Gardner: From 'Great' to 'Legend' With Leadership

I will always remember Jason Gardner for the time he brought the McKale Center crowd to a mind-numbing crescendo last year against UCLA. His 3-pointer gave Arizona its first lead after trailing by 20 points midway though the second half. As the Bruins walked towards their bench after calling a timeout to quiet the hypersonic crowd, Gardner stood alone at half court and yelled, "This is MY house! This is OUR house!" More of the same is needed from Gardner this season. Not later, but right now.

Azgirl and I had a discussion about something we have yet to notice during the pickup games: tangible leadership from Arizona's seniors. While Jason Gardner and Luke Walton are vocal and do their share of teaching and instructing the younger guys, it's not quite to the level of a certain former Wildcat who will always rank No. 1 on the leadership lists.

I listened as Azgirl told me the story of what happened on several occasions during the preseason pickup games (no coaches allowed) following the 1997 National Championship. I had witnessed my own share of Miles Simons' vocal leadership and was always very impressed with his charisma and take charge attitude, but she told the best story. If you remember, that 97-98 Wildcat team set a school record by averaging 90.8 points per game. The four-man perimeter attack of jet-quick athletes like Simon, Mike Bibby, Jason Terry and Michael Dickerson literally ran other teams off the court. What we might not have known was why.

Simple: offseason (preseason) conditioning.

Azgirl walked into McKale one afternoon and watched as Miles Simon stopped a pickup game, told the guys to follow him off the court and then had them run the steep ramps up to the surface from the court below...while timing them. Again and again, they ran the ramp while Miles spurred them on. He ran his share as well, to lead by example.

Afterwards, Miles ran with the team as they circled the upper level track at a good pace. Donnell Harris showed up late and didn't run with the team, saying he had a class and was tired. Miles told him that if he'd try to get his run in, he'd run along with him. And he did. Miles did the workout twice just to have one guy not be left out and to make sure the entire team (HIS team) would be the most well-conditioned squad in America.

Whenever the team practiced (back then they were open to the public), Miles was in complete control. He led the stretching and drill lines. He told them when and where to be and how to do it. Not once can I remember anyone questioning Miles' authority (in a relative sense, of course, Lute's in charge overall). They all respected their leader even if Bibby, Dickerson and Terry were considerably more naturally talented than Simon was.

When Arizona was beating North Carolina during the Final Four in 1997, Miles grabbed Bibby and Dickerson as the clock ran down and told them "one more, one more win". It was like watching kids cling to their father when he put his arms around them and spoke.

Two nights later, Simon led by example when he scored 30 points en route to capturing both the National Championship and the Tournament's Most Outstanding Player award.

Another story goes like this:

When Miles was a freshman, Arizona was struggling to determine who the starting shooting guard should be. After a few weeks of practice, Simon walked into Lute Olson's office, put his hands on his desk, hunched over while looking directly into Olson's eyes and said, "I AM your man". He walked back out and wound up starting most of the year (would have been all year had it not been for a dislocated finger that sidelined him for a portion of the season).

Arizona assistant coach Josh Pastner was a member of the team that year and he remembers how Miles would take control of the team very well.

"Miles had the best leadership you can imagine," Pastner said. "He was amazing. He was such a winner and a great team guy. He wasn't the prettiest player to watch, but he always found a way to put the ball in the basket and get what needed to happen done."

I bring this up and find that it's applicable to this year's team because that kind of leadership seems to be slightly lacking. I don't expect that either Gardner or Walton (or even both combined) could provide Miles' type of leadership, but that's not what is needed. While this team is about 10 times more talented than the '98 team was (from top to bottom), it has yet to take on someone like Gardner's bulldog work ethic.

The '98 team was Simon's team, period. The play and attitude reflected its leadership and that was all Miles. If Gardner wants to cement his legacy as one of the top three or four Wildcats ever (and he probably will regardless), he'd do himself and his younger teammates a favor by driving them to get better every day. Even if it means making them get into better shape through running ramps or something like that.

Luke Walton might get more media attention than Jason does, but make no mistake, this is Gardner's team. He's been the floor general for Lute Olson from Day One and he's been an All-American every year.

"With Jason you don't always see how much of a leader he is," Pastner said. "It's not like Miles with how he talks on the court or in practice all the time. Jason is more behind the scenes with his leadership. In the timeouts, in the huddles and during games, that's when he gets on the guys and tells them what needs to be done."

One of the most memorable moments of all of last year (and one of the classic examples of how Gardner was the leader of a very young team) came during the first part of the season.

Channing Frye was defending out near the elbow of the free throw line when Gardner came up behind him, yanked his freshman teammate's jersey and literally threw him back into position where he should have been under the hoop.

Funny, but I don't remember ever seeing Channing play that far out of position the rest of the year. Gardner made sure of it.

I don't expect Gardner or Walton to turn into Miles Simon. That's impossible, because Miles was so unique in his leadership. But perhaps a more intense preseason on the court would serve as the perfect tool to get this team in the Gardner mold. After all, 12 Jason Gardner's running around--some more talented, some less talented than the senior point guard--is like having a dozen William Wallaces in the Scottish rebellion.

This team has more than enough talent and more than enough depth, not to mention the best coach around. What it needs now is an attitude and a sense of purpose so single-minded that everything prior to the Final Four in April is considered a tune up.

Jason Gardner can make that happen. This is HIS team.

A year from now, be prepared to rattle off the names Elliott, Simon and Gardner as the three all-time best in Arizona history. They are leaders and they are winners.

With a National Title in 2003, Jason Gardner goes from 'great' to 'Legend'. His race to immortality begins now, in practice.

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