— Long before the one-year audition, long before the nomadic decade of 10-day contracts strung together in the
"I saw friends of mine get killed," Ollie said. "I saw different things where I had to become street-smart, I had to be aware of what I had to do on a day-to-day basis to survive."
The polished, personable Kevin Ollie, who has taken on the daunting task of replacing Calhoun as
"I'm glad I had my mother there in the middle of the mix to keep me on the straight and narrow," Ollie said, "because I could easily have gone down the wrong path."
Ollie's mother, Dorothy, became an ordained minister in the Hays Tabernacle Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in 1989, and Kevin attended services with her from the time he was a child. She never shied from community involvement, never stopped trying to make a difference, but she did move her family to Gardena, a safer neighborhood. Still, Kevin Ollie walked past Florence and Normandie, the intersection that became nationally known during the
When he was 16, basketball coach Willie West, who brought national recognition to Crenshaw, caught Ollie shooting dice. "Coach West grabbed me by the neck, and that was the last time that ever happened," Ollie said.
Somehow, Ollie navigated. Basketball helped — he averaged 21 points for Crenshaw — as did the strong faith that his mother instilled, and as did common sense. He learned where he could wear red, and where he could wear blue, and how to walk away from trouble and how to get along.
"There were gangsters around," Ollie said. "They knew I had the ambition to play basketball and they respected that. You had to talk to them — you couldn't ignore them and let them think you're too good for them..."
That's where Ollie was coming from the day he arrived at UConn in September 1991. He slipped on a blue outfit because it was his choice, and he began jogging around the campus.
"I wanted to get away from L.A.," he said. "Not get away from my family, but get away from the environment I grew up in. This was like a total 360. I felt relaxed, I felt calm. And when I got into the gym and saw how Coach Calhoun pushed his guys to be perfectionists on and off the basketball court, I fell in love with it."
When Ollie arrived at UConn, he told The Courant that his goal was to become the school's all-time assists leader. After his freshman year, in April 1992, he watched on TV from his dorm as the rioting, the aftermath of the
At the end of his sophomore season, Ollie was warned by assistant coach
When he went back to school in September of '93, he wandered down to a campus festival and spotted Stephanie, who was to become the next strong woman in his life.
"I saw her, and we kind of rekindled what we had," Ollie said, "which was just a couple of conversations. She never really gave me the time of day. But she saw me, I saw her and it was perfect. She had broken up with her boyfriend."
Two years later, Ollie left UConn as the Huskies all-time assists leader, with a degree in communications and Stephanie's promise to marry him.
"She has always been my rock, my confidante," he said. "Without her, I couldn't do anything. I still had things I wanted to do, I was still immature. But she was right there — she saw something better in me."
Now Ollie, who averaged 6.7 points at UConn, was off to try to play in the NBA.
From Hawaii, his retirement haven, the gravelly voice and boisterous laugh were unmistakable. It was Hall of Famer
"He was the perfect reserve player," Nelson remembered. "Understood his role, never complained about playing time, or anything else. Always a great team member."
Nelson cut Ollie a few weeks later. Enter the Connecticut Pride and coach Tyler Jones.
"Kevin wasn't an Alpha, he was a Beta," said Jones, now coaching at Concordia University in Chicago. "And by being a Beta, he became a leader of our team."
Alpha is a dominating, aggressive personality. Beta? The Urban Dictionary notes, "The Betas are wingmen, collaborative and conciliatory. In human terms, Betas make the best mates. … They know how to hasten the greater good."
As Calhoun had once predicted, Ollie was settling in Connecticut, and he was keeping his dream alive, playing year after year with the Pride of the Continental Basketball League and the Skyhawks of the
"We used to play golf a lot," Jones said, "and Kevin, on the golf course, was always looking for any edge he could get. 'My shoulder has been bothering me, I may need a few strokes today.'"
Ollie would get another chance at the NBA in 1997 with the Mavericks where, again, Nelson signed and cut him, and the
"My favorite memory of Kevin was in 1999," Jones said. "He was cut by the NBA and he came back to us. But he realized we had a good team together and he didn't want to disrupt things. So he played off the bench during our CBA championship run."
Ollie ran into Nelson at the Hall of Fame induction last September, and after they had a warm chat, Ollie turned to Glen Miller, now associate head coach on his UConn staff and whispered, "He cut me three times."
Indeed, Nelson did sign and waive Ollie a third time in 1999.
"His character? UConn couldn't have done any better," Nelson said. "He got the most out of his ability. He ended up playing close to 10 years in the NBA, didn't he?"
Nelson, 72, was politely corrected. Ollie played 13 years.
"Thirteen years?" Nelson roared in amazement from Hawaii. "Ha ha ha ha ha! … Thirteen years!"
Another Hall Of Fame Fan
Ollie's character was just as admired, and his basketball abilities taken a bit more seriously, perhaps, by another Hall of Famer: Larry Brown brought Ollie to the
"I come from the Larry Brown school," Ollie said after one of his first practices, holding his hands a foot apart. "His playbooks were like this. … But then it was just, 'Clear things out for
But no matter what Brown threw at Ollie, fatigue was never a factor. Mostly, he depended on Ollie to help his young players.
"We had a lot of young players,
Ollie played for the 76ers in the
"Stephanie allowed me to do that," Ollie said. "I never had to worry about the kids, about academics, because I knew she was a stickler for time management. She made me a better basketball player because I didn't have to worry about my kids. It was a beautiful thing."
The tour continued. Back to Philadelphia in 2004, and he played in a career-high 70 games the next season. Then it was to Minnesota and finally to Oklahoma City — where one of his former teams, the SuperSonics, had relocated. He played a year with the
"He called me," Brown said. "I know he was thinking about going back to Oklahoma City, and I told him, 'You know you want to coach eventually. What better opportunity than to go back to your school, and with your coach, who loves you."
Ollie might have played a little longer in the NBA, or perhaps begun his coaching career as an assistant. But he returned to his second home, to where, all those years before, he had escaped those unforgiving L.A. streets and was able to take an evening jog without looking over his shoulder.
Calhoun, who was nearing 70, trusted him to recruit the right kind of players, and almost from day one Ollie was pegged as the successor.
"When you've played 13 years in the NBA," Calhoun said, pooh-poohing the idea that Ollie's lack of head coaching experience is a factor, "you've earned a Ph.D. in basketball. He's played for Larry Brown, he's played for Chuck Daly. Can you imagine how many times he has been in a huddle and listened as those coaches drew up plays in the last minute? He's ready."
Still, security is elusive. Ollie, 39, is signed through April 4. Seven months, one season to prove himself.
"I'm not happy about the one-year contract," Brown said. "It's not going to be easy. But Kevin has been in so many situations and he knows how to handle it and I know he can be successful. I hope they realize at Connecticut that they have something special here. Coach Calhoun recognized it."
Said Jones: "It's not perfect, but Kevin can find a way to overcome it. There's not a doubt in my mind he's going to be great."
Ollie, meanwhile, puts his faith in himself, in his family, in his players. He is confident in his street-wised, time-hardened ability to get along.