UConn basketball: Visiting Storrs for the beginning of the Kevin Ollie era

STORRS, Conn. – As the miles passed on Highway 44-E — leafless trees cornering old barns to the left, harvested farm land to the right – I began to wonder how Jim Calhoun ever did get the city kids and slick ballplayers out to this part of the country.

How he ever did recruit the Rip Hamiltons and the Emeka Okafors, the specific quality of talent needed to build a power program, win championships, send players to the NBA and himself to the Hall of Fame.

It’s not such a mystery how, after establishing a reputation and a name and a brand at UConn, he kept them coming to Storrs.

But how did he get them there?

I drove east out of Hartford, turning on 384-E towards Providence, and exit sign by exit sign, semblances of city and urbanization evaporated. I pulled onto 44-E, and my iPhone said to drive 10.6 miles before turning on Storrs Road, which would take me into campus.

I hit one stoplight. I passed three churches, two Wal-Marts, one Valero gas station. It was cold and gray, trees naked after a recent storm whipped through and stripped them bare of their foliage.

There was a big lake, with backyards kissing the water’s edge, the perfect place during warm seasons. A Thompson & Sons, Inc. sign hung outside a country store. You can stop there if you need wooden pellets or poulin grain. There were rolling hills and cooped-up cows.

And, every so often, there was a basketball hoop – a fading backboard and a tilting rim – attached to the side of a shed, the back of a barn, the front of a tree, any place with enough room to shoot. Sometimes, there was even a little cement to dribble. I didn’t see any baseball fields or soccer goals or kids throwing footballs. But there were hoops.

How did Jim Calhoun get those great kids out here?

It doesn’t much matter now. It’s Kevin Ollie’s turn to try.

*            *            *

About 70 minutes before the opening tip of his first official game as the men’s head basketball coach at UConn – official because it is the first date on the Huskies’ 2012-13 schedule, even if it is an exhibition against American International College – Ollie strolled onto the court at Gampel Pavilion.

Ollie, 39 years old, wore dark gray slacks and a light gray sweater. The collar of a white polo poked out from the top. He’s 6-foot-2, slender and sleek. He walked over to UConn’s bench, some notes in hand, and took a seat. He watched his team go through its pre-game shoot-around. An arena official would pass by and call out his name, and Ollie would turn around to shake a hand or offer a fist pump. Everybody, it seemed, wanted to offer some form of encouragement.

There’s a positive energy around Ollie, and it’s easy to see why. He played for Jim Calhoun at UConn from ’91-95, moving east from Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles. He went undrafted after four years in Storrs but still managed to bounce from city to city for 13 seasons in the NBA. He spent the ’09-10 season with the Oklahoma City Thunder and then retired to return to Storrs as an assistant coach under Calhoun.

Now, after Calhoun retired in September, Ollie is leading his alma mater. He’s essentially an interim head coach. A one-year contract is all he has. People seem to like him here, but of course there are no guarantees, no promises for another season.

After 11 minutes, Ollie gets off the bench and heads back into the underground tunnels of the arena. Assistant coach Karl Hobbs runs players through some final shooting drills.

At 6:55 p.m., the UConn basketball coaches walk out of the locker room in gray slacks and dark blue UConn polos, a sharp single-file line beginning with Ollie. It looks orchestrated, united and strong. They walk the baseline in front of the student section.

The students know what this season could be for UConn basketball. They know one of their precious undergrad years may be spent trying to prop up a hoops program that has done the heavy lifting for so long, a program that has made the ‘UCONN’ so many of them wear across their chests something more than a white acronym stitched on blue cotton.

So the students rise for Kevin Ollie. He’s a Husky, he’s one of them, he’s their coach now. The students cheer wildly for a new coach and a new beginning.

*            *            *

I arrived on campus early in the afternoon. It was my first trip to Storrs, and I wanted to see the place and walk around and mingle with the students. I parked in the South garage, across from the arena, and hopped across Hillside Road, where a stuffed Student Union buzzed. I walked past the business school and down around Wilbur Library.

The wind cut through the sprawling brick campus, a warning chill on the first of November. Students zipped by on skateboards, and I wondered how they’d manage the rolling terrain when the mornings soon become icy.

