John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats? We all expected them to be there last night, on college basketball's grandest stage. Sure, maybe not after a rough start and an 8 seed, but let's be real — this was a team that was preseason #1, a team that was once again filled with blue bloods. It wasn't surprising that Kentucky got there.
But it was beyond surprising that the UConn Huskies not only got to the Final Four and then the title game, but became the last team standing, besting the Wildcats behind the brilliance of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. However, maybe we shouldn't be surprised — because UConn head coach Kevin Ollie has been surprising the basketball world for as long as he's been involved with it — something you wouldn't expect for a guy who's been at the highest level of the sport for so long.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a more innocuous player who spent a baker's dozen seasons in the NBA than Kevin Ollie.
A career journeyman, Ollie spent 13 years on basketball's grandest stage, playing for 11 different franchises (and 12 different teams) over that span, most recently as a rarely used veteran for the 2009-10 Oklahoma City Thunder. The fact that Ollie stayed in the league so long is baffling on the surface, and it's even more remarkable that he made the NBA at all.
Before he became head coach of the University of Connecticut Huskies, Ollie was a point guard out of Los Angeles recruited by his longtime predecessor at UConn, Jim Calhoun. While a Husky during his playing days, he was never considered even close to the best player on the team — or even a star. Playing alongside UConn legends Donyell Marshall and future Pro Basketball Hall of Famer Ray Allen, Ollie was barely even noticed. At least, he was barely noticed outside of Storrs.
Because up in Connecticut, Ollie was quietly the heart and soul of those early '90s teams that put Calhoun and UConn on the map. In fact, Ollie, despite his pedestrian numbers — he never averaged double digits in his four years — was captain two seasons in Storrs and helped lead the Huskies to the Sweet 16 in 1994 and the Elite 8 in 1995.
His heady play and solid defense allowed Marshall and Allen to flourish and become the superstars they were, and his steady hand laid the foundation for the leadership that would keep a guy who averaged just 3.8 points and 2.3 assists a game for his career in the NBA for 13 seasons.
I first became aware of Ollie during the 1999-00 season, when he joined the Philadelphia 76ers as Allen Iverson's backup. And while Ollie always played intelligent basketball and hard-nosed defense, I always waited for the day when I'd see Ollie disappear from the Association. After all, jobs are a scarcity in the NBA, and players like Kevin Ollie are a dime a dozen at that level.
Yet year in and year out, whether it was in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Seattle, Oklahoma City, Milwaukee, Chicago, Minnesota, Indiana, Orlando, New Jersey, Dallas or Sacramento, there was Ollie holding a roster spot in spite of his lack of offense, lack of speed, lack of height and lack of, for a better description, NBA talent.
All those years, it was a bit of a mystery to me. Sure, you'd hear about how great of a locker room guy he was, but it's hard to stick in this league for 13 years on your locker room presence alone. But Ollie did — year after year after year, mentoring players such as Iverson, Stephon Marbury, Jamal Crawford, Jamaal Tinsley, Michael Redd, LeBron James, Andre Iguodala, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
It turns out, Ollie wasn't just a good locker room presence — he was a born leader, the type of guy who could lead by example and by his words to the point that he'd get better talents — far better talents — to follow him.
It's what landed him the captaincy as a player at UConn, what landed him in the NBA in the first place and what kept him there for 13 seasons. And it's why, upon his retirement, Calhoun brought his former captain on board his coaching staff, grooming him to take over.
Now, in just his second season as head coach, Kevin Ollie did what no one expected, leading his Huskies — behind a dynamic pair of point guards following his mentoring in Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright — to the Final Four, the final game and ultimately the NCAA Title. Taking over under restrictions in year one, he won his players over. In year two, all he did was the unthinkable. Again.
For most of America, it's as surprising as it gets. But we should have all known better — because Kevin Ollie has been defying the odds the past 25 years, and he keeps doing the unexpected to the point that maybe we should begin to expect the unexpected from the new head man in Storrs.
Reverend Paul Revere, aka Joe Boland, is a sports blogger out of Philadelphia whose life revolves around sports 365 and a quarter days per year. Keep up with Rev at his own personal blog, The House That Glanville Built and on Twitter.