There was an ice pack wrapped tightly around her right ankle, a bruise turning black and blue on her right bicep. Kari Luttinen’s collegiate career had just come to a close, and now, she sat in a chair in the media room at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
“Getting some cool colors,” Luttinen said, with a quick glance at her arm.
Portland lost 66-58 to Santa Clara in the first round of the West Coast Conference tournament. It was the Pilots’ 26th loss of the season, and this one had not started well for Luttinen. The 5-10 guard had picked up two early fouls, and two minutes upon returning, midway through the first half, she’d landed awkwardly upon an opponent’s foot. Within two minutes, she’d checked out, then back in. Visibly hobbled until the break, kneading that ankle during timeouts, she’d managed just two shot attempts by halftime, at which point Portland trailed by 12.
It was in those final 20 minutes that Luttinen, as she’s done so many times on The Bluff, as UP’s campus is known, put on a show.
“Kari is one of the most competitive individuals I’ve ever coached,” said first-year Portland head coach Cheryl Sorenson. “She’ll win every line sprint in practice. If there’s a shoe lace-tying race, she’ll want to win.”
Said Luttinen, “Oh yeah, I’m pretty competitive. You don’t want to get against me in anything, really. I’m pretty gnarly when it comes to that.”
It’s been that way ever since Scott Luttinen, Kari’s dad, can remember. He pinpoints a weekend the summer before her eighth grade year. Kari had begun playing AAU only recently, and in one of those tournaments, he felt Kari had lollygagged. So, he confronted her. Pick what you want to do, go after it 100 percent, and be the best you can be. Otherwise, find something else to do.
He needn’t have worried. Luttinen had played the gamut of youth sports, but she committed to basketball and poured herself into the game. She began working with trainers in the Seattle, WA, area who normally didn’t include girls as clients. But Kari could always do things on a court most girls couldn’t. At Seattle Preparatory, she was a scoring sensation (running one-handed floaters!) And she always seemed to turn it up come tournament time.
Sorenson gives a deep sigh when asked about the close games for Portland in 2014-15—in WCC regular-season play, seven defeats came by five points or less, including four of the last five. Against Santa Clara in the conference tournament, the Pilots cut that sizeable halftime deficit to six with just over a minute to play. Then, they nearly grabbed a steal that could have really put them in business. But the ball sailed just over senior Cassandra Brown’s fingertips, and Santa Clara converted a layup to finish off the result.
“We really believed that we could make anything happen as long as we kept fighting, fighting, fighting,” said Sorenson. “We were almost there. You saw the fight against Santa Clara. What might’ve happened if we’d just gotten a tip going our way. But the players bought in, and we bought in as coaches, and it was just trying to leave the hallmark of the program. Never-say-die. That’s where we’re headed, and it’s in large part thanks to Kari.”
A team captain this season, Luttinen crested 1,000 points for her career. But when she was asked about the legacy she wanted to leave on The Bluff, she began with a line about playing as hard as you can, as long as you can. Something which, a SLAM reporter noted, sounded a lot like her head coach. “Oh,” Luttinen said with a chuckle, “Yeah, Cheryl says that a lot, so I’ve kind of gone off of that. But my role as a captain has always been to lead by example. I’m not necessarily the most vocal, but I’m the one that’s trying to work the hardest to bring everyone else up.”
Scott made it a priority to attend every UP women’s game he could this season, including the last hurrah in Vegas. His colleagues at work understood. This was a once-in-a-lifetime type deal, his daughter’s collegiate farewell tour.
In UP, he appreciated what he considers one of the few remaining outposts of academic-athletic standing in a sport intent upon redefining the word. The countless road trips crisscrossing the country, game times catered to TV. So many missed classes, projects, tests. A player becomes closer to an academic adviser than her classmates.
But at UP, the travel schedules were more manageable. Flights simply along the West Coast corridor. Luttinen was able to maintain a business major, and was named academic all-conference three years in a row.
And she loved playing for this program. Enter those final moments of Luttinen in black and blue. After taking just two shots in the first half against Santa Clara, she showcased that smooth offensive game. Tough mid-range jumpers off the bounce, hand in her face. Threes. She ended with 12 points in the second half, an impressive number until one considers that a month before, she’d doused those same Broncos with 22 in the first half.
Jim Sollars, the longtime Portland coach who’d recruited her, once referred to Luttinen’s “knack” for scoring. (Sollars retired after the 2013-14 season.) At Portland, the toughness and camaraderie and competitiveness also showed forth. This was a kid who, after her prep career had ended in the state tournament, said that she hoped her team came back next year and won it without her. The reporter who’d filed the story and gotten that quote called Scott the following Monday morning to tell him it was one of the greatest reveals of character he’d seen.
Sorenson joined Sollars’ staff ahead of Luttinen’s freshman season, which made this season special. She was so proud of this departing class, Kari included. “She’s just a joy to be around,” said Sorenson. “She makes you want to pour the effort in to make her better in any way you can.”
Said Scott of the final game, “She had that rolled ankle, could barely walk around on it, but she stepped up. Got it taped up tighter, got some ibuprofen, and went after it. It didn’t quite happen, but it was cool to see.”
The latest example of character revealed. Luttinen isn’t sure yet whether she will pursue professional basketball or enter the working world, but one has to think, with that competitive edge and the talent tethered along with it, she’s got a great shot at making it work.