At Calhoun’s Side, Exemplifying and Reinforcing His Message
By WILLIAM C. RHODEN
Published: March 27, 2011
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Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun and Kevin Ollie, now an assistant, at the 1995 N.C.A.A. West Regional championship.
East: Kentucky 76, North Carolina 69: Kentucky Returns to Where It’s Expected (March 28, 2011)
Southwest: Virginia Commonwealth 71, Kansas 61: First Four to Final Four: V.C.U. Stuns Kansas (March 28, 2011)
Analysis: Midmajors’ Rise Could Trickle Down (March 28, 2011)
Sports of The Times: A Usual Suspect Slips Into a Party Owned by Outsiders (March 28, 2011)
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Kemba Walker grabs headlines. Jeremy Lamb gives Connecticut a youthful effervescence.
But for Jim Calhoun, who will coach in his fourth Final Four when the Huskies play Kentucky on Saturday in Houston, the most important recruit contributing to a surprising March run is a former player who never made it this far in the N.C.A.A. tournament.
That would be the first-year assistant Kevin Ollie, who played for Calhoun from 1991-95, and has been a quiet voice of reassurance for this young Huskies team. Ollie is the wise mariner who helped UConn’s freshmen navigate the often tumultuous Straits of Calhoun.
“You come in as a freshman, you’re going to get screamed at, you’re going to get yelled at, but it’s all out of love,” Ollie said. “It’s all about getting you tougher because situations in life are going to come when you’re going to have to fall back on what you believe in and your core convictions. That’s all he’s doing, he’s putting a demand on your potential. And he pushes his coaching staff as hard as he pushes the players.”
For a high-profile player like Walker, a junior projected as a possible top-10 pick if he declares for the N.B.A. draft, Ollie has provided a spiritual, intellectual and practical road map for what it takes to be a leader, a winner and a successful man at the next level — of basketball and life.
“Stay humble, believe in yourself, work every day like it’s your last day and always play like you’re trying out for the team,” Ollie said he told Walker.
Ollie, 38, holds a Ph.D. in the gritty reality of pro basketball life, having retired last year after 13 N.B.A. seasons.
Unlike high-profile ex-Huskies like Ray Allen, Emeka Okafor, Richard Hamilton and Ben Gordon, Ollie was a professional nomad. He played two seasons in the Continental Basketball Association, then played for 11 teams in 12 cities during his N.B.A. career.
In addition to working with UConn’s guards, Ollie reinforces Calhoun’s message — often delivered not so gently — of perseverance.
“You’ve got all these guys who stay in the league because he puts that self-fortitude in us that, throughout cuts, trades or anything that happens, that we believe in ourselves,” Ollie said.
Ollie was a generational tweener at Connecticut. He came to UConn five years after Calhoun took over a wretched program and left four years before the Huskies won their first title, in 1999.
He has also been a fresh set of eyes and ears for Calhoun, who has found himself at a critical juncture. Calhoun’s Hall of Fame career has been hindered by health issues and tainted by N.C.A.A. sanctions.
Critics said that the 68-year-old Calhoun had reached the end of the line, that he was coasting on his reputation.
Two years ago, Calhoun responded angrily during a news conference when he was asked why he was the highest-paid state employee in Connecticut.
In February, the N.C.A.A. announced that an investigation into Calhoun’s program found it had committed recruiting violations. The Huskies lost three scholarships, were placed on three years of probation and Calhoun was suspended for the first three Big East Conference games of next season.
“You can have a lot of things said about you, but when somebody questions your integrity, that’s when you’ve got to stand up,” Ollie said. “The only thing you have at the end of the day is your name, and you have to protect that. The only way we know how to do that is to play hard and work hard and coach hard.”
There have been a string of health problems for Calhoun, beginning in February 2003 when he announced that he had prostate cancer. He took an immediate leave of absence and had surgery three days later to have his prostate removed. He was back coaching that same month.
In 2008, UConn announced that Calhoun was undergoing treatment for squamous cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer.
A year later, Calhoun fell off his bike during a charity event and broke five ribs. He finished the race. Last year, Calhoun took a leave of absence because of undisclosed health reasons. He returned less than a month later.
Ollie recalled one of his first conversations with Calhoun. It was during practice in Ollie’s freshman year, and Calhoun declared that he was the toughest guy in the gym. Ollie, who is from South Central Los Angeles, thought Calhoun was full of hot air.
Over the intervening years, Ollie has seen the toughness.
“Just to see him going through three battles of cancer, seeing him go through this N.C.A.A. stuff, he is the toughest man that I know and the most resilient,” Ollie said.
UConn’s season has been framed as one in which young players have re-energized Calhoun.
But for a coach who has been written off and hounded, beset with health concerns, seen his character challenged and his program sanctioned, this late-season run has shown that Calhoun still has some kick.
“Anybody who gets pushed to the wall is going to come out swinging,” Ollie said.
Calhoun said as much Saturday after Connecticut held off Arizona.
“I feel I’m a good underdog,” he said. “I don’t mind a challenge. I felt like I was in the corner because the sweat equity we all have — my players, my coaches, the university — have put into UConn basketball over the past 25 years is pretty deep and rich, and to have people over a couple-of-month period dismiss us, I took that personally. If I take something personally, I’m going do everything humanly possible to make sure that your perception is wrong.”
While critics will say a three-game suspension at the beginning of next season is largely ceremonial, it is nonetheless a reminder to a prideful coach that his otherwise impressive slate is not completely clean. The N.C.A.A. has ruled and its decision is part of Calhoun’s legacy.
But in the world of sports, where winning cures a variety of ills, Calhoun, with a third N.C.A.A. championship, would find absolution in Houston.