Olynyk was in Grade 11. At a game in the Vancouver area, in November, quarterbacking the South Kamloops Secondary football team, a hole opened up in the offensive line, and he was slammed to the ground. His left shoulder went wrong. After a long bus ride home, Olynyk was in the Kamloops emergency room at 2 a.m. He had a proximal humerus fracture, the upper-arm bone broken at the shoulder, and the doctor said healing would take five months. It was November, and it was easy math for Olynyk. No basketball that winter. Tears welled up.
Here is how a chapter of an overnight success is written: Five hundred shots a day. Early morning. After school. Weekends. Alone. A teenager’s left arm in a sling, three pins in the upper humerus. Five hundred shots a day. Form shooting, and the fingertip control of the ball. There’s no one around. You dribble. You work. You keep shooting, your left arm in a sling.
The next year, Olynyk led South Kamloops to the provincial basketball championships, finishing third, as the teenager – suddenly 6-foot-10, growing seven inches in a couple of years – dominated the tournament. After the team was back home, Olynyk texted teammates to go shoot with him. One wrote back that they had just played. “Did we win?” Olynyk texted. He found someone to shoot with.
“He lived to bounce and shoot a ball,” said Olynyk’s mother, Arlene. Kelly, from his mid-teens, would hang out at the local Tournament Capital Centre, hoping to draft in on games with the local university players and competitive adult men in town. “He was always looking for a game.”
The Olynyk family moved to B.C. when Kelly was 12. He was born in a basketball milieu, in Toronto, the second of three children, arriving in April, 1991. His mom, 5-foot-11, had been a player and then referee, later working a scorekeeper for the Toronto Raptors for a decade. His dad, Ken Olynyk, 6-foot-6, was a coach for the men’s national team program and coached men’s basketball at the University of Toronto. Kelly was playing on teams by age 6. When Kelly was 11, Ken spent a season as a guest coach with the Raptors, where Kelly got a first-hand look at pro basketball. His dream was set.
“What it does,” Ken said, “is gives a sense of what he could accomplish.”
Playing without fear of mistakes
After growing seven inches from Grade 10 to 12, Kelly Olynyk added a couple more at Gonzaga. He had been, through his life, a guard, a shooter. Now he was a big man – but he had no clue how to play the post. His body, too, was unwieldy, having changed so much so fast, and it was soft, weak. Olynyk was easy to push around on the court.
Being red shirted was not easy. Not emaciating – but a little bit gutting. After limited court time his first two years, it did not look like there was going to be any more action last season, with Rob Sacre – another Canadian, and now a rookie on the Los Angeles Lakers – at centre for Gonzaga.
So, when no one was looking, Olynyk worked, under the direction of strength and conditioning coach Travis Knight. Olynyk built strength, lifting heavy weights. He practised with the team. But more important was the slow process to train his body, to marry his whipsmart mind with his new frame, neural training, getting his brain to speak fluently with his limbs. Among the invented tasks, Knight tossed tennis balls at Olynyk, some marked L or R, requiring a catch with the left or right hand, and other balls numbered, demanding quick math and moves right or left. During games, he’d be courtside, a kind-of apprentice coach, watching, learning.
When no one was looking, Olynyk spent a year becoming the player he saw in his mind, the one he always believed was inside.