PRIME CHOICE: Former Crenshaw High basketball standout Kevin Ollie will be leading his Huskies into the Sweet Sixteen on Friday March 28 in New York. Ollie got his start in basketball under legendary Willie West at Crenshaw. Associated Press
HAVING A BLAST: Kevin Ollie’s family is enjoying every moment. Here wife Stephanie, also an UConn grad and daughter Cheyanne cheer him on. Associated Press
Former NBA journeyman is right at home as U Conn head coach
Selecting the first African American to become a standard barrier is not always easy which is why Jackie Robinson is so significant a figure today as he was when he integrated Major League Baseball in 1947.
The University of Connecticut basketball head coach Kevin Ollie is not the Jackie Robinson of the coaching fraternity, but when he leads the No. 7 seed Huskies against No. 3 Iowa State in the round of Sweet 16 on Friday in New York he will be carrying the weight of the Crenshaw High School basketball community.
Ollie replaced the legendary Hall of fame coach Him Calhoun on Sept. 13, 2012, when he was named the 18th head coach in the history of UConn men's basketball.
"Kevin Ollie epitomizes what we want a UConn athlete, a UConn student, to be all about,” Calhoun said.
“When you say that about somebody, that's heavy stuff. Any fox hole you need to jump in, there's your guy. Anytime you need a person who won't quit, there's your guy."
However, his long and arduous trek to the pinnacle of one of college basketball’s most prestigious coaching jobs began nearly 25 years ago while he was playing for legendary Crenshaw High coach Willie West.
“He’s a spitting image of Coach West,” said former Crenshaw great John Williams. “Coach West would sit us down and have these long talks to us about life that gave us a sense of perspective beyond the game of basketball.”
During the early 1990s, Ollie was the starting guard on two of Crenshaw’s city title winning teams, but he was not among the most talented players to wear a Cougars uniform.
“He wasn’t as talented, but was smart and hard working and learned the system. He has the right temperament and we all want him to be successful,” added Williams, who starred at LSU before playing nearly a decade in the NBA.
Ollie graduated from Crenshaw and was among the first Southern California players to go east.
"I wanted to get away from L.A.," Ollie told another publication. "Not get away from my family, but get away from the environment I grew up in. This was like a total 360. I felt relaxed, I felt calm. And when I got into the gym and saw how Coach Calhoun pushed his guys to be perfectionists on and off the basketball court, I fell in love with it."
He spent 13 seasons in the NBA and never averaged more than 8 points in a single season earning a reputation throughout the league as an outstanding teammate, with strong moral fiber, impeccable character, and a vast knowledge of the game.
Subsequently perseverance finally paid off with a multi-year contract from the Philadelphia 76ers.
He went to Cleveland to mentor a young LeBron James, teaching him to act as a professional, and Oklahoma City brought Ollie in to do the same for Kevin Durant.
During a 13-year NBA career, Ollie played for 11 different franchises in 12 cities and learned from 15 different NBA coaches.
Ollie was once cut from a team on Christmas day. “What a Christmas present,” he remembered.
However with all that experience and the high recommendation of Calhoun to become the next Huskie coach, the school hired him on an interim basis, essentially a seven-month audition.
He led a team that was banned from the NCAA tournament to a 20-10 record and was rewarded with a multi-year contract.
In just his second season he has UConn playing in the round of Sixteen, compiling a 28-8 record and two victories away from the Final Four.
“The Crenshaw Family is so special,” explained Greg Hamilton whose son Daniel Hamilton, a star at St. John Bosco will be playing for Ollie in the fall. “He really get’s it. He understands inner city kids and loves what basketball has done for him, and coming out of Crenshaw makes it all the more special.”
Ollie's mother, Dorothy, became an ordained minister in the Hays Tabernacle Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in 1989, and Kevin attended services with her from the time he was a child. She never shied from community involvement, never stopped trying to make a difference.
He was born in Dallas on Dec. 27, 1972, and raised in Los Angeles. Now, Ollie resides in Glastonbury, Ct. a town that boasts a small private lake named Diamond, which is surrounded by growing subdivisions of large homes. A far distance from Crenshaw High.
He’s married to Stephanie, also a UConn grad (1997), and the couple are proud parents of two children, son Jalen and daughter Cheyanne.
Somewhere, Willie West is smiling, his former teammates are rooting and a bevy of Crenshaw Alumni are cheering for one of their own.
The Good Son, the humble soldier, The Cougar, who has done them all proud.