Ollie working Overtime, hopes to reconcile with UConn
Kevin Ollie is back in his element.
His voice gets hoarse after shouting instructions for a couple of hours at practice for Overtime Elite, the fledgling basketball operation for top-level prospects. He’s still seeking “Level 5” enthusiasm from his players. Level 120, actually.
“That means a Level 5 each and every day,” Ollie said, “because tomorrow’s not promised to you.”
Ollie should know. After leading UConn to a national championship in 2014, it appeared he was UConn’s head coach for years to come. Four years later, he was fired for cause, a result of consecutive losing seasons and NCAA violations later revealed under his watch. He’s currently embroiled in an arbitration battle with the school to recoup the nearly $11 million left on his contract — a battle that should be resolved before 2021 is over.
But that’s not what’s occupying Ollie’s mind these days. He’s the head coach and director of player development for Overtime Elite, a league featuring 24 high-level, high school-aged recruits who have forsaken amateurism and the ability to play college ball to earn a minimum $100,000 per year in a unique environment that mixes basketball and education.
“It’s going great,” Ollie said by phone late last week. “They’re working hard, on and off the basketball court. We’re just trying to support all their dreams and realities, and trying to make a great opportunity for them to succeed.”
Overtime Elite (OTE) is based in Atlanta, at a temporary site for the next month until its state-of-theart facility in the trendy Atlantic Station area of the city is ready. The league hasn’t released a schedule yet, but plans to start playing games in late October. It will feature interleague games, with three teams of eight players each playing each other, as well as games against prep schools from around the country.
How will that work? Overtime Elite will bring its three teams to different schools to play games against the two teams that most prep schools feature, in a jamboree-style event. The league is also planning overseas trips for next year, once COVID-19 travel restrictions loosen.
For now, the Overtime Elite athletes are working out — weight-training, skills development, etc. — usually split into three eight-man pods before playing four-on-four scrimmages.
“It’s always interesting with 24 players,” Ollie said. “I never coached a team this large, so that’s interesting. It’s new and I’m loving it, but you don’t want to make it a camp setting, having five guys out and 19 guys on the baseline. So you’ve got to get creative.”
There’s also an academic program that includes courses in math, science, humanities, social studies and other subjects. Three days a week, the athletes tend to academics in the morning, then begin practice around 1 p.m. Twice a week, they’ll practice early, then move on to their academics. And three times a week, at night, the players will return to the gym for skills development.
“It’s a pretty big day for them, when it comes to time,” Ollie said. “But being a professional asks you to do that, get out your comfort zone a little bit. We’re making sure they’re taking care of their body, having recovery days. But when it’s days for academics and basketball, they’re getting after it. They’re going 120, Level 5 in everything they do. And they’re adapting to our coaching at OTE, which is really good.”
OTE was created out of a sports media company founded in 2016. Overtime grew as an online platform, amplifying highlight videos of high school stars such as Zion Williamson and Paige Bueckers on social media. The move to running a league has drawn financial backing from the likes of Jeff Bezos, Drake, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and NBA players Klay Thompson, Kyle Lowry, Trae Young and Devin Booker.
The coaching staff includes former UConn assistant Dave Leitao and Waterbury native Ryan Gomes, the former Providence star who spent seven seasons in the NBA.
OTE has assembled an impressive group of players. Four of the first prospects to commit to the league in May were a pair of twins from the Miami area — Matt and Ryan Bewley and Amen and Ausar Thompson. Ollie was living in Miami at the time.
“I knew God had me in the right place, and it wasn’t just for me to be jogging in South Beach,” he said, only half-jokingly. “It was something bigger than that. It was a blessing.”
In all, OTE has signed eight five-star players: the Thompson and Bewley twins, Jalen Lewis, Jazian Gortman, Bryson Warren and Tyler Smith. They’ve also signed some highly touted international players, including Jean Montero, whom some mock drafts have being selected in the top 20 of the 2022 NBA draft.
