Whether Kevin Ollie gets off to a good start as the new head coach at the University of Connecticut or struggles mightily, know this: His future is in the professional ranks — not college.
Ollie will be a star in the big business that is basketball. Plain and simple, the man is a chronic overachiever who sets his mind on a goal and then systematically works his plan until it's accomplished.
The only question about Ollie is whether Connecticut will be patient enough with him enough to see him bloom. I doubt it. You don't want to be the guy replacing a Hall of Fame coach such as Jim Calhoun. Anything short of national championship means you've come up short. You want to be the guy replacing the guy who supplanted Calhoun.
Outside of head coaching experience, Ollie has all the attributes needed to be a superb leader. Character. Integrity. Charisma. Extensive professional experience. He also earned a college basketball national championship as an assistant coach at UConn two years ago. The professional ranks will be salivating to get him back.
He was never the best player on his teams, but among those who usually commanded the most respect .
In a conversation I had with Calhoun some years back, the topic of Ollie came up. Calhoun said Ollie's leadership qualities were apparent when he was a UConn player from 1991 to 1995, on the same team as Ray Allen. In the locker room, Allen was recognized as the team's star, Calhoun said; but it was Ollie who all the players gravitated toward.
I was visiting Storrs one day several years ago and decided to stop in at the Gampel Pavilion to see who would be working out. Ollie was there with a shooting coach, taking jump shot after jump shot, preparing for another pro season. Dee Rowe, the venerable retired UConn hoops coach, was also watching. We started talking about the Ollie work ethic.
I suggested to Rowe that Ollie was going to be a fine NBA coach one day. Rowe trumped that assessment one better, saying that he could see Ollie as a general manager. That's how highly Rowe regarded his leadership skills.
Ollie is a devout Christian, whose faith has helped him to author a remarkable journey as a basketball vagabond.
His testimony is that of the steady but unspectacular college basketball player who became the quintessential minor league basketball player, toiling from city to city making $75 to $100 a game. Ultimately, he found his niche in the NBA, where he embodied the "role" in role player and role model. He averaged less than 4 points a game, yet played for 13 years (for about a dozen teams) in the league — the highlight being a five-year, $15 million contract in 2003 with Cleveland. There, he mentored a promising kid named Lebron James.
Ollie, a guy from Crenshaw High in Los Angeles, turns 40 in December. He has accomplished a lot. Now, he finds himself saddled with a ridiculous seven-month audition in trying to prove himself yet again. The odds are against him. He's used to that.
In a column I wrote about Ollie almost a decade ago, after he signed the lucrative deal with Cleveland, Ollie talked about how some folks felt sorry for him because he got cut from so many pro teams.
"I always looked at myself as a survivor, not a victim,'' he said then. "A lot of people on the outside always looked at me as the victim. 'Oh, Kevin got cut again.' But I always looked at myself as a survivor, having the ability to step back and lean on my spirituality. God has allowed me to do great things."
You can't talk about the attributes of Kevin Ollie without mentioning his faith. He mentions God in almost every conversation. He once told me his goal in life was to wake up each morning and ask himself how he can "be a blessing to someone else today.''
As his new journey begins as the improbable choice to replace a living legend — and with a contract that speaks to the administration's lack of faith in him — let's not feel sorry for Ollie.
He'll do what he's always done — survive and thrive.