Kevin Ollie turned to leave the on-court television interview after his UConn team advanced to the Elite Eight the other night and realized he was surrounded by his players. They were goofing off and clowning around and feeling as good as their coach.
And he smacked one of them right across the face.
Now, in some situations, that’d be cause for concern, but the oh-no-he-didn’t looks and man-we-love-our-coach smiles from the rest of the players told you it was all in good fun.
Ollie has clearly left a mark on the Huskies.
No pun intended.
But that team, a seven seed that is one win from the Final Four, isn’t the only place you can see Ollie’s impact. Even though he spent only one season with the Thunder, he influenced what we see today. He provided Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and others an example of how to lead. He showed how to approach each day and every situation. He left fingerprints that are still visible.
“Huge,” Westbrook said of Ollie’s influence. “Kevin’s one of the greatest guys I know in this league.”
The Thunder has always been intentional about bringing in influential veterans, solid citizens with good character who will rub off on younger guys. Malik Rose. Desmond Mason. Joe Smith. Royal Ivey. Derek Fisher now.
But during an interview with Bill Simmons during All-Star Weekend, Durant talked glowingly about Ollie. The Thunder superstar had actually been asked about Fisher, but instead, he brought up and singled out Ollie.
“Kevin Ollie, he was a game-changer for us,” Durant said. “He changed the whole culture, I think. He might not say it, but I think he changed the whole culture in Oklahoma City.”
“His mindset, his professionalism every single day,” Durant said. “And we all watched that. We all wanted to be like that.”
And in that 2009-10 season, the Thunder was a young and impressionable bunch. I mean, it’s still a relative young squad, but then, it was extremely young. Durant and Jeff Green were in their third years, Westbrook was in his second, and Serge Ibaka and James Harden were in their first. NBA infants all.
We’ve come to know that those guys are special players who are mature (mostly) beyond their years. But back then, all of them were still learning how to be pros. How to approach the grind. How to handle the highs and lows. How to be leaders.
Ollie didn’t try to teach them those lessons.
He showed them.
“He’s a great role model,” Westbrook said. “He did a great job of coming in here and helping us become leaders, myself and Kevin. Just taught us a lot of things.”
Consistency was one of the biggest lessons.
“Regardless of what was going on,” Westbrook said, “he kept a positive attitude and taught us to do the same.”
Remember, those were tough times. The Thunder was coming off a 23-win campaign in its first season in Oklahoma City. P.J. Carlesmo had been fired. Scott Brooks had been hired. The franchise was trying to find its footing in the league and in a new city.
But Ollie never wavered. He bought into the the Thunder Way. He embraced the process.
A couple years back, our man Darnell Mayberry caught up with a bunch of the veterans who’d come through Thunder U. Ollie, who was then an assistant to Jim Calhoun at UConn, said, “What I always really tried to push to them is just believing in one another and fighting and always taking the stairs and not the escalator. Our world is so built on immediate gratification. You want everything immediately. But for us to be a great team, we got to take our time and we got to put the hard work in because that’s what successful people do. They do what unsuccessful people don’t want to do.”
Take the stairs, not the escalator.
Ollie ingrained those types of things in the Thunder then, and Durant and Westbrook are among those who believe Ollie changed the culture that we see now.
That might be a tad too generous. I mean, Nick Collison, Durant and Westbrook are the longest-tenured members of this team, and all three of them are relentless workers. Driven. Focused. You have to think that through their influence, they would’ve created a successful culture for this franchise.
But still, they had lessons to learn, and Ollie was a great teacher.
“Everybody that comes through now, there’s a standard you’ve got to live up to as a Thunder player,” Durant said back on All-Star Weekend. “And that started with Kevin Ollie.”
The boys in blue are better because of him.
And we don’t just mean the ones in UConn uniforms.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.