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UConn feeds off hard-working coach Ollie

By Shannon Ryan

McClatchy-Tribune

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Kevin Ollie would wake up at 4 a.m. on summer mornings before the blazing Texas sun would bake the ground and sear the skin. Rising that early to mow lawns for his father was the only way to beat it.

"He didn't pay me a lot," Ollie said of his "Pops."

"I come see some of these apartments I used to cut and I know he got me. He got me all my life. But it really taught me how to work hard."

That grind helped Ollie at every stage of his life, especially now as he leads Connecticut in his second season as head coach into Monday's NCAA tournament championship game against Kentucky near his birth city of Dallas.

That work ethic translated into a hustler's mentality in the CBA and NBA, making the most of 10-day contracts and one-year deals -- when he was lucky. He lasted 13 seasons, playing with 11 organizations _-- including a 2001-02 stint with the Bulls -- and switching teams 15 times..

Scouts and general managers understood his worth wasn't necessarily tied completely to the skill set he brought as a 6-foot-2 point guard but rather the example he would set.

"We were a real young team and we were struggling," Bulls general manager Gar Forman said. "Kevin brought a veteran presence every day to practice. You got a real base of who he was. Rock, rock solid. Those kinds of guys are invaluable."

While he averaged only 3.8 points per game for his NBA career, which spanned from 1997 with the Mavericks to 2010 with the Thunder, he commanded respect.

"This guy was willing to do anything to be successful," said Bill Cartwright, who coached Ollie on the Bulls. "He'd get here early, stay late. He was the ultimate team guy. That's just part of his character. I think it's really hard, maybe impossible, to find someone who doesn't like this guy."

Ollie, 41, looks like he could play now, coaching from a low defensive stance on the sideline.

He has carried with him strategies from his years of tutelage from Larry Brown, Chuck Daly and former Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun. But it's Ollie's lessons as a journeyman that resonate strongly with players.

They picked up the energy he brought as an assistant for two seasons and when Calhoun passed the torch in September 2012 to take over at his alma mater. While Calhoun was the taskmaster, Ollie was the confidant.

Huskies star guard Shabazz Napier called Ollie the father figure he never had in his life.

"He'll sit us all down and we'll talk," Napier said. " 'Guys, you've got to work for everything.' He wasn't given much. But it was the belief that he could make an impact on the bench or in the game or in someone's life. He knows a lot about what it takes to overcome a lot of obstacles."

His Connecticut team has become an expert at plowing through adversity.

A No. 7 seed, the Huskies were considered an early-exit team, even more so than No. 8 seed Kentucky. Connecticut is just a season removed from its NCAA-ordered ineligibility from the tournament.

During the regular season, the Huskies finished in a three-way tie for third with Southern Methodist and Memphis in the AAC. They suffered a 33-point loss on March 8 at Louisville.

"I thought we built on a lot of ups and downs throughout the season," Ollie said. "That's what great teams do. They take the challenge and they get better from it."

Like their coach, the Huskies keep working.