MIAMI – Each morning Kelly Olynyk rises in his condo 48 stories above his newly adopted city. The 7-foot Canadian steps onto his balcony to a view of Biscayne Bay to the east, Little Havana to the west and, looking north … his office.
Olynyk is a simple man who has never owned a car and who enjoys walking to work. That is why when he steps out of his building his commute to AmericanAirlines Arena — where he has become the latest integral part of the reinvented Miami Heat — can be measured in feet and not miles.
In July, the only team Olynyk played for during his first four seasons in the NBA, the Boston Celtics, were clearing cap space to take a run at free agent Gordon Hayward. Olynyk was released.
Weeks later, the Heat were looking to sign a free agent after, coincidentally, losing out on Hayward. That was when the call was made to Olynyk and the man who for his entire 25 years was paying attention to the wind-chill temperature now was able to just chill in his flip flops, shorts and ever present backwards ball cap.
“To me, he seems like he’s more from California than he is Canada,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, before adding “that can also be misconstrued. He’s a fierce competitor. You roll the ball out there, he’s going to try to rip your throat out.”
Olynyk is not your normal rich, young, the-world-is-your-oyster athlete. Not even with a fresh $50 million contract starting to fill his bank account. Olynyk is not flashy, he does not crave for material things. He owns one home, in the Charlestown section of Boston, which is close enough that he could walk to the TD Garden when possible. He is renting now but would like to purchase a home in Miami on the water. He would rather spend his down time with family and friends.
Heck, Olynyk even had a yard sale last summer after signing with the Heat. Think LeBron James invited the public to rummage through his stuff in his mansion overlooking Biscayne Bay after returning to Cleveland?
“All of our kids are like that,” said Kelly’s mom, Arlene Olynyk. “People are important to them. Creating memories. … those are the things that are important to him. Material things have never been.”
Basketball in his blood
Ken and Arlene Olynyk raised their three children — Kelly and his sisters, Jesse and Maya — in the Scarborough suburb of Toronto. But unlike millions of other kids across Canada, hockey was never in their blood. Ken played college basketball and coached the sport for more than 40 years and Arlene was a basketball official for 27 years across Canada and for the Mid-American and Metro Atlantic Athletic conferences and a scorekeeper for the Toronto Raptors.
Maya is a guard at the University of Saskatchewan and Jesse, who is studying to be a lawyer, was on the Canadian National Rugby Team. She also wrestled.
“My family was a basketball family and just being ingrained in the game and growing up around the game I fell in love with it,” Kelly said. “Everyone played hockey. Everyone I knew. There were so many people playing, practices were at 5 in the morning because you had to get ice time. Whereas basketball was like, ‘You want to use the gym? It hasn’t been used in three years.’”
So the 7-foot Olynyk never threatened to unseat the Boston Bruins’ 6-foot-9 Zdeno Chara as the tallest-ever NHL player. But at one time he wasn’t even sure if he would be a threat on an NBA front line. Olynyk was 6-3 entering 11th grade and spent most his life playing point guard.
When he started the 12th grade, Olynyk was 6-10.
But that late growth spurt was a blessing. Ken, who along with spending one season as an observing coach with the Toronto Raptors under Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens, coached the Canadian Junior National Team for several years. That exposed him to the international game and a different brand of basketball.
Ken is 6-6, Arlene is 5-11. Ken believed Kelly would peak at about 6-8. Ken knew coaches would immediately stick his son in the post and Ken’s plan was to develop a player from Canada with the skills of a European.
“I always felt that Kelly could become a back-to-the-basket player, but that wasn’t our goal,” said Ken, who recently retired after spending the last 14 years as the director of athletics and recreation at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, British Columbia. The family moved from Ontario to B.C. in 2003.
“Our goal was to make him a player who had great vision, [could] see the floor, could handle the ball, could shoot the ball. I didn’t want him to ever be put in a box that said ‘you’re a post guy.”’
So Ken went to work with Kelly, endless hours of dribbling, passing and shooting drills to mold a player in the fashion of those he saw in players like Toni Kukoc, a versatile 6-10 star who played for the old Yugoslavian National Team and won three titles with the Chicago Bulls.
“Their idea of a great player was a guy who could get 15 points, five boards and 15 assists,” Ken said.
