UConn Men's Basketball Coach Kevin Ollie: The Overachiever
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Longtime pro and college coach Larry Brown, another Hall-of-Famer who coached Ollie from 1999 to 2001 with the Philadelphia 76ers and is entering his second year as the head coach at Southern Methodist University (another of UConn’s new conference mates), says Ollie has “every quality you would want in a coach: passion, teaching, the ability to relate to young people.”
He’ll need to lean on the lessons learned in the pros if he’s going to succeed long-term at UConn. Ollie was a role model for younger players the caliber of LeBron James (when the two played together in Cleveland) and Kevin Durant (in Oklahoma City). “You can’t put a price on his work ethic and feel for the game,” Brown says.
NBA teams don’t have the resources or roster spots to keep someone who isn’t making a contribution. “If you aren’t playing you’d better have a big reason to be on that team,” Calhoun says.
Ollie averaged 15 minutes in 662 games and earned more than $20 million in those 13 years. His UConn contract calls for $400,000 yearly base pay, plus more than $800,000 annually in media and public-relations commitments. There are bonuses for academic and athletic success and penalties if the team fails to meet minimum NCAA scholastic standards.
When Ollie called Brown several years ago about whether he should stay with the Oklahoma City Thunder, where he had played for two years, or take the assistant position at UConn, his mentor advised him to return to his basketball roots.
“I told him ‘you know you want to coach, and now you have the opportunity to go back with Calhoun, who has handpicked you and has your back’,” Brown says. “It was a no-brainer in my mind.”
Brown says when he and Ollie were going after the same players during summer recruiting, families would tell him that the UConn coach said nice things about his potential rival. “You don’t see that happen so much in our profession, where coaches champion other guys,” Brown says.
The life of an NBA nomad was not wasted on Ollie.
Undrafted out of college, Ollie opted to skip the standard route and play in Europe, and instead spent several years with the Connecticut Pride in the now-defunct Continental Basketball Association. At age 25, five years older than the average age of an NBA rookie, the Dallas Mavericks signed him to his first NBA contract.
Ollie’s stint in Dallas lasted all of 16 games. His next NBA stop, with the Orlando Magic, lasted 19. In all, Ollie was with 11 NBA teams (three times with Philadelphia and twice with Orlando), wore seven numbers and was on four playoff teams.
Ollie’s best season came in 2002-03 with the Milwaukee Bucks and Seattle SuperSonics, when he played in all 82 games, averaging 6.5 points, 3.5 assists and 2.2 rebounds in 23.1 minutes. Ollie ended his career in 2010 with Oklahoma City, where he played 25 games, but more importantly for his career, became a valuable asset in the locker room.
When Thunder general manager Sam Presti signed Ollie, he said Ollie’s greatest contributions were his off-the-court leadership and understanding of player personnel. When he was named an assistant coach at UConn, Ollie was given a two-year contract—a highly unusual deal since assistants are normally year to year. But Ollie was close with the Oklahoma front office, where he was being groomed for a job, and UConn had long-term ideas in mind.
In a 2009-10 survey, Ollie was the least-known active player to receive votes among the likes of Ray Allen, Jason Kidd, Dwyane Wade and Steve Nash in a poll asking NBA general managers who would make the best coach someday.
His NBA career, Ollie says, gave him “character and resiliency. “It gives you the ability to fall down and get back up,” he says. “I like hitting the wall. You know your limits, you can test yourself.”