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Kevin Ollie’s Excellent Adventure (part one)

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Though this is a Celtics blog, I cover UConn players in the NBA, as well. Here’s a look at UConn point guard, and Glastonbury resident Kevin Ollie.

Celtic fans might be interested to know that he is also a free agent point guard with a solid resume, including 41 playoff games, one championship series, in 4 different seasons, albeit with limited minutes.

A real survivor story, this is one of… success…. and respect from everyone I talked to about Kevin Ollie, including his former coach Larry Brown.

Kevin Ollie set a UConn school record for assists (212) in his senior year. His Huskies went 57-10 combined in his junior (’94) and senior years (’95) and went to the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 in the NCAA Tourney. Like most of the best college basketball players, the silver spoon disappeared after college.

The biggest reality show – life itself – took over. For probably the first time in his life, Kevin Ollie wasn’t good enough.

Each year, each NBA team has only about 3-4 real job openings each season considering the contracts and set rosters. That means about 45-60 job openings a year. That’s it. An absolutely insane number of players are trying to get one of those spots each season.

After a stellar career at UConn, Kevin went undrafted. Undrafted players playing 11 years in the NBA as about as rare as… an albino alligator. They are like walk-ons in college, but at bigger, more exclusive colleges called NBA basketball teams. Like Jacques Vaughn, Bruce Bowen and Brad Miller, Kevin is more than an exception. He was a pedigreed player from a top program, but a definite long shot….. who needed the proverbial chance.

Call it….

The Unique Career of Kevin Ollie – Hoop Dreams Come True

Three kids are playing basketball. One says he wants to be like Michael Jordan. Another says he wants to be like Larry Bird. The third smiles, and says he wants to be like Kevin Ollie.

Kevin Ollie? You laugh.

Kevin’s story is an inspirational one for any kid. All three boys have sets their sights sky high. Bird and Jordan have done well with special God-given talents and immeasurable drive. But heart and drive can measured in far different ways.

For some, there are the superstars to try to emulate. For the rest of us mere mortals, we have the Kevin Ollies of the world. In truth, few can achieve what Kevin has achieved. I won’t say that he is us. But he is more like us. We can relate to his struggles.

There are the Muhammed Alis of the world and there are the Rockys. Some of us just want a chance to prove we can go the distance. In the NBA, very few have gone the distance as Kevin Ollie has.

Bird and Jordan’s back-of-the-basketball-card statistics will run rings around Kevin Ollie’s. But Kevin has had portioned out a singularly unique career.

The NBA is a league that has broken many more young players’ dreams than has it has fulfilled.

Millions of young males dream of playing in the NBA one day. The weaning process takes many years, and many more games to sift through the talent. AAU coaches, high school coaches, college coaches and finally NBA general managers and coaches decide who gets to wear a NBA jersey representing their team. Only a select few, highly talented, very lucky players make that final cut.

One of the great pleasures of writing about this league of highly paid, highly visible players, is to find the stories that fly below the radar. Unsung players, those that may be known to only the diehard fans, and in this case, UConn fans, all have their own stories to tell.

Former UConn star, Kevin Ollie is one of them. Kevin has adopted Connecticut and lives in Glastonbury. Having just finished playing for the Minnesota Timberwolves, his eleventh team in 12 NBA seasons, Kevin is described as a unique person and player by those who know him. His faith in God and his own abilities kept him going when many others might have quit.

Kevin graciously granted me a phone interview, describing his career, circuitous path, and eventual success.

Kevin, can you share a little bit about those early days?

“It was just fantastic. I was just coming from UConn, didn’t get drafted. Just trying to find my way…didn’t know what to expect, but I knew I had to work hard to obtain my goal and that’s to put on an NBA jersey.

So I went to Golden State (Warriors) right out of college, made it to the last cuts, and went back to the CBA (Continental Basketball Association – a minor league) and then finally I got my opportunity.

After seeing players get 10 day contracts, after my first two years in the CBA I knew I was playing well.

It seemed like it was they were over looking me. But God had a plan eventually that I’d get my time and I just wished that I (would) wait patiently, working on my skills and I finally got the opportunity, … with the Dallas Mavericks, and actually it was Coach (Jim) Cleamons’ first (head coaching) job.

And I just played hard, and eventually I made the team and it was just one of the greatest feelings I ever had. To just put on that jersey and to play. And also to be from, you know, born in Dallas, I was able to stay with my dad for the first three months of the season and my wife was there. It was just a great experience, because I think I’d never have that experience again. I just spent three months with my dad, and just being and staying with him and trying to save a little bit of money.”

Making his first real money ($272, 250), time with dad and his wife, and finally getting into that exclusive club – the NBA. Kevin’s hoop dream were coming true. But there was no guarantee it would last. He was an undrafted player. No guarantees, no long term contracts. The NBA version of a college ‘walk on’ player always keeps his bags packed. You could be gone in a blink.

Security is for bankers. (Well, it used to be.) NBA nomads rent, they don’t buy.

How unique is Kevin?