Inside the Student Union, boxes of Panda Express piled up in garbage cans and booths lined the halls, organized by social groups and campus leaders. One student, trying to drive traffic to her political club, hollered as I walked by.

“Hey! Are you voting or what?”

“Hey! I’m just here to watch basketball!”

I laughed, and so did she, and I kept moving before she could utter another word about her club.

Still cold from the afternoon wind, I picked up a coffee and a school newspaper and found a quiet table on the top floor of the union, away from the chatter of procrastinating students and the lounge TVs airing Mike Francesa’s radio show (I don’t know why, either).

On page 12 of Thursday’s The Daily Campus, ‘Ollie Aboard’ marked the top of the sports page in thick, bold ink. Andrew Callahan, a senior staff writer, had a column about the men’s hoops team. The theme of Andrew’s column is hope and togetherness and teamwork.

Andrew is trying to put a positive spin on a season that won’t include postseason basketball for UConn after it received a one-year ban due to a low Academic Progress Rate. He’s trying to give this season meaning for the student body, and he’s trying to convince his readers that there IS something at stake here, even if it is not a championship banner.

I believe Andrew. But I also believe his second-to-last paragraph: “This men’s basketball season will be much different from any other we’ve seen. We’ll witness a thinner roster, fewer blocks and in all likelihood more losses. It’s going to be a strange, difficult year.”

Yes, it will be strange and difficult. It’ll be maddening and frustrating at times, too.

Through strange and difficult times in Storrs, Jim Calhoun has always been there to help see them through. It’s been that way for Andrew’s entire life, and for almost all of the other students at UConn, too, I presume.

But now, it’s different. Strange and difficult.

*            *            *

There was a sign outside the UConn Co-Op, a large student bookstore with clothing and accessories, that said 15 percent off on game days, so I went inside looking for signs of Calhoun.

I walked the aisles, pulling apart the sweaters and hoodies and other items to find Calhoun’s headshot, or at least his name, his coaching record, something.

All I could find was one T-shirt. I figured there would be blankets for Calhoun, coffee mugs for Calhoun. Hell, a poster? It was a nice T-shirt, but the T-shirt was all I found.

I thought about the clothing shops in Chapel Hill, N.C., where my alma mater is located. You can spin 10 times blindfolded and stumble into something honoring Dean Smith. There’s even a bar called Four Corners, named after Smith’s stalling offense.

I left the store and headed for the ticket office on the other side of Gampel. A few students were at the window asking for tickets to a soccer game that started an hour ago. I was the only one there to buy a basketball ticket.

For the Syracuse game later in the season, you must buy a season plan. I was there for AIC, so $5 – cheaper than parking – got me in the door.

*            *            *

Some say that Jim Calhoun retired at just the right time, and he knows it. Oh sure, he’s 70 years old now, battered mentally and physically from all the years, all the work. He arrived at his retirement press conference in September on crutches, pillars of support for a man recovering from hip surgery.

But beyond that, they say, Calhoun knew UConn was ineligible for the postseason in 2012-13, he knew this season’s team would be hit hard by the NBA draft and transfers, and he probably knew that the canines of the NCAA would forever sniff around Storrs while he ran the program.

So he handed the program off to Ollie and entered retirement as UConn entered its era of uncertainty and questions. Where does UConn go after its season in limbo? What kind of team is Ollie inheriting?

The first half of Ollie’s first official game is ugly. As the two teams bang in the paint and rumble down the floor after securing rebounds, it’s clear that UConn has a level of athleticism and basketball talent that AIC cannot match and will not match on this evening. The Huskies, as disoriented and congested as their first 20 minutes in uniform look, still move with the speed and strength of a major college basketball team.

The problem is speed and strength and superior athleticism will not always equal more points, and the Huskies never lead in the first half, trailing 29-28 at intermission. They have 10 turnovers to five assists. There is a lot of grunting and flailing between buckets – tough work, it seems, for two points.

