The Rides of March. … And Beyond
Ollie’s climb to the top included Milwaukee stop
Kevin Ollie traveled a circuitous ascension to the pinnacle of college basketball’s landscape.
Ollie, who coached the University of Connecticut on its unlikely run to the 2014 NCAA championship – punctuated by a 60-54 victory over the University of Kentucky in the April 7 title game – accomplished the feat in just his second season as successor to Hall-of-Famer Jim Calhoun.
Ollie, who took on his latest challenge after only two seasons of coaching experience as a Calhoun assistant, tackled another one when he signed with the Milwaukee Bucks as a free agent on Sept. 6, 2001. He played 53 games during the 2001-02 season, averaging 5.7 points and 3.4 assists in 21.2 minutes per outing.
His assist-to-turnover ratio with the Bucks was better than 5 to 1, which exceeds the NBA career record of 4.69 held by Muggsy Bogues.
Those who monitored Ollie’s Bucks career will remember him as a savvy point guard, an exemplary teammate and a mild-mannered individual – all qualities he displayed as UConn’s starting point guard from 1991-95.
|Click for Photos of Kevin Ollie as a Buck|
But a discussion over a decade ago with Gerald Oliver, who was a special assignments scout for the Bucks in the early 2000s, presented an insightfully different profile of Kevin Ollie.
Oliver, who was the head coach of the Connecticut Pride of the Continental Basketball Association a few years earlier, remembered Ollie as an angry young man who was unhappy with his designated place in the professional basketball world.
Oliver’s first meeting with Ollie came after Ollie had completed one of his many 10-day NBA contracts.
“Kevin came back to Connecticut after he got cut, and I never saw in my life a player who played with the level of intensity he did over a span of two weeks,” Oliver said. “He was really angry and upset because he got cut. His answer to that wasn’t to quit or lay down, but to play harder.
“I’ve seen instances where he’s played at that level since then, but for those two weeks, he was just a dynamo for the whole practice or game.”
Ollie admitted as much.
“Being in the position I’m in now, I look back at those times and situations where I had to grind it out,” he said. “That’s what I took away from it all: When I go out on the court, I have to go out and give 110 percent.”
In other words, Ollie learned about devotion – both the physical and spiritual varieties.
“My mother was an ordained evangelist, so I definitely had Christianity in my background throughout my youth,” Ollie said. “I wasn’t on the path I needed to be on in my college career, though. Once I got in the CBA, I really devoted my life again to Christ, and submitted everything to him and let him work in my life.”
Ollie, under Calhoun’s direction, helped steer the Huskies to 92-33 record and two Big East Conference regular-season titles over four years. His 619 career assists rank third in the program’s history.
Ollie was not selected in the 1995 NBA Draft, however. He was signed as a free agent by Golden State on Oct. 4 of that year and cut a week afterward, beginning a winding professional basketball odyssey.
During the next five years, he wore the uniforms of the Dallas Mavericks, Orlando Magic, Sacramento Kings, Philadelphia 76ers, New Jersey Nets, Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers, playing 234 games.
Between those NBA stops, Ollie played parts of four different seasons for Connecticut of the CBA, living life on a yo-yo, so to speak.
“You can tell the people who really want to get better,” Oliver remembered. “You have to talk some people into it, but I didn’t have to talk Kevin into it. Kevin wanted to do it. He studied, he competed and he worked hard. He’s a very intelligent player.”
What Oliver remembered most about Ollie was his persistence.
“There’s a disease called the CBA blues,” Oliver said back then. “Every time the NBA would come down and pick up a player, everybody else at that position was saying, ‘I ought to be picked up.’ The stronger ones wouldn’t, but a lot of guys would get discouraged. They’ve been spoiled in the fact that they’ve always been told they’re the best of the best, and now suddenly they’re getting the message that, ‘No, you’re not one of the best 400.’ That’s hard for a lot of players to deal with.
“Kevin has always had great determination. He’s very strong-minded. That’s the difference between the ones that make it and those who don’t make it.”
Ollie coped with a series of 10-day and one-year NBA contracts and the hardships that went with playing in the CBA and United States Basketball League for much of his pro career.
One time, he was even cut on Christmas Eve.
But he never gave up in his quest, thanks to his faith, his inner fortitude and his team-first grasp of the game.
"I definitely encountered a lot of bad traveling situations and things like that,” Ollie admitted during his Bucks stint. “At practice time, you had to go there early so you didn’t get the smaller practice sweats. All of that definitely helped me, though.”
Ollie always made sure he credited others for the opportunities he received.
“A lot of coaches have helped me,” Ollie said. “Jim Cleamons (a current Bucks assistant coach), in his first year in Dallas, gave me my first shot and played me a lot in my first year. I really owe a lot to him. He not only put me on the roster, but allowed me to go out and play and get my first bumps and bruises in the NBA and experience the NBA life. He was one of the major influences that really helped me out.
“I’d have to say Larry Brown probably helped me the most. I was with him for two years and have fond memories of going to the championship series. Just the little things that he did were awesome and really helped me out.”
Coaches such as Cleamons and Brown were only temporary helpers, though. Ollie had constant ones, too.
“My wife, Stephanie, has always provided support in my corner throughout my career,” Ollie said. “My mother and father always believed in me. They came to CBA games, NBA games, and showed me they were proud of me. They’ve given me the motivation to go out and try to do my best in the NBA and play successfully at this level.”
Ollie said his most valuable ally, though, has been his Christian faith.
“It definitely has played a big role in my life,” he said. “Through adversity and through everything, the Lord has helped me and delivered me through a lot of things. I’m definitely very grateful to him for getting me through a lot of tribulations.
“I’ve always had hope, whatever the situation. I’ve been down a lot, with being turned away where I didn’t make teams or got cut. Instead of getting down on myself, I really gave it all to the Lord and he lifted me up. He says in his Word he’s going to make you the head and not the tail.
“There have been a lot of situations where I could have gotten down on myself, but I found hope in him to get through anything that I set my mind to. Allowing him to be my standby has allowed me to get through a lot of things.”
Ollie valued his opportunity in Milwaukee, too.
“Gerald Oliver, who coached me in the CBA, was here, plus one of my best friends in the world, Ray Allen, was here,” he said. “They had a lot of great things to say, and everything has lived up to it. I love the city, I love the people and I love the team we have here.”
Oliver enjoyed seeing Ollie reap the benefits of his labor and perseverance.
“Kevin’s story is a good story, and it’s a continuing story,” Oliver said. “Kevin worked hard when he came into the league and he continued to work hard and continued to improve. He has improved all aspects of his game.
“Kevin has always had the attitude that, ‘Well, if I’m good enough today, I’m going to be good enough tomorrow.’ Kevin is like a son to me. You just want to adopt him. He’s that kind of person.”
Flashing forward to 2014, a lot of folks in Connecticut are echoing Oliver’s sentiments.