A new star emerged in college basketball at last Saturday’s Elite Eight match-up between the University of Connecticut Huskies and the Michigan State Spartans at Madison Square Garden.
Many would think the star is Shabazz Napier, the Huskies’ 6’1 senior point guard, who scored 25 points and added four assists in the biggest game of his basketball career. However, Napier has been an instrumental part of the Huskies program since his freshman year, when he backed current NBA star Kemba Walker to an NCAA Championship under then-Huskies coach Jim Calhoun. Labeled as Walker’s protege, Napier has been in the national spotlight for the past three years.
The true star that emerged from last Saturday’s Huskies “upset” was the man coaching from the sideline- a lanky 41-year-old NBA wash-up from urban Los Angeles- UConn Head Coach Kevin Ollie.
Ollie played high school basketball at Crenshaw High School in South Los Angeles. To give a little perspective, Crenshaw has been featured in the 1991 movie “Boyz in the Hood”, and again in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “Love & Basketball”.
After going on to play under former UConn head coach Jim Calhoun, Ollie entered the NBA draft in 1995. No team thought he was good enough to use a draft pick on him. In 1997, Ollie was given a crack at the League, where he played for 12 years. He was far from a first ballot Hall-of-Famer, playing for 15 different teams with a career average of 3.8 points per game.
After retiring from the NBA, Ollie returned to his alma matter in 2010, where he would be an assistant coach under Calhoun. Even with his assistant coaching position, Ollie embodied post-hoop dream achievement. Shortly thereafter, the Huskies basketball dynasty that I was all too familiar with was on the brink of demise.
After almost two decades heading the program, Jim Calhoun retired a month before the 2012 pre-season workouts and the team was banned from NCAA tournament play due to a flimsy academic standing. They were essentially stranded from the Big East Conference and forced to move down to a lesser- respected American Athletic Conference. The Huskies lost Kemba Walker to the NBA draft, a few more players transferred out of the program, even more recruits lost interest and the list goes on. The University of Connecticut wasn’t the place to be.
Then came Huskies’ Athletic Director Warde Manuel’s decision to hire Ollie as Calhoun’s successor, a move fully backed by the Hall of Fame coach. Not only did Ollie get the head coaching position for the 2013 season, but he was inked for a five year, seven million dollar contract before his first game as a coach.
For someone like myself, a Brooklyn boy that had to follow whatever Big East team was relevant at the time [sorry, St.John’s], I was stuck asking: why Kevin Ollie? He was not qualified. He had no coaching experience prior to the Huskies assistant position in 2010, not even a local middle school or Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) team. At forty years old, he barely made it past the mid-life crisis.
I, along with the rest of the college basketball nation, now sees what Calhoun saw when he recruited Ollie out of the rugged Crenshaw High School. According to Calhoun, it was his resiliency and tenacity that attracted him. It’s what the legendary Don Nelson saw when he gave the un-drafted Ollie a spot on his Dallas Mavericks 1997 roster or what the countless coaches after him saw when they wanted Ollie on their bench. Calhoun saw the same characteristic 13 years later, when he offered Ollie the assistant coaching position, and again when he recommended Ollie as his successor. Now, the nation gets to see it: Kevin Ollie, the overachiever.
We all overlooked it last year when Ollie took UConn to a 20-10 overall record. We overlooked it earlier this season when the Huskies upset Florida by one point, who was at the time the best team in the country. Up until Ollie’s Huskie’s defeated a Tom Izzo led Michigan State Spartans last Saturday, we continued giving Ollie the blind eye. Now, with the only number-seven seeded team to ever make it to the Final Four since the 1985 Tournament expansion, we can overlook no longer.
The Huskies play the number one seeded University of Florida Gators again this Saturday, one step away from the NCAA Championship. Florida is heavily favored to win. For me, however, I have learned my lesson – expect the overachiever to overachieve.
-St.Bernard is a junior English literature and communications double major.