In most of the places Kevin Ollie played, his personal impact outweighed his statistical contributions. In his last stop, with the 2009-10 Oklahoma City Thunder, it was probably the ultimate example.
Ollie, who was nearing his 37th birthday, signed with the Thunder for the veteran’s minimum salary of $1.3 million on Aug. 1, 2009. Oklahoma City had the youngest team in the NBA, but was brimming with talent, especially Kevin Durant, who entered the league after one season at the University of Texas. Durant was in his third pro season, but was still a month shy of his 21st birthday when Ollie joined the team.
Despite the wide difference in age, they saw a lot to like in each other – and perhaps saw some of themselves in each other. Last December, when I interviewed Ollie in his new office at UConn for a story in Hartford Magazine, I noticed he had the jerseys of two former teammates framed – LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
“Me and KD, we’ve got a special relationship,” Ollie said. “I talk to him, not every day but I talk to him a lot. He’s a young man that’s outstanding and driven. All I want my players to be is that – driven, because he’s got the world in the palm of his hands, yet he is so driven like he doesn’t even have a contract. KD is a special, special young man”
“That’s how I want [UConn] guys to play, like they don’t have a scholarship, they’ve got to fight, scratch and claw for everything they’re going to get.”
Ollie played in 25 games, averaging 10.5 minutes and 1.8 points. Even with his age figured in, the Thunder’s roster averaged 23.19 years of age and became the youngest team ever to make the playoffs, going 50-32, but were eliminated by the Lakers. Durant won the NBA scoring title.
“Kevin Ollie changed the culture with the Thunder,” Durant said, “and he’s doing the same thing now with UConn. I’m very happy for him. He’s always going to be a brother of mine. … He was a big piece of what we do, and he still is, because the things he instilled in us back then, we’re still carrying with is now.”
Ollie considered returning for another year in OK City, but he came back to UConn to begin the coaching career that has led him to the head coaching spot. Durant and the Thunder have gone as far as the NBA Finals in 2012. This week, two of Ollie’s players – DeAndre Daniels and Class of ’14 commit Daniel Hamilton – are learning the skills and dedication it takes to be an NBA player at Durant’s Skills Academy for Wing Forwards in D.C. “I called KD and told him to take good care of them,” Ollie said last week.
It was easy to see what Ollie meant by “driven.” Durant had experienced instructors, but he was hands on, out there scrimmaging with the kids for hours on Friday. He was playing and teaching with passion, setting an example, and there were not a lot of people watching. People who know him say it’s the only way he knows.
“I want to help them figure out the right way to play the game,” Durant said.
I asked Durant if he thought Ollie could coach one day in the NBA …
“There’s no doubt,” Durant said. “He’s doing a great job now. There’s no doubt he can coach. He has got a great basketball mind, and he played the game.”
Here is my story for the Saturday Courant on Daniels and Hamilton at Durant’s camp.
Programming note: I’m off on some vacation time, folks. I’ll check back in with you after the holiday, with the Greater Hartford Pro Am League starting up and the Huskies newcomers beginning summer classes that week. Enjoy the 4th!