Still, the Overtime Elite program isn’t for everybody.
Simeon Wilcher is a 6foot-4, five-star Class of 2023 combo guard from Roselle Catholic — the New Jersey program that UConn has already mined for current freshman Corey Floyd Jr. Wilcher and his family have known UConn associate head coach Kimani Young since Simeon was about 6 years old. He recently visited UConn’s campus.
“He loves it,” Wilcher’s father, Sergio, told Hearst Connecticut Media about UConn. “The history of it all, he knows players that went there, guys that are there now, guys that his brother (C.J., now at Nebraska) played with or he watched playing growing up.”
Wilcher also has North Carolina, Oregon, Texas Tech and other heavyweights recruiting him, and he’s in no rush to make a college decision. However, he has already made one decision, spurning the advances of Overtime Elite.
“We’re all about everything that the Overtime Elite thing is about — getting better, development, the education system they have in place,” Sergio said. “It was very good, very attractive.”
But Sergio pointed out that, due to the pandemic, his son has yet to have a full season of high school.
“He still desires to be a kid,” Sergio said. “He wants to go to his proms, he says that specifically. He wants to be a McDonald’s All American. For me, I’m still raising him. He’s very mature beyond his years when it comes to a lot of things, but then I’m reminded daily that he’s still a teenager that has regular problems.”
Wilcher played on the New York Rens AAU team this summer with Dominick Barlow, who signed with OTE. Another OTE signee, Jai Smith, played with C.J. Wilcher with the City Rocks program.
But it just wasn’t for Simeon.
“He’s like, ‘Dad, they could have given me $2 million. I still wouldn’t have gone,’ ” Sergio said. “It was never about the money. Don’t get me wrong, the family could use that. But it wasn’t like it was life-changing money. For what you’re giving up, what does it really cost to a kid that hasn’t had a regular full year of high school?”
And, of course, college athletes can make money now through the NCAA’s recent name, image and likeness (NIL) legislation.
“He could go and make what they’re offering for two years in one year, and still be able to be a kid, going to college, playing college basketball,” Sergio noted. “March Madness is a big thing in our house, been that way since forever. So if he can do that and still put some money to the side, take care of himself and set up himself for the future, why not do that?”
Ollie understands these issues could affect kids’ decisions, but pointed out that OTE also provides them a chance to build their brand and earn money off their name earlier than they could in college.
“We don’t have time to deal with negativity, saying ‘You should not go to college,’ because I think college is great for some student-athletes,” Ollie said. “But Overtime Elite is great for some studentathletes, as well. And why not give them options? And I think OTE provides another viable option, to understand pro habits on and off the basketball court, to develop skills that take them, hopefully, to a career that’s possibly in the NBA or overseas.”
Ollie said he hasn’t heard much negativity from prep or college coaches.
“Once you’re a college coach, you’re in a fraternity. The only thing I’ve been getting was a lot of love, saying that they’re happy I’m back coaching again, ‘These kids need you.’ That’s kind of the sentiment I’ve been getting.”
“But everybody’s competitive,” he added, “and we’re also taking some guys that were maybe on the verge of going to the college route. I imagine there’s some competitiveness in that. Sometimes, when you get competitive, it gets negative, sometimes it gets positive.”
Ollie has tried to remain positive throughout his now 31⁄2-year battle with UConn. A new arbitrator is on the case. Win or lose, Ollie hopes that one day, he will again be embraced by UConn Nation.
“I’ve forgiven; hopefully they’ve forgiven,” he said. “I’m going on with my life, I’m doing great over here with OTE. I wish Dan Hurley, all those guys, as much success as possible. Hopefully, one day we could possibly (reconcile). But I’m gonna take care of today.”
And today, for Kevin Ollie, means Overtime Elite. Level 120.
“I’ll let my lawyers take care of the arbitration,” he added. “Hopefully, that’s over soon, that’s all behind us, and we can move forward.”