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College Basketball

Final Four is culmination of Kevin Ollie's search for basketball stability

Photo: David J. Phillip/AP

Second-year head coach Kevin Ollie couldn't find stability in the NBA, but he's found it at UConn.

ARLINGTON, Texas -- In his 13-year NBA career, Kevin Ollie played 662 games for 11 organizations. He played in the northeast (Philadelphia, New Jersey), the southeast (Orlando), the south (Dallas), the west (Sacramento), the northwest (Seattle) and at what seemed like every basketball outpost in between.

Ollie even played for the same franchise in two different cities, but many years apart, after the Seattle Supersonics became the Oklahoma City Thunder. The moving process -- new city, new team nickname, new jerseys -- was the most Kevin Ollie thing ever. Here was a guy who when writers invariably described him as a basketball nomad, actual nomads took offense.

All those stops, though, had an unintended consequence. They prepared Ollie for his next basketball act, the whole those-who-can-no-longer-do-coach thing. Because Ollie landed on teams in 12 different cities, he apprenticed under at least that many coaches. When they handed out scouting reports, he kept them. Teammates used to tease him about the stacks. Was he starting a bonfire? In need of a booster seat? Really, really bored?

He was curious, sure, but more than that, he was marginally talented, at least by the ridiculous standards of NBA players. He'd get 10 minutes one game, five minutes the next. He needed to make every minute count. So he watched endless hours of tape. He did not simply read scouting reports -- he collected them. He paid attention to what worked, what failed. He took particular note of inbounds plays. All of that was training, even if he had no idea at the time.

"I didn't really pride myself on looking over at the coach for the play," Ollie said. "I wanted to be an extension of the coach so he didn't have to call a play. I knew exactly what he wanted on the court every minute of the game."

Ollie is no longer an on-court extension of so many coaches. He is an actual one. On Saturday, his Connecticut Huskies will face top-seeded Florida in the Final Four. This in Ollie's fourth season as a basketball coach, second as a head coach, and in his first NCAA tournament appearance.

Turns out that what Ollie wanted, other than a long NBA career, was basketball stability. Or basically the opposite of his professional experience.

Jim Calhoun had found Ollie in Los Angeles. The more the coach watched his guard play, the more he valued the way Ollie understood basketball and, more important, the way he worked at understanding it. He already possessed the detailed, obsessive, borderline masochistic mindset of a coach.

Calhoun keeps track of many of his players. In an interview Thursday, he rattled off the statistics of several former Huskies from NBA games the night before. Ollie was harder to track than most. He was always on the move. You could find Ollie by scanning team pictures across the league; inevitably, he would be in one of them.

They talked often, the coach and one of his favorite guards, the former roommate of Ray Allen. As Ollie's NBA career wound down -- he played 25 games for the Thunder in 2009-10 -- Calhoun argued that if Ollie wanted to coach, he should do so in Connecticut, rather than Oklahoma City, which also offered.

Ollie didn't have to look far for the stability he craved. Calhoun coached at UConn from 1986 to 2012. He won three national championships. On the women's side, Geno Auriemma was just as big a fixture, a coach at Connecticut since 1985, winner of so many titles (eight) he could easily have lost count.

"Kevin would coach anywhere; we all would," Calhoun said. "But I think Connecticut appealed to him. People always misread Kevin. He's very tough. He's loyal. He's smart. You don't last 13 years in the league without being tough. Or any of those things."

In the beginning, Ollie peppered Calhoun with questions, just like in the old days. He asked Calhoun about the hardest part of his tenure at Connecticut. He wondered if it was back in the beginning, when Calhoun built a powerhouse in the middle of nowhere in Connecticut. No, Calhoun responded. The hardest part was sustaining what one built -- which was now part of Ollie's job description.

Last season, the Huskies finished 20-10 and ascended as high as No. 21 in the country. But they were ineligible for postseason play because of poor academic performance in years past.

So that is how the coach and the guard ended up together on the floor at Madison Square Garden last weekend, wrapped in the kind of embrace sure to make this season's "One Shining Moment" montage. The Huskies had dispatched Michigan State to return to the national semifinals, where in 2011 Calhoun the head coach and Ollie the assistant won that game and then the championship.

"I embrace coach," Ollie said. "He embraced the change. He wanted the change to take place. He wanted to keep the coaching tree in the family."

On Thursday, Ollie sat atop a stage, in front of a roomful of reporters. He sat next to Billy Donovan, his counterpart, his opposite. Donovan played part of one NBA season before he went into coaching, before he landed at Florida in 1996 and built a program and never left. There they were, a couple of guards turned coaches, a case study in which type of basketball experience mattered most, playing or coaching.

Ollie's mother, Dorothy, was en route to Dallas, despite the chemotherapy treatments for the cancer she endured in recent months. She was cleared to fly on Wednesday. She had asked her son, the basketball nomad, whether she could watch the games at the Garden. He said no.

"Save your energy for the Final Four," he told her.

Speaking of, on Saturday, Ollie will draw up an inbounds play, something he learned from someone, somewhere, at one of various basketball stops. He will hear Calhoun's instructions in his ear. His team will review a scouting report worthy of his collection.

It is doubtful that any of them will keep it.

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