HARTFORD, Conn. – When Kevin Ollie and Washington coach Lorenzo Romar shared a big hug before Saturday night's game at the XL Center, it was obvious Romar was congratulating the UConn coach on his freshly-signed five-year contract extension. And after the game, Romar put those emotions into words.
"He's an awesome person and an awesome basketball coach," Romar said of Ollie. "He's one of those guys in our game – the game benefits because he's a part of it."
Romar's words prompted a mental flashback to a locker room scene from March 25, 1995 – one of the all-time toughest scenes after a loss in UConn history. UCLA, the team that would go on to win the national championship, had just ended the UConn season with a 102-96 victory in the NCAA West Regional championship game.
Romar was an assistant coach under Jim Harrick on that UCLA team.
"We had to prepare for [Ollie]," Romar said Saturday. "I still remember the scouting report on him."
But the crushing loss not only ended a promising season for the Huskies, it ended Ollie's playing career at UConn. A senior class comprised of Donny Marshall, Brian Fair, Nantambu Willingham and Ollie won the Big East regular season championship, posted a 28-5 record that season, and also won 92 games together over a four-year period. Those kind of bonds are rare in college basketball these days.
"When you lose, there are no positives," Ollie said after the UCLA loss. "There are no tomorrows for me and the other seniors. This is our last game. But we won't dwell on this. We will dwell on things from the past that we accomplished."
No team played UCLA tougher during that tournament. Everyone remembers sophomore Ray Allen scoring 36 points that day, and taking his next step as an All-American in the UConn unifrom. But the disappointment of that senior class was another indelible memory. As Ollie sat at his locker that day, he found it difficult to remove his UConn jersey for the final time.
"It's going to be very tough to walk away from Connecticut and not put the jersey on anymore," Ollie said. "And not running the hills [in conditioning drills]. I might show up for a couple of hills. There's a lot of pain right now. But I know Coach [Jim Calhoun] will always be there for me and I know my teammates will always be there for me. So that's a good feeling to have."
Seventeen years later, it is amazing to revisit those words. No one knew then that Ollie would struggle in his early years as a pro, then play 13 years in the NBA, only to return to his alma mater as an assistant coach under his mentor. When Calhoun retired in September, Ollie was given a seven-month "audition" as head coach.
But after 11 games, athletic director Warde Manuel decided Ollie deserved a long-term commitment and offered the five-year extension that was finalized before the game Saturday. Manuel, who really didn't know Ollie until March, said Saturday he had to see how Ollie would function as a head coach – and he has been more than impressed.
|Washington coach Lorenzo Romar|
And in one of those strange ironies, history will show Romar was in the building when Ollie's college playing career ended – and he was there Saturday when it felt as if Ollie's career as a head coach "officially started."
"The fact he was from [Los Angeles] and we had played against him, I always followed him," Romar said. "But I really didn't know him that well until he got into coaching. Right away, when he joined the coaching ranks from the NBA, the way he carried himself, he didn't conduct himself as if he was above anything. He conducted himself as if he were a student, trying to learn and do the best. I just kind of watched him.
"The last couple of years, I've been able to talk to him a lot more and I've always been impressed with him. He was a fine basketball player but I don't know if he was gifted where he was going to be Kobe Bryant. He played a long time in the NBA because he worked really hard, he was a great teammate, was very coachable, highly intelligent, high basketball IQ – all of that allowed him to play."
Romar also commented on how Ollie extended his NBA career because head coaches viewed him as one of those added coaches on the bench and floor who "help police the team."
"I thought it was a natural for him to go into the coaching profession," Romar said. "Even now, he's still aspiring and trying to learn as much as he can learn."
Ollie has come full circle.
"I'm just happy," guard Shabazz Napier said after the Washington victory. "He's been working hard, he has earned this spot. I think he has been doing a spectacular job on and off the court. He and the other coaches are the reason why we're 10-2. They've been [demanding] excellence from us from the first day of practice and they keep you going.
"I'm like a sponge. Any time [Ollie] speaks, I want to listen to it. He's been through a lot. He tells the guys all the time that when you work and work and work, you may not see the progress. But one day you will. Eventually we'll see it. You'll look back and say, ‘I worked so hard for this and now it's here."