Once a Star of College Basketball, Kevin Ollie Is Now Disrupting It
“I’m in a great place,” said Kevin Ollie, his voice clear and firm as we spoke recently in a telephone interview. “Exactly where I need to be.”
Ollie meant that he was back to doing what he does best: prodding, cajoling and using his ability to connect to help young basketball players maximize their talent.
“I always was a facilitator,” he said. “That was always just my nature. When I played, I wanted to get the assist instead of the basket. I wanted to give more than I wanted to receive.”
He was known for those qualities during his 13-year career as an N.B.A. journeyman who mentored then-nascent stars like LeBron James in Cleveland and Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City.
And he did the same more recently at the University of Connecticut, where he helped guide the Huskies to the 2011 national title as an assistant to Coach Jim Calhoun and then led them to another championship in 2014 as head coach.
But all that was before Ollie’s charmed basketball life went awry — before he went from N.C.A.A. poster child to N.C.A.A. pariah, fired by UConn for allegations he had skirted the byzantine thicket of rules that have propped up collegiate sports for decades.
Now, buoyed by a legal ruling that castigated UConn for how it treated him, he has returned to basketball — but in an entirely new role. Along with being a facilitator, these days he calls himself a “visionary” and a “disrupter” — part of a wave of change that is challenging the tried-and-true amateur system that developed young athletes, polishing them for college and the pros.
Kevin Ollie, head of coaching and director of player development at Overtime Elite, instructed players from courtside during a practice at the league’s facility in Atlanta.Credit…Kendrick Brinson for The New York Times
Ollie, 49, serves as head of coaching and director of player development at Overtime Elite, a pro basketball league and training academy based in Atlanta now in its second year.
With its flashy new 103,000-square-foot campus — encompassing an arena which rivals those in the college ranks, state-of-the-art conditioning facilities and classrooms — Overtime Elite offers stiff competition, full-time training, schoolwork and two options for getting paid to 31 of the top young players in the world, ages 16 to 20.
“It’s all about choice,” said Ollie, a preacher’s enthusiastic cadence in his voice, which makes sense given that his late mother, Dorothy, was a minister.
Choice is the disruptive part.
“There should not just be one pathway for these young student-athletes,” he said. “We give them options that didn’t exist before.”
Who could have imagined this even a few years ago? Overtime Elite players can skip college and earn $100,000 plus bonuses while honing their skills under the eye of Ollie and other coaches. Or they can forsake a salary, earn money from endorsements and remain eligible to play in college, if the pro leagues aren’t in the cards.
The tired mythology of amateurism is peeling away. As it does, players have new ways to realize their dreams, allowing them to circumvent college and begin making serious money while in their teens. Along with the N.B.A.’s developmental league and overseas professional basketball, Overtime is another pathway for the best young basketball talent.
That Ollie is helping lead the upstart, game-changing academy is symbolic, for the contours of his journey once represented the optimal path the N.C.A.A. could offer a player.
When he returned to UConn as an assistant coach, he helped Kemba Walker find his way onto the same road. Their 2011 championship title came courtesy of Walker’s monster scoring streaks in the Big East and N.C.A.A. tournaments.
“There was something special about how he affected guys and gave us confidence,” said Walker, who has played in four All-Star Games during his 11-year N.B.A. career. “It was his spirit. He’s such a positive dude in a way that gets to you, and I ended up getting a lot of my positivity from him. He was huge for me in college.”
Ollie took over for Calhoun in 2012 and became only the fourth Black coach to win a Division I men’s basketball championship, in 2014. He was so highly regarded then that his name was in the mix to fill head jobs with the Nets, Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors.
But Ollie stayed at UConn, nudging his players to their futures until, in 2018, UConn fired him amid an N.C.A.A. investigation that his program skirted the rules. Among the accusations: Student managers kept statistics on pickup games and reported them back to coaches; a trainer friend of Ollie’s worked out players and did not charge them; Ollie arranged a call between a recruit and former UConn stars who had played in the N.B.A.
The dismissal pushed Ollie to fight.
“I didn’t want my voice to be quiet,” Ollie said of his next move — suing the university that had shaped him.
A four-year battle began coming to an end in January when an arbitrator ruled UConn had to give Ollie $11.1 million in back pay and issued a 69-page report that read as a stinging indictment of the university, which had supported Calhoun during similar N.C.A.A. investigations. The arbitrator wrote that “UConn’s dismissal of Kevin Ollie was predicated on an incomplete investigation, inadequate process and ultimately a collection of unproven or minor, isolated infractions for which termination was far too severe a sanction.”
In September, UConn agreed to pay Ollie an additional $3.9 million, helping the former coach pay his legal fees.
Ollie cannot talk about the details of his victory, but said he hoped to be a beacon to Black coaches who believe they’ve unfairly lost jobs.
What a turn of events. College basketball now needs coaches like Ollie — able to relate to players, and embrace change, more than ever. The N.C.A.A.’s antiquated model has been upended again and again in recent years. Athletes can transfer in a blink, and endorsement rules have made some of them millionaires.
The pace of evolution helped spur the departure of a pair of the old-guard coaching greats. Mike Krzyzewski at Duke and Roy Williams at North Carolina seemed to have no appetite for this new structure, a poor fit for my-way-or-the-highway leaders of old.
Ollie said he has watched the metamorphosis unfold at arm’s length. He catches only snippets of UConn basketball, never a whole game. He remains optimistic that college basketball will find a way to survive and even thrive. The “bloodlines,” he said, run too deep.
“We played in the Big East,” he said. “I coached for the University of Connecticut, my alma mater. I loved it there. Still do. The battles I had on the court as a player and a coach, being in the N.C.A.A. tournament, the pressure, all these things, I miss.”
There was sadness in his voice. Then a beat passed, and he snapped back to his usual, up-tempo self as he noted how much he loves being in the mix of change and “helping young kids evolve into something special, because we all have a masterpiece inside us.”