Soon after Pau Gasol’s tip-in over Serge Ibaka ended the Thunder’s inaugural playoff run in 2010, Sam Presti went to dinner with Kevin Ollie.
Ollie had signed on with the Thunder as a backup point guard during the homestretch of that season. Presti long had raved about Ollie as a man and a basketball presence. And with Ollie’s 13-year NBA career coming to an end, Presti wanted to keep Ollie with the Thunder in some capacity.
But before dinner was served, Presti realized where Ollie’s loyalties lay.
“It was pretty clear we weren’t going to beat Storrs,” Presti said of the village that is home to the University of Connecticut.
Now in his second season as head coach of his alma mater, Ollie has his beloved Huskies in the Sweet 16. UConn plays Iowa State on Friday night at Madison Square Garden.
And on the opposite bench is another long-time NBA player, Fred Hoiberg, who returned to his school as a novice head coach and has performed wonders.
College basketball is a coach-dominated sport. The men who rule it are mostly deeply rooted in the campus game. But a few have a different background. A few can play the NBA hand, and who doesn’t think that’s a trump card?
Hoiberg has played with Kevin Garnett and Reggie Miller and Metta World Chaos.
Ollie has played with Chris Webber and Jason Kidd and Kevin Durant.
Many are the ways to get 20-year-olds to listen. But among the best are to point out that you’ve guarded Allen Iverson and Russell Westbrook day after day in practice.
“I think Kevin Ollie is going to go down as one of the best college coaches in the game,” said Scotty Brooks. “I just loved the way he approached his profession as a player. He was thorough, he wanted to improve every day. He still had that desire to get better. And that says a lot.”
Ollie joined the staff of his college coach, Jim Calhoun, in 2010, spent two seasons as an assistant coach and in autumn 2012 replaced Calhoun as head coach.
But that’s more coaching experience than Hoiberg had when Iowa State hired him in April 2010. Hoiberg played 10 years in the NBA, spent one season as a Minnesota Timberwolf assistant coach, then joined the T-Wolves’ front office. He was vice president of basketball operations when hired by Iowa State.
A few NBA players have desired to coach on the college level. Some were busts. Clyde Drexler at Houston and Sidney Moncrief at Arkansas-Little Rock didn’t last long.
But Danny Manning put in his time as a Kansas assistant and this season took Tulsa to its first NCAA Tournament in 11 years.
Steve Alford retired after four NBA seasons in 1991 and immediately became head coach at Division III Manchester; by ’99, Alford had Missouri State in the NCAA Tournament and he’s now got UCLA in the Sweet 16.
Billy Donovan played one NBA season, 1987-88, then became a Kentucky assistant. He was a head coach by 1994 (Marshall) and since has coached Florida to two NCAA titles.
Bryce Drew retired from the NBA in 2004, after six seasons. He became an assistant coach at Valparaiso a year later, and in 2011 succeeded his dad, Homer, as Valpo’s head coach.
“Certainly the experiences that those guys have as NBA players, the type of players they were, it’s not surprising they were preparing for life after basketball,” Presti said. “Just given the way those guys are as people, in terms of preparation, work ethic, it’s not surprising they’re both having success.”
Most NBA players would gravitate toward staying in the NBA. It’s what they know best. It’s all basketball. There’s no recruiting. No monitoring of academics. No fund-raising. Heck, it’s not a sure thing that Iowa State can keep Hoiberg or Connecticut can keep Ollie. NBA franchises will take notice of their success and their background.
But colleges can have a definite tug on some coaches. Especially their alma maters. Ollie, like most of the UConn brigade, has a fierce pride about his school. Hoiberg grew up in Ames, Iowa; he was called the Mayor as a salty Iowa State freshman sharpshooter.
And now these favorite sons meet in New York, chasing NCAA Tournament glory in that most pro-like arena, Madison Square Garden, hosting its first NCAA games in more than 50 years, an interesting blend of pro and college, just like the coaches who have brought the Cyclones and Huskies this far.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.