Tuesday, March 18, 2008

1997 Remembered

1997 was my favorite year of college.

It was my favorite year for multiple reasons:

  • Manny was my roommate
  • Drinking was legal for me
  • Classes were relatively easy
  • I had a fun job at the College of Agriculture Economics
  • My hair had not yet started to fall out
But the main reason I loved 1997: the Arizona Wildcats won the National Championship in basketball.

March Madness is upon us. I always reminisce on the 1997 NCAA Basketball around this time of year.

Those familiar with my background know I was the mascot for the University of Arizona. I was the guy wearing the big cat costume in 95+ degree heat. There are few things worse than a full body suit of fur in early September in Tucson, AZ.

People often ask, "how did you become the mascot?" My standard response is, "I was the only one stupid enough to do it." That is not a true response, but it is my standard response. In 1995, I read about try-outs for Wilbur The Wildcat in our student paper, The Daily Wildcat. Two of my friends, Derek & Juris, encouraged me to try-out. They said I was a natural for the mascot job... looking back, I don't think that was a complement.

I tried out for Wilbur. About 40 people interviewed for the job. Of those 40 people, they had 4 of us come for a try-out during a women's basketball game.

I don't know what the judges saw, but there must have been something cat-like about me. I got the job. I was Wilbur T. Wildcat from 1995 to 1998.

I have a ton of great memories from being Wilbur. Here is a brief list:
  • giving Bob Dole a noogie
  • traveling to Hawaii with the basketball team in 1998 for the Maui Invitational
  • traveling to away Pac-10 games with the football team
  • talking with football great Tedy Bruschi during my first year of being Wilbur
  • chest-bumping Jason Terry after every Wildcat victory
  • beating ASU in football in my last game as Wilbur
  • de-pants-ing our fake "Sparky the Sundevil" in football
  • shaking Kevin Costner's hand
  • introducing my dad to Lute Olson in an elevator in Birmingham, Alabama
But the best memory of all was the 1997 National Championship. That year, Arizona was a 4 seed in the tournament. No one expected much out of the Arizona basketball team, as we had lost our last 2 games to Cal and Stanford right before the tournament. We were a young team. Mike Bibby was a freshman. Miles Simon, Michael Dickerson & Bennett Davidson were juniors. Jason Terry was a youngster (maybe a Sophomore or Junior?). This was a young team. Plus, we were in the same Mid-West region as the 30-1 Kansas Jayhawks. KU was the best college basketball team that year, by far. We beat KU in the Sweet 16. Here is a picture of me lifting Gene Egerson after we beat Kansas.

Notice that I am holding Gene in the air. This is remarkable for those who know me. I am 5' 11" on a good day. At the time, I weighed probably around 170. Gene is 6' 7", roughly 230 pounds. I guess beating Kansas gave me super-human strength. Gene is now a Harlem Globetrotter. He grew a brilliant afro after th 1997 run. Gene is one of my favorite Wildcat players of all time.

We were seeded in the Mid-West region. The first 2 games were in Memphis. Because we were playing in Graceland, I rented an Elvis costume at Lown's Costume Rental in Tucson, Arizona. If you go to the University of Arizona Sports Hall of Fame near the McKale Center, there is a 10 foot tall picture of Wilbur the Wildcat in a white Elvis costume: that is me, Ben Bartley. I am so damn proud.

Because we were seeded in the MidWest Region & my parents live in Louisville, Kentucky, I was able to get my dad tickets to all 6 games. The games were in Memphis, Birmingham & Indianapolis. My dad was able to drive to all 3 cities. My dad being at all 6 games is probably my favorite memory.

Because my parents lived in Louisville & I lived in Tucson, I hardly got to see my parents in college. I went home maybe 2 or 3 times a year. I missed my parents (I still do). So I felt so lucky to get to see them so often in the NCAA Tournament. I spent as much time with my parents in those 3 weeks than I usually spent in an entire year. It was awesome.

I loved my Arizona Wildcats, but that year, I was concerned we might not make it out of the first 2 games. We almost lost to South Alabama and College of Charleston. I think, at one point, we were down by about 10 to South Alabama. That was the first time I put on the Elvis costume. We staged a huge comeback. We went on to beat Kansas & Providence. After we beat Providence, as the team was cutting down the nets, I climbed the ladder, stood on top of the rim dressed as Wilbur the Wildcat. I got to lead our fans in a spell-out of A-R-I-Z-O-N-A. Then we went to the Final Four.

The Final Four was in Indianapolis. We played North Carolina and Kentucky. I was on the baseline, wearing a wildcat costume for Dean Smith's last game as coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels. I was in the same position for Rick Pitino's last game as head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats.

The Final Four was an awesome experience. Celebrities, TV crews, pep-rallies, marching bands... it was pure excitement. We beat Kentucky in overtime. I will never forget standing on top of the rim after Arizona won the National Championship, again leading the cheers of ARIZONA.

I am proud to be the mascot for the 1997 University of Arizona basketball team. I am proud I was Wilbur The Wildcat.


Stacy said...

My daughter goes to Belmont, they are the 14th seed, or maybe the 12th, I don't know...but in the past 2 years the Belmont Bruins have been in the championships...it's crazy, Bruin Fever man! i think they play Duke (2nd seed) first. I hope they win. My daughter told me you don't get any extra points for playing the the second seed, but I think you should...and that is all I know about basketball.

Ben said...

Wow! If Belmont wins their first game against Duke AND Arizona wins their first game against West Virginia, Arizona will play Belmont for the right to go to the Sweet 16. It would be a miracle.