Kelly Olynyk has gone from NCAA mid-major benchwarmer to surprise NBA lottery pick to one of the young faces of the growth of basketball in Canada. His ascension has been just as rapid and unforeseen as it has been for his Boston Celtics and the Canadian men’s national team.
We caught up with him during All-Star Weekend in Toronto, where he was one of the busiest NBAers in attendance, to chat about his upbringing, his pride in his country, and, of course, his pre-game meal.
Sportsnet: What is the most random fact about you that most people don’t know?
KELLY OLYNYK: I graduated from elementary school twice.
SN: How do you graduate elementary school twice?
KO: So I was born in Scarborough. I went to school in Toronto and it was kindergarten through Grade 6. Then you go to middle school, then you go to high school. After Grade 6 I graduated from elementary school, went to middle school. In Grade 7 my family moved to Kamloops, B.C. I get there and they are like, “Elementary school is K through 7 here, and high school is 8 through 12,” so I had to go back to elementary school and graduate again. So I’m rare. I don’t know if anyone else in the word has done that.
SN: Who did you model your game after as a kid?
KO: Growing up in Canada, obviously having the Raptors in your backyard was huge. So I would look up to Vince, Alvin Williams, Jerome Williams. And growing up in Canada you can’t not watch Steve Nash, and so through that I watched Dirk and Michael Finley.
SN: Do you think about the fact that now Canadians are watching Celtics game because of you?
KO: It’s pretty cool. To go through the transition of following a path paved by someone to now you are trying to pave the way. It’s a role reversal but it’s cool to be a part of.
SN: Why do you think basketball is growing so quickly in Canada?
KO: The Raptors have a lot to do with it. They built up the enthusiasm over the last 12 to 16 years. What really helps is guys having success. Me, Cory [Joseph], Tristan [Thompson], Andrew [Wiggins], Anthony [Bennett]—we all played in the same leagues growing up. So guys can relate because they played in the same house leagues as us, walked the same streets, played in the same gym. The basketball fan base feels connected to the league.
SN: Who has taught you the most about the game of basketball?
KO: My dad was huge. My dad was a coach with the national team and junior national team. He coached at the university of Toronto. He coached for the Raptors for a year when Lenny Wilkins was there so he was a great basketball mind for me to be around.
SN: What is the best piece of advice he gave you?
KO: One of the best pieces of advice he ever gave me was when I was in college. My first couple years I didn’t play. After my second year when I was thinking about transferring, he told me, “Even if you transfer or you stay, whatever happens you have to control your own destiny. You can’t put your fate in someone else’s hands.” That’s a huge thing—we get caught up in what other people think or want us to do. [But] for me, I really wanted to make the NBA, so I have to put that on myself. I can’t let the coaches or the university or anybody on the national team be responsible for it. If I’m going to make it I was going to have to control my own destiny.
SN: I remember that period. You grew your hair out. You basically went on sabbatical and just trained and built your body up to the point you looked like a different person. What was that process like?
KO: It was a lot of work. It was tough. But I had one goal in mind and that was to play at the next level. My goal going to Gonzaga was to take them to a place they’d never been before. That’s tough because when I got there they had won 14 straight conference championships, [had] 15 straight NCAA tournament appearances, they had been to the Elite 8. My junior year we become No. 1 in the country and No. 1 seed in the tournament, so I accomplished two things they had never done before. It was a grind but you have to just work through it and keep looking forward.
SN: Now that you’ve accomplished your goal what’s the next thing you’re chasing?
KO: Just pushing to see how you can get better every single day and every single year. What can you do to get to another level? Yeah, you’re at the highest level, but what can you do to improve whether it’s becoming an all-star or winning championships. I’m still trying to get better every day.
SN: What was it like for you to experience NBA All-Star Weekend in Canada?
KO: To see the same streets you walked, same places you went to eat, full of all this excitement and advertisements everywhere and the hotels going crazy—it was just cool to see. I went to the ACC as a kid and to see it transformed for the game was amazing. I’m just happy for not only the city of Toronto but also Canadians to be able to embrace and enjoy this moment
SN: What is your game-day routine?
KO: For home games I go eat the same thing every lunch.
SN: Which is….?
KO: I go to Whole Foods and get a wrap. And the same lady makes it every single time. It’s turkey, falafel, lettuce, tomato, humus, apricots, avocado and jalapenos all wrapped up in a spinach wrap. Then I come back home, and me and my roommate play a game of Madden. For a 7:30 game I go to the gym at like 2:45 and get a massage. At 4:15 we have shootaround for probably half an hour—we go through the other team’s plays and go through what we want to do. Then after that have another meal. That’s usually chicken, fish, vegetables, pasta and some salad. And then I go do an individual workout on the court. Then back in the locker room. That’s my time to get away from everything. There will be some music in the locker room, but it’s my time to relax. Then I’ll take a shower, get taped. Then the coach will come in and talk. And then I’m ready to roll.