It is quiet on the campus of Gonzaga University, the small Jesuit school in Spokane, Wash., a remote city 450 kilometres east of Seattle. It’s spring break, and there’s hardly anyone around. At the McCarthey Athletic Center, the seats empty, the sound at midday is the bouncing of basketballs, a light shoot-around practice.
The young men do not immediately look like they comprise the No.1-ranked basketball team in the NCAA. Just kids. But anyone can see a rare spark in the game of the seven-foot 21-year-old, his long brown hair dancing down to his shoulders, held back off his face and behind his ears by a narrow headband. He hits one, two, three, four, five, six shots in a row, from the three-point arc, baseline. Taking passes down low, he turns, fakes, then rises like he is stepping a single stair, and plunk: dunk.
When the college hoops season began last fall, no one expected anything from Kelly Olynyk. The Canadian had played two years at Gonzaga but struggled. Last season, Olynyk made an unusual pivot. He took a red shirt, a move used mostly for 18-year-old freshmen, and played no games. Instead, beyond the glare of TV cameras, he toiled in practice and put in hours and hours to hone his body, exercises to bring rhythm and strength to a frame that had grown so quickly.
“He sacrificed,” said assistant coach Donny Daniels, outside the arena in the sun after practice. “That’s a crazy word nowadays. Very few people want to sacrifice. Kelly did.”
Today, after a jump that has awed everyone watching – “I can’t compare it to anything I’ve been involved in,” Daniels said – Olynyk is one of the best players in the country, up for all the big awards, and his name is suddenly on lists of the top potential NBA draft picks. And, most of all, his play has propelled his team, a perennial competitor but never a real contender.
This year, Olynyk has elevated Gonzaga to the No.1 ranking for the first time, usurping the likes of Duke, Indiana, and Louisville, and on Sunday Gonzaga is expected to secure a No.1 seed for March Madness, which begins next week. It will be Gonzaga’s 15th consecutive tournament appearance, a run bettered only by Kansas, Duke, and Michigan State, all three far bigger schools, but the Bulldogs have never cracked the final four. The school where John Stockton once starred is still an outlier, and the current roster includes a German and a Pole, two Canadians – Olynyk, and Kevin Pangos – and a Stockton, David, John’s son.
On Thursday, in the early afternoon, Olynyk sits in the first row of the quiet arena, after practice, and after a photoshoot where he and two teammates posed with English bulldogs, joking in between takes as the dogs’ attention and legs wandered. Olynyk is in red shorts and a white T-shirt with loud and thick turquoise stripes. He favours bright colours, mismatched, and the occasional bowtie. His life has been basketball, always immersed in it. No one expected anything this year. He did.
The day after the interview, his face was on the cover of Friday’s USA Today, one of three players pictured for a story hyping the potentially wild March Madness in a year of parity.
“I always knew that I would be able to do something special here, and help this team, this program, reach stuff they’ve never done before,” Olynyk said. “I just didn’t know it would come, I guess, this fast, or with this much attention.”
500 hundred shots a day
How does nobody become somebody? How does an overnight success get written, in the long-hand of years? How do cherry blossoms percolate, before they explode into bloom? Springtime. March Madness. Before Kelly Olynyk was the best player on the No.1-ranked college basketball team in the United States, on the giddy precipice of the NCAA tournament, he was, in his spare time, a high school quarterback, back in Kamloops on the high, dry plateau of the B.C. interior.
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