Kevin Ollie is the man for UConn, thanks to two amazing women
It's been an emotional, tragic few months for Connecticut. On Monday night, the two women who mean so much to him got to celebrate an amazing victory.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- She told his wife Stephanie about the cancer days before she could tell her own son. Stephanie agreed to keep it their secret. Kevin didn't need to know right then. It was a mother's wish, and she knew what was best.
Even if it meant hiding something so devastating to him.
Dorothy Ollie had already planned the trip weeks before, anyway. UConn was playing in New York City at the 2K Sports Classic around Thanksgiving weekend. She was going to come up and see Kevin in the early stages of his second season at UConn while she was in the early stages of fighting breast cancer. She landed in Connecticut, and the next morning, in the kitchen of Kevin and Stephanie's Manhattan hotel suite, Dorothy had the same conversation with her daughter-in-law as doctors had with her a few days before.
The positive diagnosis came at a normal checkup near her home in Plano, Texas, on Nov. 16, 2013. But Dorothy needed a second opinion. She'd go to the UConn Health Center for that. Meanwhile, Kevin Ollie coached the Huskies to two more victories, winding up as 2K champs at Madison Square Garden, the very site where almost four months later the Huskies would leave again as winners, a team headed to the Final Four.
At this point though, the Huskies were off to a 6-0 start.
And that's when Dorothy finally told her son the news that rocked his life.
The diagnosis came less than three months after the Ollie family was crushed by the death of Stephanie's father to Stevens-Johnson Syndrome. He died in September of 2013 of a disease that essentially burns you from your insides out.
Nothing Kevin Ollie faced with basketball remotely compared to the hell his family had been through in the past eight months.
The strong man and new face behind Connecticut's program has been uplifted and remained sturdy thanks to the support and strength from two amazing, powerful women in his life. Ollie would point to a lot of reasons why he's on top of the college basketball summit right now. None would come above his wife and his mother, except for maybe his faith -- the thing that binds all of them.
"It was great to see my mom got an opportunity to have this," Ollie said on the court afterward.
Ollie, who's never been about himself, wasn't about himself at all in this moment either -- as he commenced the greatest achievement of his professional career. But this was personal. This was for mom, and for the other father who'd been taken before he could ever know what was to come.
"I told him to keep the faith," Dorothy said.
She always did. So did Kevin, for as long as Dorothy had been a minister, a woman of faith who raised Kevin and his sisters in a house that was broken. The divorce came when Kevin was young. Then the family moved from Dallas to L.A. Dorothy preached, literally, and changed the way Kevin viewed his life, viewed how to treat people.
"She’s a strong woman, he learned his resiliency from here," Stephanie Ollie said. "She and his father both raised a good husband for me. ... She’s a very positive woman."
After No. 7 UConn beat No. 8 Kentucky 60-54 and capped off what was truly one of the most unpredictable and remarkable title runs college basketball has ever seen, Ollie made his way to the opposite side of the court. Mom was there, and so was Stephanie. He found them and exchanged smiles and shouts that couldn't possibly be heard over the din of cheerleaders' screams, players' hoots and the artillery of photographers' clicks that fired around him.
"I already predicted it from the beginning," Dorothy Ollie said Monday night while standing on strewn strips of streamers and sands of confetti. "I prayed hard and knew good would come. God would reward us. It's just overwhelming."
After Dorothy was diagnosed with the cancer, she moved in with Kevin and Stephanie, into their Glastonbury, Conn., home. They'd prepared for this in years prior, building a room in the basement that could accomodate their parents. It was handicap-accessible.
Stephanie expected it, but not so soon. She got her nursing degree at UConn, making her especially capable of handling the situation. UConn's where she met Kevin, in a simple dorm room of a friend. That frienD was there as well with Stephanie on Monday night.
"We're a close-knit family, so close," Dorothy Ollie said. "His personality reflects that even now. He's a free spirit an has the soul of an old person. He's reserved but always positive, always spiritual."
Stephanie, who still works as a part-time nurse in congestive heart failure/cardiology at Saint Francis Hospital in Bridgeport, was the one who took care of her mother-in-law most. She made the meals, drove the 30 minutes each way -- to dozens of appointments -- from their Glastonbury home to the UConn Health Center in Farmington.
It was Dorothy's calm and confident advice that pushed Ollie to take the UConn job. It Stephanie's strength and steady hand that helped make sure the transition from NBA journeyman to UConn assistant worked. Because he needed that a few years ago. When Ollie was debating taking the job, he and Stephanie spent a few days in the back and forth. In their kitchen or laying in bed, they were deciding if this was going to be worth it. He'd spent nearly 15 years in the NBA, in 11 cities, while his family was mostly nestled in Glastonbury.
"Being on the road, kids at home, we had some discussions," she said. "Will it be worth it?"
Of course now we can see that it is. How far and fast he's come. Quiet boy Kevin, the youngster who grew up loving the Dallas Cowboys, created something that gave a sparkle in Dorothy's eyes Monday night. She watched the first four tournament wins from home. The final two came in person, less than a half-hour's drive from her home in Plano.
"Always family first," Ollie said.
And on Monday night, exactly two weeks removed from having breast cancer surgery, Dorothy Ollie smiled and strutted on the court with her son. She did it in an ROTC/Army UConn hat that she's had for year, her favorite. Later this week she'll be flying back to Connecticut for three more weeks of treatment.
Behind the scenes, Ollie was gripping with his family all season long. The woman who sat there in the family's South Central Los Angeles living room with Jim Calhoun 24 years ago, who convinced her and her son to leave sunny California temperatures for miserable Storrs winters, had made the trip herself to save herself from dying. Stephanie was so strong throughout. Ollie spoke after the game about the power and connection these two women have brought him. They've been essential to his happiness and steadiness at a time when his professional career was blooming but still in doubt.
"She kept fighting through chemo for four months," Ollie said. "Just to see her make this trip and us win the national championship and just see her smile is just real special to me. My wife gives me an opportunity to work and do what I do on a day-to-day basis and take care of home and take care of my mother.
"For her strength, she lost her father four months ago. So it's been a tough year for us, in 2013 was tough. A lot of people didn't know it, but behind the scenes, we were just holding each other up. And without my wife, I couldn't be here doing this job. And for her to lose her father, the man in her life and to lose it and just keep lifting me up, keep providing for our family. Then take my mother on when she is driving her to the hospital, to appointment after appointment, it's just a courageous woman. I'm glad she chose me and that's my No. 1 recruit right there."
After making eye contact with his wife and his No. 1 recruit in stands in the postgame celebration, Ollie went about the pack of players and coaches and anyone in front of him that was available for a hug or a pose. A few minutes into the celebration, Stephanie wormed her way to a crowded spot near the celebration platform. Kevin turned and saw her. The hug went on for well over 10 seconds.
There could be no tears right now. They'd come too far. The coach and the recruit met on the court. Strength, trust, faith and family culminated in a happy ending after one of the most trying and successful stretches of Kevin Ollie's life. He was a champion now, but they never need a game to know that.
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