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Ollie ball is the new favorite sport at UConn

Connecticut head coach KevOllie instructs his team during first half second-round game against Saint Joseph's NCAA college basketball tournament Buffalo

Connecticut head coach Kevin Ollie instructs his team during the first half of a second-round game against Saint Joseph's in the NCAA college basketball tournament in Buffalo, N.Y., Thursday, March 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Nick LoVerde) ORG XMIT: NYFF158

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Updated: April 6, 2014 11:25PM

ARLINGTON, Texas — Fifteen years ago, for the only time since his coaching career got off the ground, John Calipari was unemployed. He had been fired by the New Jersey Nets in March 1999 after 20 games of a lockout-shortened season, and it would be six months before Larry Brown of the Philadelphia 76ers threw him a lifeline.

Calipari figured Brown wanted to send him on the road as a scout, but Brown wanted him on the bench as an assistant. That was a better gig, a step closer to re-emerging as a head coach somewhere — it would be at Memphis in 2000 — and it was a blessing for another reason.

That one season in Philly was when Calipari, now a coaching giant at Kentucky, met Kevin Ollie, now the second-year coach at Connecticut.

Ollie was a 26-year-old journeyman point guard then, already on his sixth pro stop and in the first of three stints with the 76ers. A terrible shooter with all sorts of limitations to his game, Ollie nevertheless seemed to be admired and respected everywhere he went. Ultimately, he played for 12 teams in 13 seasons, hitting a grand total of nine three-pointers along the way.

But Ollie made an impression — a big one — on Calipari.

“All I can tell you,” Calipari said Sunday, a day before he’ll face Ollie in the national-title game, “is that he is one of the most wonderful people that I’ve ever come across in my life.”

As a player, Ollie was fired more times than he could count. If you remember watching him play, you might find it miraculous that he ever got into a single NBA game, let alone 662 of them (including 52 with the Bulls in 2001-02). But word got around that if you needed a guy, a stopgap, a finger in the dam for even just a 10-day contract, Ollie was worth a phone call.

His last stop was in Oklahoma City the season the Thunder jumped from 23 victories to 50 and the playoffs.

Ollie’s take on that: “They took a 37-year-old point guard that [couldn’t] shoot and gave me another life.”

How about Kevin Durant’s? He told ESPN in February, long before UConn joined Kentucky as the stories of the postseason, that Ollie “changed the whole culture” with a very young, very talented team.

“His mind-set, his professionalism every day, we all watched that,” Durant said. “We all wanted to be like that.”

When Jim Calhoun walked away and Ollie — never a head coach and only two years as an assistant — was hand-picked by Calhoun to replace him, many not in the know howled. Well, now we all know.

You want someone to root for Monday night? Ollie isn’t such a bad choice. His best player, Shabazz Napier, gets emotional talking about him.

“I never had a father in my life,” Napier said. “He is like a father to me.”

According to Ollie, his job isn’t to motivate his players to win a championship.

“I want to help them be better men,” he said. “Basketball is second to me. … I think I’ve done my job if they leave [a] better person and a better man, able to make an imprint on their comm-unity.”

Not a motivator? His team lost three times to Louisville — which lost twice to Kentucky — but now has the chance to knock off the Wildcats despite their momentum and massive talent. That coach isn’t a motivator?

“That’s just Coach being humble,” guard Ryan Boatright said. “We all want to be like him.”


Twitter: @slgreenberg

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