UConn Men's Basketball Coach Kevin Ollie: The Overachiever
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Ollie has been a fighter since his early days growing up in the roughest section of south-central Los Angeles. “I walked out my door and I’d be confronted by colors—one block would be the blue gang, one block the red gang,” he says. Athletics gave Ollie protection. “When I walked through the neighborhood, they’d say ‘he plays basketball,’” he says. Some of his former youth teammates are dead, others are in jail. One, David Fizdale, is an assistant coach with the Miami Heat.
Dorothy Ollie, Kevin’s mother, an assistant minister in the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church of Los Angeles, provided her own support system, instilling the power of religion in her three children. Religion, Ollie says, “is the center of life . . . everyone peaks off of their faith in God and Jesus Christ. Money, women, alcohol can’t fill a void. Religion can help you overcome obstacles.”
When Ollie was 7, his parents divorced and his father moved to Dallas. He spent summers there, cutting lawns and doing other odd jobs so he could be with him for some length of time. “I’m grateful to my mom because she gave me a relationship with my father,” he says.
Outside of his family, the person he looks up to most is Calhoun. This past summer, when he entered the homes of recruits, he had behind him the Calhoun legacy of 27 years of winning basketball, three national championships and the great NBA players who have played in Storrs.
He also had personal experience. “I told them, ‘I stayed in the same dorms you’ll be in, I sat in the same seats, you’ll sit in,’” he says. The Husky tradition and his experiences “give us separation” from other schools, he says. But most of all, watching Calhoun go after players . . . “the pride he had in this university” impressed him. “I’d think ‘if I could just touch the hem of his garment,’” he says with a wry smile.
Ollie has been successful in recruiting quality players who otherwise might have avoided UConn because of its 2013 postseason issues.
Among them are 6-foot-9 forward Kentan Facey of Glen Head, Long Island, and 6-4 guard Terrence Samuel of Brooklyn, N.Y., teammates on the highly regarded New York Rens AAU program.
Facey, ranked among the top 100 high school seniors, says the fact that the team needed big men factored into his decision to choose UConn over UCLA and Rhode Island, among others.
Ollie was another factor. “I watched UConn all last year and felt that they kept playing hard, which showed the personality of the coaching staff,” he says. “They could have given up, but they didn’t.”
Ollie’s skill at reaching out to individual players is clear in the way he has treated Rodney Purvis, a 6-foot-4 sophomore transfer from N.C. State, who has been the recipient of the coach’s encouragement and counsel. On campus this past summer to take courses and begin workouts, Purvis discovered quickly that he had to pick up his work ethic. “Everything here is much more intense,” he says. Every day, Ollie stops Purvis in the hall. “To see how I’m doing,” Purvis says.
Perhaps the most prized Ollie recruit is Daniel Hamilton, a senior at St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower, Calif., who verbally committed to the program for the 2014-15 season. Ollie had been pursuing the 6-foot-7 swingman, who is ranked among the top 30 juniors in the country. When he announced his decision, Hamilton, whose older brother Jordan plays for the Denver Nuggets, said the team “looked like a brotherhood” when they beat Michigan State.
It’s a description of his team that Ollie uses frequently. “We weren’t playing for a national championship,” he said after the final game of the season against Providence. “We were playing for each other. This team was a brotherhood.”