There are 450 roster spots in the NBA. Less than ten percent of those currently (43 players) have 11 years or more experience in the league. Many of those are, or have been stars, near stars, or long time starters.

Only six players having 11 years or more experience, have survived almost exclusively as a reserve or bench player. Only two of those are bona fide point guards. Two.  Out of 450.

Kevin Ollie is one of them. Spur’s point guard Jacques Vaughn is the other. Vaughn was a first round draft choice. Kevin is one of only two players still in the league 11 years later that was never drafted. Bruce Bowen is the other. Ultimate survivors.

How do you do beat those kinds of odds? Fill a specific role and do it very well. Bruce Bowen did that as a defensive stand out. Kevin’s closest comparison career-wise is the above mentioned Jacques Vaughn, currently of the San Antonio Spurs. Both are highly qualified back up point guards that know how to properly run an NBA offense. Both can distribute the ball well and both play solid defense. Running an NBA offense the right way is far harder than it looks.

Kevin played under coach Larry Brown for the Philadelphia 76ers for the two seasons from 1999-01.
He played with the Allen Iverson team that played the L.A. Lakers for the NBA Championship in 2000-01, another special moment that most NBA players will never experience in their careers.

Larry Brown…Hall of Fame coach…was a point guard in his time, and he’s known as a task master on point guards. Did he help hone your skills?

“Oh. He did. Just the angles, just the different things the point guard is supposed to take into consideration. How to think as a coach on the floor. How to get everybody in the right place at the right time. And tempo. Tempo was great with him. Where he’d have to slow down the game and then you know, how to accelerate the game.

His knowledge was just awesome. His different secondary plays, when you didn’t have the fast break, you’d go right into secondaries that North Carolina still runs to this day. And just how efficient they are. (That) was just the backbone and it taught me so much, and he taught me how to play the right way.

I think he phrased that, ‘play the right way. Play the right way.’ No matter if you’re up twenty points, no matter (if) you’re down twenty points, play the right way. And respect the game. And that’s the most (important) thing I learned from Larry Brown.”

I was lucky enough to catch up with current Charlotte Bobcat head coach, legendary Larry Brown, the only coach to ever win both an NBA championship and an NCAA championship, and he shared these thoughts with me about Kevin Ollie…

You know right now on this team (Bobcats) we have two developmental league kids that have signed, so I understand that there’s different ways to make it.

Kevin, one, I think he’s got the skill to play in our league. He’s got as much character as any kid I’ve ever coached. And he’s really been well-coached. I think…

The thing I liked about him .. I like to go to practice and not have to wind up a guy, I like their motor running, and they’re attentive and they’re ready to go and all you have to do is coach. You don’t have to beg them to play. He’s like that.

I like a guy that other players respect, has great work habits. He’s a great team mate. He’s a terrific example for our young players and he paid his dues. Even though he respects the game and he appreciated every opportunity he got. I think that’s why he’s played so long, and I think, if you asked anybody that coached him they would probably say the same things I’m saying.

“I think when he’s finished playing, he’s probably going to be coaching somewhere. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was on the college level. But I think that everybody who has been around him respects him like I do.”

That is high praise from one of the best coaches in the game for a humble Kevin Ollie. I can definitely see Ollie as a great potential coaching prospect.

Kevin has played for a Who’s Who of top NBA coaches himself.

In order:

Jim Cleamons, Don Nelson, Chuck Daly, Rick Adelman, Larry Brown (2yrs), Byron Scott, Tim Floyd, Bill Cartwright, Isaiah Thomas, George Karl, Nate McMillan, Paul Silas, Jim O’Brien, Maurice Cheeks, Randy Wittman, and recent coach, Kevin McHale.

His eleven teams are, in order…

Dallas Mavericks, Orlando Magic, Sacramento Kings, Philadelphia 76ers, New Jersey Nets, Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks, Seattle Supersonics, Cleveland Cavaliers, Philly again (4 yrs), and Minnesota.

The Early Years – UConn

When did you think you would be good and how hard was it to fit when you first got here?

“It was hard. Coming from Crenshaw (High School, L.A.) I was a scorer. Here everyone was a scorer. I had to figure out how I could best fit in. What could I do to be important to the team? I had to figure how to make the team better with what I could do.”

It seems like Coach Calhoun is a tough taskmaster. But you are giving a different side to him.

“I loved Coach! I loved him. He was tough, but he was honest, You knew where you stood and what you needed to work on to make you better.

He was like… he would do little things to support you. He might be tough at practice, but he would walk up behind you, put his arm around you and whisper something (good) in your ear when you needed it.”

That is a different side.

“Well…don’t misunderstand. Coach was like…always making deposits, making deposits in you. But when it was game time, and he wanted to make a withdrawal, you better be ready to give him what he wants!” (laughter)

Coach Calhoun said this about you after a victory against rival Syracuse…

“Kevin Ollie is what makes us a pretty good basketball team at this point. He was hurting, but would not come out. Nobody plays harder than Kevin. You can tell him what you want and he’ll do it if he can. I want him on our side.”

Kevin and another former Husky, Ray Allen, have already played together in the NBA. More on that tomorrow.

Thomas Halzack

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