Kevin Ollie: Devoted Dad And Coach On A Mission

Kevin Ollie, coach, will be in Brooklyn Friday night to face Maryland in UConn's basketball season opener. Kevin Ollie, dad, will not be at the Glastonbury-New Britain football game to watch his son Jalen excel at quarterback for the fifth-ranked team in the state.

Ollie, the realist, can handle it. Ollie, the preacher, teacher, the take-the-stairs, not-the-escalator philosopher, does better than that. He insists his biological son and his basketball sons on the No. 18-ranked Huskies can carry the leadership he preaches, the leadership that will define their lives whether he's there or not.

"With Jalen, I'm a father first and foremost, just enjoying watching him compete," Ollie says. "I'm not telling coach [Scott] Daniels he has to throw a certain number of times. I've never been a quarterback. I only played football to the eighth grade. It was my first passion. I love the Cowboys. I wanted to be a wide receiver. I thought I was Drew Pearson and Tony Hill, but then I got hit once and that was the end for me."

The reason for this piece was to talk to Ollie about growing up in a one-parent home, about Jalen's growing up in an intact home with two parents and, as an African-American male, about being a role model for Jalen and his players in Storrs.

Like Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma, Ollie steers conversations the way he sees fit and he insists that to understand what he is about you must also understand what he is trying to accomplish.

"This is what Jalen and I talk about at home and this is where it ties together with our UConn team," Ollie says. "I talk to him about leadership and affecting his team in a positive way. I tell all our recruits this, too. Yes, you are coming to a program that will allow you to be on a bigger stage basketball-wise, but you're also going to be on a bigger stage to show your leadership ability. You have the stage to show people things about yourself that can impact the rest of your life.

"You perfect your gifts and then you give away your gifts. If you're not giving away your gifts in a positive way, if you're only harboring them, you're not being a leader."

Although it was 21 years ago, I still remember Ken Davis writing in the Courant about how Ollie, then 19, watched on TV as his old neighborhood in South-Central LA went up in flames in the riots after the Rodney King verdict. The corner of Florence and Normandie, ground zero, Ollie knew it well. Down the block was the elementary school he attended. There was rioting around his high school, Crenshaw. Half the black males in LA age 21-24, Davis pointed out, belonged to street gangs. Ollie's mother Dorothy, a schoolteacher and ordained minister, helped make sure Kevin belonged to the half that didn't.

Contrast this to leafy the suburbs of Glastonbury where Jalen has lived since the family settled there when he was in the third grade.

A study by the Family Research Council in 2011 showed that only 16.7 percent African-American children will reach the age of 17 living in intact homes with married biological parents. So many of the stories I've written in the past 36 years have involved young black athletes without a strong paternal influence in their lives. Mom has been the hero over and over again. Look, I'm as liberal as the day is long, I believe in the village. But you look at the one-parent numbers and the research that says that one in three black males will go to jail in their lifetimes and only the delusional would argue that those figures aren't linked. There's also no dodging the fact that many who play college basketball come from difficult upbringings.

"I just want to give our guys a positive image — if they're looking," Ollie said. "Some kids aren't looking. They've got a positive image at home. I want to trace the line that I hope family members have already drawn around them. That's all I'm trying to do.

"This is the way I see it. Rich people, poor people, people at the top, people at the bottom, we all get 24 hours. Everybody in the human race gets 24 hours. It's what you do with your 24 that is going to determine if you can realize your dream. Take care of your 24."

Rarely do you walk away from a conversation with Ollie without a gem to repeat. Take care of your 24.

After the academic mayhem that saw him take over a team that was ineligible for the 2013 NCAA tournament, he oversaw a perfect APR score last school year. At 40, Ollie is young and fit enough to be cool. He also is old enough to command a presence in the Connecticut community as a role model.

"I don't even know what a role model is exactly," Ollie said. "I'm not worried about words like 'inspiration' or 'motivation.' I want to add value to lives. If it puts a smile on their face, if it's encouraging them when they're down or encouraging them they can be great students at UConn — we've got the resources to make that a reality — that's what I want to do.

"It's not a transaction here. A transaction, you pay for the goods and you go away. This is a relationship. The middle of my universe is my players. If they leave here better than when they arrived, I think I've done my job. Along the way I want to be someone they can confide in, open up to, trust I'll have their back in every area of their lives."

So Ollie brings South-Central. He also brings Glastonbury. He brings the experience of being cut more times than an onion at a chili cook-off yet still carving out a 12-team, 13-year NBA career. He brings the experience of a family man.

"I think my background has helped me tremendously," Ollie said. "I try to give back those life lessons to my players every day. I try to be the same man every day no matter what my circumstances. I always try to have what I call a 'listening ear.'"

"Growing up, my mother didn't want me on the streets of LA during the summertime. I'd go out to Dallas and spend the summers with my dad. He was part of my life, but just three months. The other nine he was there via phone, not in person. I didn't have a father at every one of my games. My mother was my dad and my mother. I've seen the character and strength she had and I wanted to make sure I changed that cycle. A lot of these kids have a chance to change the cycle. There's a pattern in their bloodlines going back through their dads and granddads.

"Getting to play at UConn and the opportunity see how coach Calhoun used his family dynamic to the best of his ability, balancing the time he had between his extended family — us — and his family really opened my eyes. Watching the love he shared, I wanted to do the same with my family."

And so he did. He started with a stellar woman named Stephanie he met while playing at UConn.

"She's everything," Ollie said. "She's the backbone of our family, especially with all my travels in the NBA, getting cut, having to report to different teams in 48, 72 hours. She had to pick up and establish a home in Glastonbury. In fact, she's the reason Jalen is in football."

So here's Jalen scoring 13.4 points a game in basketball last winter and putting up big passing numbers on the football field as a senior. He's looking at prep school next year. We'll see about college. Dad says he might be better at football, but at 6-0, he's also not the 6-5 quarterback that makes recruiters salivate.

Ollie stops himself. "Look, I just want him to get a great education," he said. "My kids weren't born when I went to school. My wife went back to get a nursing degree. For them to see how hard she worked, it helped them understand and appreciate what it takes. I was in the NBA making decent money. She didn't have to do it, but for her to finish her degree, establish her own identity, it was something they can see tangibly. She has been working at St. Francis [in the cardiac unit]. She has been in front of me, beside me, behind me. She means everything to our family."

Like the dad, the coach, the realist, the philosopher says, well get 24 hours. Take care of the family. Take care of the 24.

 

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