Doctor; former Arizona coach Lute Olson had stroke

Associated Press

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) -Lute Olson’s doctor said Tuesday that the former Arizona basketball coach had a stroke within the last year and he advised him to retire.

The comments by Dr. Steven Knope at a news conference called by Olson’s family offer the first explanation for Olson’s sudden retirement last week, two days after he appeared at the Wildcats’ media day. Olson said at the time he was energized and looking forward to his 25th season with Arizona.

Knope said an MRI confirmed the stroke in the frontal part of Olson’s brain, which left the Hall of Famer with severe depression and impaired judgment.

“This is a rather cruel twist of fate,” Knope said at a McKale Center news conference attended by two of Olson’s daughters, Jodi Brase and Christi Snyder.

“He is quite literally devastated,” Knope said. “He was doing great over the summer and very much wanted to fulfill his obligation to the community and the university.”

Knope said Olson is resting at home and is on a blood thinner, and he’s optimistic Olson will recover.

The announcement ended almost a year of speculation about Olson’s health. Rumors began to circulate when he took a leave of absence last season for what he later termed a “medical condition that was not life-threatening.”

Over the last few weeks, Knope said he had talked to Olson about retiring because Olson was struggling to handle his workload as preseason practice opened.

“He just couldn’t put the pieces together,” Knope said. “He couldn’t do what he needed to do for the team.”

Knope said he ordered the MRI on Monday after Olson did not respond to recent treatment for depression.

“Unlike a typical stroke that you may imagine where someone is unable to walk or talk or move a limb, this stroke occurred in a part of the brain where much of his intellectual function and his motor function was perfectly normal,” Knope said. “So it wasn’t quite apparent. The tipoff and the clue came in the last several weeks, when we began to treat what appeared to be a bout of depression that simply didn’t respond.”

Knope said he had treated Olson for depression in the last year, during which Olson went through a contentious divorce from his second wife, Christine.

In April, Olson appeared ready to return to the grind of major college coaching. Olson told his doctor, “I love the game, I can’t wait to get back,” Knope said.

But something had changed. Knope said the coach had responded earlier to antidepressants but in the more recent bout he did not and also exhibited out-of-character behavior.

One public example came when a combative Olson sparred with reporters during the April news conference to announce his return. He typically had cool but cordial relations with the media.

“I think we can attribute that behavior to the stroke,” Knope said.

At media day last week, Olson expressed contrition about his behavior that day. “I’ve wished I had that hour back many times,” he said.

Olson’s hands have trembled in recent years, prompting rumors that he has Parkinson’s disease. Knope said Olson suffers from a benign condition called familial tremor but does not have Parkinson’s.

“There is no dementia going on in coach Olson,” Knope said. “He had a mental status exam two days ago, and he scored almost perfectly.”

Knope said Olson is still accepting that his health forced him to retire. Knope said the coach is “beating himself up” for leaving the team shortly before the season.

“I can’t tell you how much Lute wishes he were here today,” Knope said.

Olson’s interim replacement, Russ Pennell, expressed his support.

“Today’s news, as odd as this may sound, is comforting only in that he now knows what he’s up against as he works to return to good health,” Pennell said.