Opinion: Ken Carter, Kevin Ollie and the true championship
In 1978, the Hartford Civic Center's ceiling collapsed after a heavy snowstorm and last Wednesday it seemed that the rechristened XL Center would do so again. The floors were shaking. The noise was deafening. The building seemed almost unable to contain the magnitude of the energy. Last Wednesday brought one of the greatest, most triumphant, most jaw-dropping home performance that the University of Connecticut basketball team has achieved during any current student's tenure here.
Was it all for nothing? That depends on who you ask.
So let's ask Ken Carter.
Mr. Carter, who stops by the Student Union Theater tomorrow night at 7 p.m. to deliver a free lecture, was the inspiration behind the film "Coach Carter" starring Samuel L. Jackson. As head coach of Richmond (California) Oilers high school basketball in 1999, Carter led an undefeated 13-0 team ranked third in the state among similarly-sized schools. That is, until he started a self-imposed lockout against competing until his athletes raised their academic scores. Carter became a national media sensation, forfeiting his team's games and refusing to allow re-entry into competition until players attained sufficient grades. The team eventually returned, finishing the season with an excellent 19-5 record and earning a bid to the state playoffs.
UConn has something of a Ken Carter figure, except his name is Kevin Ollie. When Ollie accepted the head coaching job this season, his nonexistent head coaching experience meant signing a mere seven month contract, unlike the multiyear contracts typical in the sport. For all he knew, this could be the only season he coached UConn. And it just happened to be the one season the team was ineligible for competing in the postseason NCAA Tournament or Big East Tournament, as punishment for low academic scores among former players.
During Ollie's introductory press conference in September, he looked around for a moment before starting. "It's about UConn basketball and how we go forward. And we're going to go forward. And we have enough, right here in this room, we have enough," Ollie asserted. "I believe in you and I want you to be better, not only basketball players, but I want you to be better men. Better men, that you all come back, and the only thing I ask from you is that you come back and help the other guys that we're trying to coach, that we're trying to get to that next point. I want you to always come back and do that for me. I want you to believe in me as we go through this journey and know for a fact that I believe in you."
Most UConn fans had the same reaction: That's all good and well, but win us some games.
Last Wednesday he did. That unlikeliest victory against Syracuse, the sixth-ranked team in the nation while UConn remained ranked outside the Top 25, came following the Orange defeating the Huskies in all three matchups last season. With the championship as impossibility, the win against a top championship contender was UConn's championship. It only served to prove the lesson of Ken Carter: Basketball success and academic achievement are not mutually exclusive. By all indications current UConn players are achieving an Academic Performance Rate sufficiently high to qualify for tournament play - but remain barred regardless due to former players, not a single one of whom remains on the team.
During the finale of the film "Coach Carter," Samuel L. Jackson looks around the locker room at his dejected players following their state tournament loss ending their season. He raises his voice loud and clear. "Well, not quite your storybook ending. Not for us, anyway. But you men played like champions. You never gave up. And champions hold their heads high. What you achieved goes way beyond the win-loss column or what's going to be written on the front page of the sports section tomorrow. You have achieved something that some people spend their whole lives trying to find. What you achieved is that ever elusive victory within. And gentlemen, I am so proud of you. Four months ago when I took the job at Richmond I had a plan. That plan failed. I came to coach basketball players and you became students. I came to teach boys and you became men. And for that I thank you."
When Kevin Ollie took the job at UConn a few months ago, he had a plan. That plan failed too.
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