UNCASVILLE — He wasn’t here. His UConn family was here.
Kevin Ollie wasn’t at Mohegan Sun on Friday night for the Jim Calhoun Celebrity Classic.
Too soon. Too painful.
Fired as coach by UConn after six seasons for “just cause” in March, an ugly fight over more than $10 million remaining on his contract still lingering, Ollie was invited.
“I just wish he was here,” said Kentan Facey, who played on Ollie’s 2014 national champions. “I love KO.”
No. Too soon. Too much unresolved.
“It’s an unfortunate situation,” Rudy Gay said. “On either side, I don’t think we wanted it to happen, but it did. I guarantee that will be made right. I know KO’s at home, wishing he was here, wishing he could be around all the guys, choppin’ it up with us.”
There was plenty of choppin’ it up — shooting the breeze — among the approximately 50 former UConn men’s and women’s players and coaches at the 20th anniversary of an event that has raised more than $8 million for UConn Health’s Calhoun Cardiology Center.
Calhoun, who has come out of retirement to coach Division III St. Joseph’s, joked he has learned to limit his colorful vocabulary around the nuns. He’s already talking about how little defense his kids were playing in the Greater Hartford Pro-Am. His former UConn players have been ribbing him, calling his new guys “those poor SOBs.”
Ray Allen volunteered some advice for his new players.
When you’re on the bench, bring a towel.
To wipe off the flying spit.
“Shut up and listen,” said Gay, when asked for his advice. “But mostly shut up.”
When a family gets together, especially this one, there are lots of good laughs. And with any family there is pain, too.
Allen addressed the Ollie controversy last week, called it a stain on the UConn family and the state. Said both sides need to come together, make concessions, make it go away.
“Ray said parts of it well,” Calhoun said. “Let’s get together. But you can’t force issues that can’t be forced. The university made a decision that Kevin wasn’t the right guy to take the program forward. I have no reason to believe they’re not telling the truth (about just cause). So be it. The key is I don’t think it helps, but I don’t think long-term hurts.
“Bottom line: No one likes it. It’s unfortunate. But it’s life. It’s UConn family. It’s UConn basketball. You look at great programs like Alabama and Michigan in football, they keep going. We’re going to keep going.”
Emeka Okafor’s sister, Calhoun said, is getting married tomorrow. Ben Gordon is going to the wedding. Caron Butler’s daughter is playing in a tournament. They couldn’t make it. Calhoun was up at Storrs earlier Friday. He said he had the longest chat he’d ever had with Jalen Adams. He told him, “Jalen, you’re the most talented guy in America … now it’s up to you.”
“Whether it be Danny Hurley running the show, Kevin Ollie or Jim Calhoun, it’s UConn basketball,” Calhoun said. “UConn basketball is not about the individual.”
Calhoun took this program to places it had never been, to three national championships. He put UConn in the national conversation. A night like this when so many return?
“You guys have your Christmas in December,” Calhoun said. “I have mine in August.”
Even Christmas can bring uncomfortable family situations.
“I won’t comment on the Kevin situation but it’s great to be back in the family atmosphere, under one umbrella,” said Kevin Freeman, who played for Calhoun on the 1999 national champion team and was on Ollie’s staff before leaving for Penn State. “Coach Calhoun made this. No, I don’t have mixed emotions. I love UConn.”
Purvis had a good word for the Ollie dispute that is scheduled for arbitration: “Scrambled.”
“You never want to see someone go out like that, who you played for and have a relationship,” Purvis said. “It’s business at the end of the day. This is family and no matter who you bring in as coach, UConn is the culture. I really think Coach Hurley is the guy for this job and the one who’s going to turn this thing around.”
Daniel Hamilton had a fascinating word to describe the past two years: “Tragic.”
“It’s real tough and unfortunate what happened,” Hamilton said. “I just hope Coach Hurley can come in and get the program back going like it was.”
Calhoun said he had a good talk with Ryan Boatright about playing in China and how he’s looking at a two-way deal with the Clippers. Evidently, “just cause” was not on the menu.
“To be honest, I don’t know much what’s going on,” said Boatright, who played one year for Calhoun and three for Ollie. “I’ve been overseas. To read all that, you’ve got to stay up late, I don’t even be into it. UConn’s family, man. I’m sure everybody’s got their reason. I don’t have no problems with anybody. I hope we can work it out, everybody go their happy ways and get back on track as a program.”
Boat. You got to love him.
“Too much history, too much work Calhoun has done,” said Charlie Villanueva, insisting the program will be fine. “He laid down the foundation. This will always be a brotherhood. It’s a family, it doesn’t matter who’s coaching.”
In the middle of all this is Allen. He’s close to Ollie. He’s on the UConn Foundation board of directors.
“Everywhere I go I carry UConn with me, whether I’m wearing it on a hat or my golf bag,” Allen said. “Kevin always has been the guy from Day One that I tried make proud of me because he works so hard. I carried that with me, too.
“I find myself in — I won’t say uncomfortable — but an unusual situation. I know what I need to do at this university to help get it back to the glory days, but at the same time make sure Kevin is done correctly. We all know who he is, who he has been. We just got to make sure we resolve this situation.”
The family missed Kevin Ollie on this night. But to be here? Too soon. Too much pain. Too much unresolved.
“Our best thing is to continue work on the family,” said Calhoun, who’ll continue as an advisor at UConn. “Keep the family together. Is it easy all the time? Of course not. Everybody has a little bit different opinion on how they see things. That’s not our job, to tell people how they should look at the world. Our job is to say this university, this basketball program has done special things the last 30 years and let’s keep it going.”