ARLINGTON, Texas — Kevin Ollie had talent.
There’s no way of getting to the NBA without it. His just wasn’t quite on the same level as the stars of his era, players such as LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant.
So what Ollie did was make himself indispensable with his brain.
The point guard devoured information, pouring over scouting reports and game film, looking at tendencies and statistics — whatever he could to keep himself out on the floor. He was a natural leader, too, passing along what he knew to make his teammates and even his coaches better.
His method worked. Despite his lack of natural ability — comparatively speaking — NBA general managers kept signing him. He played for 11 in all during a 13-year career, including the 2003-04 season with the Cavaliers.
The lessons and the work ethic it took to learn them has taken Ollie a great distance in a short time as a coach: To tonight’s national championship game against Kentucky in his second year at UConn.
“I can tell you he is one of the wonderful people that I have come across in my life,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari, an assistant coach with the Philadelphia 76ers when Ollie played there.
“Genuine, loyal and a great coach because you know what he was doing while he was playing? He was coaching. That’s how he played. He was an unbelievable student of the game.”
Ollie took an unconventional route to the NBA, working his way up after being undrafted out of UConn and playing in the Continental Basketball Association. Once he got to the NBA, Ollie stuck around because of his smarts, his character and the gritty tenaciousness of his game.
He played 662 games and scored 2,496 points (a 3.8 average), fewer than all but four players in league history who had played as many games, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
“I was getting thrown in there 10 minutes, five minutes, so I needed to know exactly what was going to happen to make those five minutes meaningful, for another team to see me and bring me in and giving me a contract,” Ollie said. “I think I did a pretty good job with that.”
Ollie had an unlikely road to the national title game as well.
Despite a chance to work for the Oklahoma City Thunder — the last stop in his playing career — upon retirement in 2010, he opted to return to his alma mater and work as an assistant for Jim Calhoun.
Ollie learned under Calhoun for two years and was thrust into the spotlight when his former coach retired in 2012, a move met with skepticism, particularly among UConn supporters.
Once people outside the program got to see what Calhoun, UConn’s players and all those NBA teams had, it became evident that Ollie was the only choice to carry the torch Calhoun had lit for more than two decades in Storrs.
“He was a terrific college basketball player and you say, ‘Coach, but he wasn’t an All-Star,’” Calhoun said. “He played 13 years in the NBA without a jump shot. That’s how good he is as a leader and as a person and as a teammate. That’s pretty special stuff.”
Combining Calhoun’s old-school methods with an easy-going nature that came from being a player not all that long ago, Ollie guided the Huskies through a dark time to within a win of reaching college basketball’s pinnacle.
When Ollie took over the program, he was faced with a tall task: Replacing a legendary coach and lead a team that lost five key players to transfers and the NBA, and no chance of playing in the NCAA tournament due to sanctions.
Ollie maneuvered his team through the shadows, extolling them with his work-hard-no-matter-what mantra.
Coming off a 20-win season in 2012-13, the Huskies were fitted with low expectations outside of Storrs. They turned a few heads by opening with nine straight wins, including one over Florida, yet stumbled a few times down the stretch, notably a 33-point loss to Louisville in the regular-season finale.
With a third straight loss to Louisville in the American Athletic Conference title game, UConn was given little hope of making any kind of run in the NCAA tournament.
Through it all, Ollie kept pushing his players to reach for greatness with a combination of pat-you-on-the-back positivity and kick-you-in-the-butt accountability.
They responded with an improbable run through the NCAA tournament, moving within a win of the program’s fourth national championship as a No. 7 seed.
“He’s been through a lot,” UConn’s star guard Shabazz Napier said. “A guy like that who never pointed fingers at anybody but himself through all his trials and tribulations, you can learn from that.”
That’s exactly what Ollie is about. Always has been.