STORRS – Kevin Ollie was long gone from UConn when the elusive goal was finally reached in 1999.
“I couldn’t get down to the game [in St. Petersburg, Fla.) because I was on a 10-day contract [in the NBA],” Ollie said, “I couldn’t afford a private plane.”
But there was nothing private about UConn’s first national championship team, which will be honored at halftime of the SMU game on Sunday.
“What coach [Jim Calhoun] did, he made all of us a part of it,” said Ollie, who finished up at UConn in 1995, “it wasn’t just the ’99 team, it was the ’89 team, the ’91 team, the ’81 team. That’s what I love about the man, he made us all feel like we made a bucket in the Final Four and that’s what I take from him.”
The championship was the culmination of a decade of near-misses for UConn, beginning with the 1989-90 “Dream Season” and including the teams on which Ollie played.
One member of the ’99 team, Khalid El-Amin, was at UConn’s practice on Saturday. (More on that, and our capsule look at the matchup, coming on our main website and in the Sunday Courant.) Kevin Freeman and Ricky Moore of that team are on Ollie’s staff.
“I told the guys, we have the two most unselfish players on that team right here with us every day,” Ollie said. “They were guys in the trenches.”
It’s still not certain which of the other players from the 1998-99 champs will make it to Storrs, but UConn did announce that new places in the Huskeis of Honor will be given to El-Amin the entire team – the new placards are up, shrouded at the moment. El-Amin admitted he has “butterflies” anticipating the ceremony.
“To be the first national champion at UConn, it was a big deal,” El-Amin said. “There’s been two more since we’ve won, but the first one, I think, is the best and the most special. … I just remember the camaraderie of that team, the confidence we all had in each other, and then going out and translating that on the court.”
Looks like everyone his healthy and a go for UConn for the game. … Like Larry Brown, Ollie thinks the development of UConn’s big men, Amida Brimah and Phil Nolan, is the biggest improvement in the Huskies since they lost at SMU on Jan. 4. … Nic Moore scored 15 in the first half, 20 for the game against UConn last time. “He’s definitely the catalyst for that team,” Ollie said, “he’s the ‘ace of spades’ for us.” (That is Ollie-speak for the player that has to be stopped.)