even tried to Google it.

“We finally were able to contact Lute during the Pac-12 tournament (in Las Vegas in March), and he sent us pictures of the ring. We decided to make a shirt appropriate for that era with this being the 20th anniversary of the title. Lute and his wife Kelly are not interested in this as a business venture; they want the proceeds to go to the Tucson Boys and Girls Club, of which Kelly is a board member.”

The championship ring t-shirt will be available for sale at tomorrow night’s (Wednesday) relaunch party of this Web site at Mr. An’s restaurant on Oracle Road in Tucson. The event starts at 7 p.m. Lute and Kelly will be there along with site reporters Andy Morales, Steve Rivera and Anthony Gimino. Other important contributors and sponsors will be on hand as well.

Grateron has a unique perspective of the 1997 title run because he moved to Tucson that year from Texas.

“I moved here literally halfway through that school year,” said Grateron, who earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering/industrial management in 2012. “I didn’t know anything about the team. I was into the Cowboys and other Texas teams, so I had no idea. It was cool to observe how much the city was behind that team.”

The Underestimated City business manager Gabe Grateron is a University of Arizona graduate

The Underestimated City business manager Gabe Grateron is a University of Arizona graduate

Zavala and Grateron collaborated on TUC beginning January 2013 with Grateron becoming the business liaison for Zavala’s existing operation. Zavala is the main graphic designer who is also a stencil artist. They transitioned Zavala’s shop on Congress to the existing location at 402 N. 4th Ave. in 2013.

Zavala originally started the business six years ago using “REP TUC” as a brand that resembled the look of the logo for rap group RUN DMC. Realizing his business needed mass appeal in Tucson, Zavala brainstormed and created The Underestimated City name out of the acronym TUC.

Zavala and Grateron obtained a licensing agreement with Arizona, which has helped their visibility in Tucson grow.

Their most popular venture to date is the production of the limited-edition U.S.S. Arizona memorial t-shirts that were made in conjuction with the Wildcats’ wearing uniforms commemorating the fallen World War II battleship at Pearl Harbor during their game against Hawaii at Arizona Stadium on Sept. 17.

“The school was hesitant at first allowing us to make the shirts because they made it clear that they did not want to monetize the Pearl Harbor component of the uniforms,” Grateron said. “So for us to not have a conflict and get in bad standing with them, we made it so the proceeds from the shirt sales got to the Arizona Final Salute (a fundraising venture to help the seven remaining U.S.S. Arizona survivors and their families attend the 75th anniversary event of the Pearl Harbor raid on Dec. 7).”

TUC sold 150 shirts in the first two hours last Friday after Arizona gave the go-ahead to sell the shirts. It sold online the 2,000 it produced within a few days. None are available and TUC is not planning on producing more.

The Underestimated City sold more than 2,000 shirts honoring the U.S.S. Arizona with more than $40,000 going to the Arizona Final Salute fundraising campaign to help the seven survivors of the fallen battleship and their families attend the 75th anniversary event of the Pearl Harbor raid in Honolulu.

The 1997 title ring shirts are also licensed by Arizona and will be available at TUC’s shop and Web site and the bookstore on campus.

Grateron said TUC is also working in conjunction with Miles Simon and Mike Bibby — members of the 1997 title team — on jersey shirts honoring the Wildcat basketball stars. The shirts with Simon’s No. 34 will be produced in time for his jersey-number retirement event at McKale Center on Oct. 14 during halftime of the Red-Blue Game.

“People like supporting players who are important to the program like Miles Simon,” Grateron said. “It will be cool for fans to buy a shirt with that jersey number and name on the back.”

Grateron also said plans are in the works for TUC to produce an Arizona championship ring fitted baseball cap with a Lute Olson autograph stitched on the side. TUC is the only brand in Tucson that has an account with baseball cap company New Era, so the look will be professional.

TUC also plans to produce more shirts of former Arizona athletes. They also work privately with businesses to produce apparel, including Salpointe Catholic High School.

FOLLOW @JAVIERJMORALES ON TWITTER! publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports,, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.

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