Q&A: UA hoops legend Bob 'Big Bird' Elliott

By James Kelley
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Friday, November 21, 2003

One of the most prominent UA athletes ever, Bob "Big Bird" Elliott was an athletic and academic All-American before playing in the NBA. Now doing color commentary for the Wildcats' games on Fox Sports Net Arizona, Elliott is the UA's second all-time leading scorer and leading rebounder and is the only Arizona player to top 2,000 career points and 1,000 boards.

Elliott is in the UA sports Hall of Fame and is the only UA athlete in the Academic All-America Hall of Fame. In addition to being a prominent local accountant and owning a newly formed sports and musician management agency, the Ann Arbor, Mich. native has also loaned his voice to the NBA Live and NBA Street video game franchises, produced by EA Sports. Elliott took a break from his busy schedule to talk to the Wildcat about his nickname, UA players in broadcasting and Afro upkeep.

Wildcat: What made you pick the UA?

Elliott: For me it was a combination of things. My father and I sat down and put five criteria on the academic side and five on the athletic side of what we were looking for. The University of Arizona offered the best combination of those 10 items. The athletic director at the time was Dave Strack, who used to be the head basketball coach at Michigan before he went into athletic administration. I used to go to the Dave Strack basketball camp when I was like 8, 9, 10 years old, so it was a very familiar setting in terms of athletic personnel. Coach Strack raided the University of Michigan athletic department, brought in Jim Young as the head football coach, (former head UA football coach) Larry Smith, John Mackovic, Mike Hankwitz, Jeff Green, Bob Bockrath. We all grabbed a plane and went west. I just didn't play football, (I) played basketball.

Wildcat: Where did your nickname, Big Bird, originate?

Elliott: (laughs) That's what I would call locker-room gibberish. Like kids, we would sit around and peg nicknames on one another for a variety of reasons. Mine had nothing to do with floating through the air, I basically had this big upper body and some skinny legs and Coniel Norman (who is nicknamed Popcorn) said I had big bird legs and he was trying to call me Big Pigeon. Al Fleming said, "Nah, it's Big Bird, he's just like the Big Bird off Sesame Street, he likes education." Thirty years later that has stuck hard - (it's) still here.

Wildcat: What did you think of it and what do you think of it now?

Elliott: It is what it is. It's been shortened to Bird. The weirdest thing was the basketball games used to be on Channel 11 and the transmitter was out in Nogales, so down in Nogales on the other side of the border, the signal was strong. Arizona basketball was huge down there. I remember going down my freshman year to Nogales, Sonora. All of a sudden I was hearing people saying "Pajaro, Pajaro, Pajarito!" (laughs) I was like, "Pajarito? What is that?" Birdy. (laughs) And then, I was like, "This is alright, this is different." It's a long way from the Ann Arbor-Detroit area. I could have had a lot worse nicknames. It was easy to go to schools when I was at the U of A. Basketball players go to schools and when I went to elementary school, it was Big Bird coming and they wanted to know where my costume was. I'm already tall, I got the big afro, so they figure, "Where's my costume?"

Wildcat: I saw that in 1975, you and AL Fleming were thinking about leaving early for the NBA. Were you happy about not making that decision?

Elliott: Oh, no question. The reason why I stayed is also what I think is wrong with today's system. There's no value of education in the college experience and I believe that what I obtained form getting my college education and stayed two more years in college, more than outweighs any short-term money that might have been received by going pro early.

Wildcat: Is that kind of the thing you tell players that are thinking about leaving early?

Elliott: Every player that we work with (Elliott owns Infinite sports and music agency), we have a company that represents athletes and music entertainers and it is mandatory, if you're with us, to get a degree. That's the same thing we say to our kids and any player that comes with us. It's the same thing: "You got to get your degree." If you're lucky enough to beat the odds to getting to the NBA or NFL, the average career is less than five years. So now you're 26 years old and what are you going to do to have any significance to your life and to your self-esteem.

Wildcat: You got your master's (degree) during summers when you played in the NBA. What was that like? Was it hard getting refocused on school?

Elliott: No, because there's a lot of free time in the NBA and by taking class when I was playing, it gave me something to do when I wasn't playing. It helped pass the time by with something that was constructive time.

Wildcat: What is it like working in broadcasting?

Elliott: It is fun. Anybody will tell you that if you take one of those personality tests, the things that a lot of students now in college get a chance take to see, "OK, am I going in the right career?" a career as a broadcaster and a career as an accountant are on opposite ends of the continuum (Laughs). You're not supposed to have these desires, but it is using both sides of the brain and I was always raised. Analytical; accountant wise; yeah, that's me. Artistic, impressionistic is the musician. Broadcasting, besides being fun, helps me fulfill part of my personality.

Wildcat: Why do you think there is so many former UA players in prominent roles in broadcasting?

Elliott: I think in terms of Sean (Elliott, on ABC and ESPN), Steve (Kerr, on TNT), Tom (Tolbert, on ABC and ESPN), I think it is the teachings that they acquired from Lute Olson. I've taught at the university and to teach something you have to know it at a level past just knowing it. You need to be able to articulate it and know one, two, three, four different ways to explain it, so your students know what is going on. I think that those players have that ability because they've been taught well.

Wildcat: Being in accounting and basketball, what is March like for you?

Elliott: January though April for me is a zoo, seven days a week. I work every day. If I'm not here in the office doing taxes or financial statements, I'm on the road doing a game. I've been in business now 23 years and the best thing that happened to me was a laptop computer, because now I can go on the road and take work with me and not fall as far behind. Time management is critical, because there is only 24 hours in a day, seven days in a week, and I have responsibilities I need to fill.

Wildcat: You kind of touched on the atmosphere when Coach (Fred) Snowden was there. What was it like having so many more students there?

Elliott: It makes a big difference. I would love to see McKale Center reconfigured. Going on the road as I do, I get to see other institutions' arenas. I know the effect that having students right there in the floor can be for their other fellow students that are playing the game. Even though McKale Center can get loud, it is not the same. The energy level that students bring is a different energy level than the townspeople bring. I don't know how that can be done, but that is a major home court advantage that is not being utilized, not that it has been needed much. But it can make a big difference, it really can. Oregon, Cal, Stanford, even Washington State, they might have 2,000 people in a 9,000-seat gym, but those 1,500 students down on that lower level, that's what you feel as a player - those folks that are right there on top of you. The rest of it kind of amplifies, but if you've got the crazies down there on the first level, they're right there in your face non-stop.

Wildcat: Why do you think there have been so many UA players in the NBA?

Elliott: Oh, two words: Lute Olson. A lot of the guys that are either coaching in the NBA or are general managers are comrades of mine. I played in the NBA with them, so like a Phil Jackson, an Eddie Jordan, Ernie Grunfeld, Wally Walker, Alvin Gentry; they're all guys the same age and they've all said to a "T", when they get a Lute Olson player, they do not have to teach them anything. It's a matter of taking that and incorporating that into what their scheme is. Phil Jackson is a big time proponent of Lute Olson. Look at what he's had: Steve Kerr, Jud Buechler, Brian Williams, Luke Walton. You can see that Phil knows what he's getting when he gets a Lute player and has been very successful at utilizing Lute's players off the bench.

Wildcat: With this being the 100th anniversary of UA basketball, have you given any thought to growing your Afro back out?

Elliott: Oh, that will never happen. Never happen. I can tell you why; way too much work. Afros are way too much work. I remember you had to comb it out, pick it out, hand-shape it. With this hairstyle (short), I grab a brush, five swipes and I'm out the door. Much less time, much less headache. Besides, you don't see too many accountants walking around with cornrows (laughs).