He’s a coach’s son and in many ways the coach’s best work.
And if the father who has invested his life in basketball can’t help make a gem out of a son who wants to make his life in the game, then what good are all those years of coaching everyone else?
Kelly Olynyk, the long-haired kid from Kamloops, B.C., who is the star player on the top-ranked college team in the country on the eve of the NCAA tournament, arrived at Gonzaga University as just that: a product of the best his father Ken had to offer.
Sure he was seven-feet tall, but size didn’t define him. He had the skills and mentality of a player eight inches shorter, the product of a lot of late nights in the gym, getting shots up with Dad.
“I believed and Kelly believed that he would be a slash to the basket three-man who might post up a little guy,” Ken says on the phone to me from Kamloops before making the 11-hour drive to Utah where he’ll watch Gonzaga take on Southern University in their opening game of the West Regional Thursday afternoon, the first step, hopefully of a Final Four appearance in Atlanta.
“I thought he’d make a jump hook here or there and then spend the rest of the time hanging out by the three-point line or the foul-line.”
He’s a father first, so admittedly biased, but the coach in him knew that he had something special to work with from a young age. Kelly wasn’t simply a basketball robot — the product of videos and drills and hours in the gym.
He was an athlete who played a lot of everything. “He was a very good baseball player; he was a very good lacrosse player; he was a pretty good soccer player,” says his Dad. “When we moved (to Kamloops) he got into football and he was a quarterback and he had some schools interested in him as a quarterback in Grade 11 and then he broke his shoulder and then he stopped playing football. He played rugby.”
Big Ken knows of what he speaks. He was a pretty good player himself. He starred at Laurentian University in the 1970s and had a shot to make the Canadian national team for the 1976 Olympics, but he made his mark as a coach, first building a top program at the University of Lethbridge and then, from 1989-2001, doing what many thought impossible: putting winning teams on the floor at the University of Toronto.
It was while Ken was coaching the Blues that Kelly began to make an impression. The Olynyks are a basketball family. Kelly’s mother, Arlene, played at university, was an elite referee and the official scorekeeper for the Toronto Raptors for eight years. They moved to Kamloops so Ken could become the athletic director at Thomson River University, but he didn’t stop coaching. Earlier this month he was on the bench when Kelly’s younger sister Maya won the B.C. provincial title in Vancouver the same weekend her brother was helping Gonzaga win their conference tournament and earn their first-ever No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament.
Even when Kelly was young, basketball was on the menu.
“We’d play in Ottawa and I’d take the kids with me on the bus and they’d stay in my room and we’d go skating on the Canal,” his Dad says. “And we’d played in a Christmas tournament at Acadia or at Dalhousie (in Nova Scotia) — and the kids would come with us and he’d run through our drills in practice with us and take part in our shooting contests. He could really shoot the ball as a young guy.”
By the time Kelly was finished high school he could do everything. His performance at the B.C. provincial championships in 2009 is the stuff of legend: He earned tournament MVP honours even though the South Kamloops Titans finished third. He is the only player in the 68-year history of the event to lead the field in scoring (36.5 points per game), rebounding (15.5 rpg) and assists (7.2 apg). He also tied for the lead in blocked shots (3.5 bpg).
But after two underwhelming years at Gonzaga, where he couldn’t quite cut it on the perimeter and was ineffective banging in the post, the kid who could do it all was faced with a new challenge: learn how to do less.
While Olynyk had been raised by his father and the rest of the coaches who had touched him along the way –“It takes a village to raise a basketball player,” says Ken — to fill his bucket of skills to over-flowing, Mark Few and the coaching staff at Gonzaga saw a seven-foot, 250-pound man-child who wanted to do too much and too far from the basket.
It was not a happy time. Olynyk gave serious consideration to transferring and Few — one of the most successful coaches in Division 1 basketball, now having taken Gonzaga to 15 straight NCAA tournaments — wasn’t going to bend his expectations for one player.
With his college career hanging in the balance Kelly turned to the coach he trusted most — his father.
“Kelly and I probably talked about it every day for a month … at the time, they weren’t on the same page whatsoever,” says Ken. “I would say the coach didn’t want him to leave. He might have accepted it because the program is not about Kelly Olynyk, but Kelly was in a similar boat. If he didn’t think it was the right situation for him, he would have left.
“But I said the reasons he chose Gonzaga hadn’t changed, so now, how can you make it work? And that was the key. They found a way to make it work from both sides.”
The solution was innovative and unusual: It was decided that Kelly would take a red-shirt year as a junior to preserve his eligibility while developing his game.
Olynyk spent hours with Gonzaga’s strength and conditioning coach working on an advanced routine designed not only to build strength and power, but to help Olynyk’s nervous system and core muscles catch up with a body that had grown nine inches and added 50 pounds in the space of a few short years.
“He grew up and his game grew up,” Gonzaga’s head coach Mark Few said earlier this year of Olynyk’s redshirt season. “In the past he was a little out of control and made a lot of turnovers. Now, he is in control and his game is more mature.”
As well Olynyk was given a seat on the Gonzaga bench beside the coaching staff, seeing the game through their eyes as he charted possessions and saw what worked and didn’t work within the context of the team.
On the floor he worked to add the one aspect of basketball he’d never really focused on: playing like a big man.
This season it has all come together. The added strength and fitness gave him greater confidence to play a physical style closer to the basket. His new post skills have made him one of the most efficient scorers in all of college basketball, averaging 17.5 points and 7.2 rebounds in just 25 minutes of playing time. He’s converted 65.2 per cent of his field goal attempts, fifth best in the country and tops among players who have averaged at least 10 shots a game.
He still has the ball-handling and shooting skills that his father emphasized growing up, which make him the kind of versatile threat that have NBA scouts drooling; Olynyk will be a lock to go in the top half of the draft if he comes out this year. A strong tournament and some good individual workouts could easily see him move into the top 10.
The father finds it all a bit overwhelming. The kid he used to take ice skating on the Rideau Canal on road trips and who got his first dose of confidence running drills as a 12-year old alongside the U of T Blues is the talk of March Madness and getting feature treatment by Sports Illustrated, the New York Times, ESPN and CBS Sports. His story has become a storyline.
“It’s a little bit bizarre. It’s all in my face right now, it’s right in my wife’s face. It’s different,” says Ken. “We have agents calling. The media is calling. Everywhere I turn I see my kid’s face.”
But the coach in him? The coach gets it. He understands what the excitement is about.
His son arrived at Gonzaga a player, but there was still a long way to go to become the player he could be. Ken Olynyk the coach understood what needed to be done and Ken Olynyk the father helped his son understand it too.
“I knew where the coaches were coming from,” Ken says. “And what I discussed with Kelly was that becoming a decent post player would only help you become a better player.
“But the last time I talked to him I asked him: when you first came to Gonzaga did you ever imagine you would be applauded and talked about as one of the best centers and big men in the country and not one of the best three-men?”
“He said: ‘There was a not a chance I thought that would happen.’
“But that’s what happened. It’s a credit to him and the staff there.”
Spoken like a good coach and a proud father.