A journeyman's work is never done
Guard Kevin Ollie is playing in his 12th NBA city this season with Oklahoma City
Tony Massenburg, Chucky Brown and Jimmy Jackson played for record 12 teams
Ollie has worn eight different uniform numbers over winding course of career
Kevin Ollie has mastered the NBA's transition game. Last week, for example, he loaded up his Escalade with all the clothes, utensils, cookware and bedding he'll need for the upcoming season and had the vehicle shipped to Oklahoma City, as if it were a 400-horsepower suitcase. Three days later, he jumped on a plane and met it at the other end.
New team. New opportunity. Same old twinge of regret.
"It's tough every year," Ollie said. "My emotions are all over the place. I'm excited about the season, but I hate leaving my wife and kids."
He's grown accustomed to it, though. Oklahoma City is the 12th NBA city that the soon-to-be 37-year-old point guard will call home, if you can call a barren apartment with rented furniture thousands of miles from your family "home." Technically, it's his 11th NBA franchise, as he played for the Thunder in Seattle, when they were the SuperSonics.
That leaves Ollie one team shy of the NBA record for employers, held jointly by Tony Massenburg, Chucky Brown and Jimmy Jackson. It also makes him the commander of the Journeyman Junta, the active core of roving role players who are discarded and acquired with equal abandon.
John Stockton played all 19 of his NBA seasons with Utah. Reggie Miller played all 18 of his seasons with Indiana. But they were redwood trees in a forest of kindling. Most players aren't sure where their next contract will come from, and many know it likely will come from somewhere else, if they're lucky enough to get one.
Only a select few, however, have ultimate survival skills. Of all the players under contract heading into training camp, only one besides Ollie will have played for 10 teams come opening night, barring unforeseen circumstance. Joe Smith, the first pick of the 1995 draft, will debut with Atlanta and become the sixth player in league history to have double-digit employers. Mark Bryant and Damon Jones, who also played for 10 teams, are the others, and Jones, a 33-year-old free agent, has time to add employers to his résumé.
Other players are making their move toward the club. Mikki Moore, 33, will open this season with his ninth team, Golden State. Jason Kapono, 28, will play for his fifth team, Philadelphia, in just his seventh season.
But, really, it's not about teams as much as it's about stops. Teams change every year, sometimes dramatically, so playing for Philadelphia on three separate occasions, as Ollie has, is like playing for three different teams. Ollie will be making his 15th official NBA stop in Oklahoma City, matching the record held by Massenburg -- and one of Massenburg's moves was greased by the Grizzlies' slide from Vancouver to Memphis.
Ollie hasn't moved from team to team so much as he's ricocheted across the country, flipped like a pinball off bumper posts in every division. From the time he began his career in Dallas as a 25-year-old rookie in 1997, he's moved to Orlando to Sacramento, back to Orlando (for one game), to Philadelphia, to New Jersey, back to Philadelphia, to Chicago, to Indiana, to Milwaukee, to Seattle, to Cleveland, to Philadelphia again (for a relative eternity of three seasons) to Minnesota and, now, to Oklahoma City.
That doesn't include the portions of four seasons he played in the CBA for the Connecticut Pride, the one season he played in the USBL for the Milford (Conn.) Skyhawks, the training camp tryout for Golden State that brought his first NBA opportunity -- and rejection -- and the summer-league tryout for Boston during the Rick Pitino coaching era.
Mortgage lenders hate him. Moving companies love him. Confused postal carriers avoid him.
It's all a point of pride for Ollie and the other journeymen.
"A lot of people don't get this opportunity," he said. "I was humbled early in my CBA days. I know a lot of guys would cut their right and left arms to play in the NBA. Respect isn't a right, it's earned. Hopefully I've done that throughout my career in the NBA. Hopefully the organization knows they can count me on and off the court to uplift their name and also my name. At the end of the day, that's all you have."
Like the others in his nomadic band, Ollie doesn't dare buy a home. He learned that lesson after he signed a five-year contract with Cleveland in the summer of 2003. Then a veteran of six NBA seasons -- and nine teams -- he thought he finally had dropped an anchor on his career. He naively bought a house, moved his wife, Stephanie, son, Jalen, and daughter, Chayenne, and filled out all the change-of-address forms.
But after playing in all 82 games with the Cavs, he was traded to Philadelphia the following summer, along with Kedrick Brown, for Eric Snow. That did it. From then on, Ollie's family has lived in Connecticut, near the UConn campus he attended, while he plies his hardwood wares across the country.
"It was a disappointment, but you have the ups and you have the downs," Ollie said of that trade. "You have to know it's a business and not take it personal."
When you're constantly on the go but often sitting on the bench, you take your individual highlights where you can find them. Ollie's best is playing at Staples Center, in his home city of Los Angeles, for Philadelphia in the 2001 NBA Finals. Although he played 15 total minutes in the series, five in the two games in L.A., it was a personal statement before family and friends who had watched him grow up.
He also recalls a game with Orlando, his second NBA team, on national television in March 1998. The Magic were trounced by Chicago and Michael Jordan 85-70, but Ollie, playing on a second 10-day contract, scored 14 points and hit a driving shot after putting a slick spin move on Jordan.
"At least I can show my son I scored on Jordan one time," he said.
Ollie also is the guy who dribbled through traffic while the clock ticked down to its final desperate second and found Reggie Miller for the 40-foot turnaround bank shot that forced overtime in the final game of the Pacers' first-round playoff series at New Jersey in 2002.
"I knew if I got it to his hands he had a better shot of making it than I did," Ollie said. "That's why I stay in the league, I know my limitations. I have to get it to the shooters."
That in a carry-on is the essence of Ollie's longevity, and the blueprint for aspiring journeymen. He takes care of the ball. He plays whatever role he's asked to fill, even if it's sitting and watching. And, if asked, he can mentor young point guards on the strategic and psychological aspects of the game.
The irony of Ollie -- other than the fact he hasn't played for his favorite boyhood team, the Lakers -- is that while he's had the least stable of careers, he keeps getting jobs because he brings stability to a team. His career scoring average is just 4 points, and his shooting percentages are nothing special. The lone stat that jumps out is that he's averaged 15.8 minutes but less than one turnover per game throughout his career.
That's why he had his choice of employers this season. He could have re-signed with Minnesota, where he played last season, and he had an offer from a third team he prefers not to name. He chose Oklahoma City because he was told there's a need for him both on the court and off.
Another season, another city. Another number, too. Ollie has worn 3, 15, 5, 2, 12, 8, 12 again and now will go with 7, a tribute to his boyhood idol, Kevin Johnson. Looking back -- and hopefully looking ahead, too -- Ollie views it all with wonder. And wander.
"It's just been great," he said. "I wouldn't have it any other way. I've established some great relationships, with the organizations and the players. There have been ups and downs and I've learned a lot about myself. I took a road a lot of players don't take."
A lot of roads, actually.
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