— Long before the one-year audition, long before the nomadic decade of 10-day contracts strung together in the NBA, and long before his first meeting with Jim Calhoun, Kevin Ollie was learning the art of survival in the most real sense of that word.
"I saw friends of mine get killed," Ollie said. "I saw different things where I had to become street-smart, I had to be aware of what I had to do on a day-to-day basis to survive."
The polished, personable Kevin Ollie, who has taken on the daunting task of replacing Calhoun as UConn's basketball coach, and who is doing it with all the disadvantages that come with a one-season guarantee, was hardened in the South Central Los Angeles of the late 1980s. On those streets, gangs were the government, and if a teenager wore the wrong color to the wrong place, or the wrong expression, it could cost him his life.
"I'm glad I had my mother there in the middle of the mix to keep me on the straight and narrow," Ollie said, "because I could easily have gone down the wrong path."
Ollie's mother, Dorothy, became an ordained minister in the Hays Tabernacle Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in 1989, and Kevin attended services with her from the time he was a child. She never shied from community involvement, never stopped trying to make a difference, but she did move her family to Gardena, a safer neighborhood. Still, Kevin Ollie walked past Florence and Normandie, the intersection that became nationally known during the riots in July 1992, to get to his elementary school. And he attended Crenshaw High, known for producing great athletes, but also nicknamed "Fort Crenshaw" for its violence.
When he was 16, basketball coach Willie West, who brought national recognition to Crenshaw, caught Ollie shooting dice. "Coach West grabbed me by the neck, and that was the last time that ever happened," Ollie said.
Somehow, Ollie navigated. Basketball helped — he averaged 21 points for Crenshaw — as did the strong faith that his mother instilled, and as did common sense. He learned where he could wear red, and where he could wear blue, and how to walk away from trouble and how to get along.
"There were gangsters around," Ollie said. "They knew I had the ambition to play basketball and they respected that. You had to talk to them — you couldn't ignore them and let them think you're too good for them..."
That's where Ollie was coming from the day he arrived at UConn in September 1991. He slipped on a blue outfit because it was his choice, and he began jogging around the campus.
"I wanted to get away from L.A.," he said. "Not get away from my family, but get away from the environment I grew up in. This was like a total 360. I felt relaxed, I felt calm. And when I got into the gym and saw how Coach Calhoun pushed his guys to be perfectionists on and off the basketball court, I fell in love with it."
When Ollie arrived at UConn, he told The Courant that his goal was to become the school's all-time assists leader. After his freshman year, in April 1992, he watched on TV from his dorm as the rioting, the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict, enveloped his old neighborhood. He went home for an emotional visit, as he did every summer.
At the end of his sophomore season, Ollie was warned by assistant coach Howie Dickenman that UConn had landed a point guard from Israel, Doron Sheffer, who would challenge him for his starting spot. Ollie said, in so many words, "bring it on," and worked ever harder.
When he went back to school in September of '93, he wandered down to a campus festival and spotted Stephanie, who was to become the next strong woman in his life.
"I saw her, and we kind of rekindled what we had," Ollie said, "which was just a couple of conversations. She never really gave me the time of day. But she saw me, I saw her and it was perfect. She had broken up with her boyfriend."
Two years later, Ollie left UConn as the Huskies all-time assists leader, with a degree in communications and Stephanie's promise to marry him.
"She has always been my rock, my confidante," he said. "Without her, I couldn't do anything. I still had things I wanted to do, I was still immature. But she was right there — she saw something better in me."
Now Ollie, who averaged 6.7 points at UConn, was off to try to play in the NBA.
"He was the perfect reserve player," Nelson remembered. "Understood his role, never complained about playing time, or anything else. Always a great team member."