The most entertaining event is this ritual the crowd performs at the beginning of every half. They rise to their feet and clap in unison until their Huskies score their first basket of the half. The clap begins politely and with ease, but as the incompetent possessions begin to pile up, the slapping of palms grows heavier, angrier, louder.

At the 18:06 mark, DeAndre Daniels catches a pass on the baseline, spins and lays it in, a shot that sends the crowd back into their seats. A half-hearted cheer is weighed down by sighs of relief.

This ritual sticks with me, and I think about it as the Huskies struggle to execute a basic pick-and-roll in the high post and clank mid-range jumpers off seemingly every part of the rim.

Some nights, I think, this crowd is going to be standing and passive-aggressively clapping for quite a while.

*             *            *

Kevin Ollie is taking over a Husky basketball program that perhaps is not roaring at its peak, but it is not a program in decline, either. Nobody knows what the effect of Jim Calhoun’s retirement will ultimately be, if future coaches will be as successful at luring talent out here as he was, but there is still plenty of hope for the future.

A part of that hope is, ironically, a trampled piece of field next to Gampel Pavilion. It’s a long stretch of grass used for intramural games. The grass is chewed in certain places, and pieces of trash scurry across the field in the late-afternoon wind.

There is a stack of cones in one corner and two jumbo tires off to the side. Together, they seem to be the perfect combination for an afternoon spent learning discipline and things the hard way.

Soon enough, there will be an athletic facility here, a beautiful building built with bricks and tall windows like The Burton Family Football Complex across the road. Standing here will be the UConn Basketball Development Center, providing state-of-the-art locker rooms and practice courts and training facilities and coaches’ offices and academic support rooms.

The university has begun the construction process after securing $24 million of the $32 million needed for the project, and the hope is that it will open two years from now. Undoubtedly, it will be one of the first stops Ollie – or some other coach – takes recruits when they visit Storrs.

For all the hurdles Ollie will have to find his way around to get kids to campus – the location, the lack of nightlife, the weather, and so on – this is a bullet he can fire on the recruiting trail that few others can.

I watched the UConn football team file into its sparkling facility after practice, where the scooters lined the pavement ready to whisk tired legs back to campus residences, and never did it feel like the football complex was the kingdom of the athletic landscape.

Instead, I wondered what the basketball facility will look like across the street, warm and lit on a cold mid-winter game night in Storrs. Even on the night of an exhibition game with a new coach in a season that won’t include March Madness no matter how many games the Huskies win, UConn feels like a basketball school.

Standing on that beaten patch of grass, I began to feel the slightest sense of how Jim Calhoun did what he did here.

*            *            *

UConn didn’t get its first lead against AIC until the 17:27 mark in the second half. It would end up finding a little rhythm and pulling away, as freshman Omar Calhoun finished with a team-high 24 points.

Other than Ollie’s first game as head coach, I came to Storrs to see Omar, a 6-5 guard from Brooklyn. I suspect many of the people in Gampel Thursday evening came to see Omar, too, because he’s the bridge between the Calhoun and post-Calhoun eras of UConn hoops.

At halftime, I left my seat and stood along a wall above the baseline in Gampel. I was joined by a few older UConn season-ticket holders who were raving about Omar and ranting about UConn’s lack of offensive chemistry.

They didn’t know if Omar could carry the Huskies’ offense this season, but they were willing to put their faith in the freshman. They appreciated his aggressiveness.

As one middle-aged fan spewed about the Huskies’ big men and their occasional inability to execute a simple screen, another began talking about Ollie. He likes the coach’s presence, his leadership, his understanding and respect of UConn.

When I asked what he expected from the team this season without Calhoun, he swatted my question away. “It isn’t about this season,” he said, an odd statement to make during the first exhibition game of the season, but one I understood clearly.

He wore jeans and a UConn sweatshirt tied around his waist. His blue T-shirt read, “Ollie in ’13-’14.” He had already moved past this night, this postseason ban, this season.

Even at the outset of this season of strange and difficult, he was excited.

He didn’t know how exactly this season will play out here and what that could mean for the coach he’s campaigning for, but for now he has a coach in which he trusts and a confidence rooted in what’s to come.

Email: tmitrosilis@gmail.com Twitter: @TMitrosilis

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