About a month after UConn ended its disappointing 1992-93 season with an opening-round NIT loss to Jackson State, assistant coach Howie Dickenman summoned point guard Kevin Ollie to his office for a heart-to-heart chat.
Dickenman warned Ollie his starting spot might be in jeopardy the following year because of a decorated recruit on his way to Storrs. UConn had out-dueled Kentucky and Temple to sign Doron Sheffer, a 6-foot-4 Israeli phenom whom head coach Jim Calhoun envisioned as the heir apparent at point guard.
"Kevin looks across my desk as serious as you can be, and he says, 'Coach D, I don't care who you bring into this program. I am the point guard for the next two years," said Dickenman, now head coach at Central Connecticut State. "As the story goes, Ollie was right. Doron Sheffer started at off guard and Ray Allen came off the bench behind both of them."
Stories like that illustrate why Ollie won't be intimidated by the challenge of replacing the legendary Jim Calhoun on the UConn bench this season. The Huskies' new coach has relied on impeccable character and relentless work ethic to help him accomplish what others thought he couldn't throughout his basketball career.
[Les Carpenter: Jim Calhoun sacrificed his legacy to pursue fame and titles at UConn]
He started his final three seasons in college despite Calhoun's initial misgivings. He carved out a niche for himself in the NBA as a steady point guard despite going undrafted out of college. And he played 13 NBA seasons despite only once receiving a contract longer than one year.
The challenge Ollie inherits at UConn is no less daunting than any he overcame during his playing days. The Huskies are undermanned by their standards and postseason ineligible in 2013 due to substandard APR scores, yet Ollie will have only one season to show sufficient progress to persuade school administrators he deserves a long-term contract.
Although Ollie has never been a head coach and has only spent two seasons as an assistant at UConn, those close to him still believe he'll thrive in his pressure-packed new role. Ex-UConn teammate and current Quinnipiac assistant Scott Burrell wishes UConn would have awarded Ollie a three-year contract right away, but he's confident the qualities that made the former point guard successful as a player will translate into coaching.
"I think Kevin is a great choice for the job," Burrell said. "Even though he only has a one-year deal, he'll make the most of that one year the way he did in the NBA. He firmly believes he will be the right person to lead them through the tough times they're going through right now, and I think he will."
Dorothy Ollie, a school teacher and ordained minister, raised Ollie and his two sisters in Gardena, Calif., after she and his father separated when he was 4. Gang violence was rampant in Ollie's neighborhood at the time, but his mother did her best to keep him out of trouble and focused on school and basketball so he could make something of his life.
Ollie eventually emerged as a capable scorer at Los Angeles powerhouse Crenshaw High, but it was his competitiveness and effort level on defense that former coach Willie West remembers most. In a playoff game against city rival Westchester late in Ollie's sophomore year, West says Ollie came from 25 feet behind the play to swat away a fast-break layup attempt from an opposing guard who show-boated too much on his way to the rim.
"That's the kind of intensity he played with," West said. "Here's Kevin coming from half court to block the shot against the backboard. That inspired us enough to come from behind and win the game."
Among the college coaches who appreciated Ollie's throwback game was Dickenman, who first spotted him at an AAU tournament in Portsmouth, Va. Dickenman became enamored enough with Ollie that he flew from Hartford to Los Angeles a handful of times, took a cab to the guard's home and put in 10 or 15 minutes of face time before jumping in the same taxi and heading back to the airport.
UConn was recruiting two point guards for the 1991 class: Ollie and Connecticut native Travis Best. As signing day approached, the Huskies staff informed both point guards they would take whichever one committed first.
"Kevin called on a Saturday and said he was going to come to the University of Connecticut," Dickenman recalled. "We then called Travis Best's father and said we hope that he enjoys Georgia Tech."
Ask anybody who saw Ollie's off-target jump shot and suspect ball handling when he got to UConn, and they all say the same thing. At that point, none of them thought he had much hope of a pro career, especially not compared to the other members of a celebrated UConn recruiting class that included Donyell Marshall, Donny Marshall, Brian Fair and Rudy Johnson.
That changed over the course of Ollie's UConn career as he transformed himself into a more disciplined person on and off the court. He ate only healthy foods. He spent hours in the gym every day shooting by himself or working with assistant coaches to improve his dribbling or passing. And he'd leave his teammates huffing and puffing during conditioning by doing five-mile runs in less than 25 minutes.
"Kevin wasn't a vocal guy at that time, but he led by being in the gym every day," Donyell Marshall said. "We used to walk in the gym sometimes and be like, 'Kevin, what are you doing? Coach said we have the day off.' He'd say, 'If we're going to win this year, I've got to get my jump shot right. I've got to get my assists right.'"
All that effort is what enabled Ollie to inherit UConn's starting point guard role from star Chris Smith his sophomore year and keep that job the next three seasons. He never averaged double figures in points any season but he played solid defense, improved his shooting percentage every year and had nearly three times as many assists as turnovers, helping the Huskies reach the Sweet 16 and the Elite Eight his final two years.
Instead of quitting basketball or going overseas when he went undrafted in 1995, Ollie kept clawing his way closer to the NBA. He spent two years with the CBA's Connecticut Pride, then received a series of 10-day contracts with NBA teams before finally spending his first full year in the league in Philadelphia for the 1999-2000 season.
Ollie played 13 seasons in the NBA with 12 different teams, averaging a career-best 8.0 points per game in Seattle during the 2002-03 season. The only way he was able to stick was by being a selfless teammate off the bench and by keeping himself in the best shape possible via legendary 2 1/2-hour weightlifting and conditioning sessions.
Being a consummate professional actually made Ollie more marketable by the end of his playing days. Cleveland acquired him mostly to mentor a young LeBron James during the 2003-04 season. Oklahoma City did the same in 2009, signing him to set a good example for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
At the end of the summer of 2009, Ollie flew to Oklahoma City to go apartment hunting so he'd have somewhere to live for the upcoming season. Ollie, then 36, joined some of his younger teammates for a workout, outlasting guys 10 and 15 years younger than him who had been doing these drills all summer.
"The guy dropped by in between apartment hunting, blew everyone away in the workout, showered, looked at another apartment and then got on a plane and went home," Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti said. "I thought it was a great example of how prepared it was. He obviously kept himself in tremendous shape over the summer and he was in good enough shape to be the last man standing."
Presti was so impressed by Ollie's approach to the game and consistent attitude in the face of success or adversity that he took the veteran to a teppanyaki-style Japanese lunch near the end of the 2009-10 season to discuss Ollie's post-basketball goals. What Presti learned was Ollie had interest in a coaching or front office position with the Thunder but his first choice was to return to his alma mater and coach under Calhoun.
Sure enough, Calhoun made that dream happen in summer 2010 when he added Ollie to his staff as an assistant coach and began grooming his former player to one day become his replacement. Ollie has done especially well in recruiting, forging strong relationships with kids and coaches and helping the Huskies continue to reel in top prospects despite the uncertainty about Calhoun's future.
Those close to Ollie admit he's walking into a tough situation with the program in some turmoil and only one year to prove himself. Nonetheless, they believe UConn officials would be making a mistake so many have throughout Ollie's life if they doubt his ability to rise to the occasion.
"This kid is polished, he's humble as all get out, he's appreciative, he's determined, he's a great teacher and he has charisma," Dickenman said. "He's one of my favorites. And I don't say that about every Tom, Dick or Harry. He has a lot of supporters, and I'm as big a supporter as he has."
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