Heat using versatile skills
That is the same vision the Heat had when they pursued Olynyk and have seen since. Those skills — which have become a trend in the new-look NBA — allow Spoelstra to run offense through his 7-footer. Olynyk is averaging 10.4 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists, all three would be career highs for a season. He also is taking more 3-pointers than he has in any season of his career — and with prompting from Spoelstra — at 1.3 per game.
“A lot of things he does that has really helped our offense you can’t teach, you either have it or you don’t,” Spoelstra said. “We’re just trying to maximize that as much as we can.”
Those sessions with Ken really ramped up during Olynyk’s junior year of high school. Early that school year, Kelly, who was the quarterback for the football team, broke the ball of his humerus bone just below his left shoulder during a playoff game. He completed the pass on the play and when he tried to look at the play sheet on his left arm — Kelly is a righty — to call the next play, he had to lift the arm with his right hand.
With Olynyk unable to play any sports the rest of that school year, he and Ken used the time to work on his game. Although his left arm was in a sling, Olynyk had use of his right. So while the rest of Canada was looking for ice time or skating outside in temperatures in single digits, a one-armed Olynyk spent many of those nights in the gym with his dad putting up about 500 shots.
“The gym has always been a place of solace for Kelly,” Ken said. “Where things fall in place for him.”
Olynyk looks back at that year and his third year at Gonzaga as the two most important to his development. The common thread: In neither did he play a game.
After two mediocre seasons at Gonzaga in which he averaged just 12.9 minutes and 4.8 points, Olynyk considered transferring. But then the idea was presented: How about “transferring” to Gonzaga?
“I loved the school, I loved everything off the court,” Olynyk said about Gonzaga, located in Spokane, Wash., about 325 miles south of Kamloops. “I loved the people there. The schooling was great. Location, the city, the support. Everything was unbelievable. The only thing that wasn’t good was on the court. I wanted to play more, I wanted to affect the game more.”
He was talking to one of the coaches when he was asked if he ever thought about transferring to Gonzaga.
“What do you mean?” Olynyk asked. The coach explained: “If you transfer somewhere you’re going to have to red-shirt, you’re going to have to sit out a year. You love everything here, why not sit out here? Get better here and kind of go from there.”
Olynyk still was struggling with the growth spurt that changed everyone’s perception about how he should be used on the court. So he used that year at Gonzaga to learn to be a center while incorporating everything Ken taught him during those sessions in Kamloops.
“It was hard for me,” he said. “I played guard my whole life and I didn’t play guard at all in college. They put me in the post and you look at the game a different way. Playing point guard and playing a big, you’re flipped. You’re trying to bang with people. That just wasn’t my skill set.
“I learned how to play the game from a different level. Some of it was guard stuff, some of it was big stuff. But I needed that time to learn how to commit to my body and morph my game into something that was a hybrid of two perspectives.”
Olynyk blossomed. He averaged 17.8 points and 7.3 rebounds and was named West Coast Conference Player of the Year as a junior. He then entered the draft and was selected 13th overall by the Dallas Mavericks, who dealt him to the Celtics on draft night.
“He always believed he could play in the NBA and I believe that was the year he needed,” Ken said.
A long way from Kamloops
Ken and Arlene take their seats in section 109 at AmericanAirlines Arena, watching as Kelly has found his way into the Heat starting lineup.
The game against the Knicks goes into overtime. Kelly is on the floor for the final 15 minutes of the win and his performance is close to what Ken envisioned so many years ago: 10 points, 10 rebounds, four assists. Not quite 15-5-15, but the same principle.
Ken likes the way Kelly is being used as a point center in Miami.
“He touches the ball a lot more now than he did in Boston,” Ken said. “That’s what I feel. He has an opportunity to make more decisions with the ball. They play through Kelly more than they would have in Boston.
“Great things happened in Boston but there are changing opportunities (in Miami).”
Ken and Arlene stay with their son when they visit. After all, isn’t that what family does? When they do, like Kelly, they enjoy the walk from his condo to the arena — a walk, by the way, that Kelly says has become a bit more difficult for him as his role continues to grow with the Heat.
Arlene said she could not think of anything Kelly has purchased for himself. When asked for the most extravagant things he has done with his money, she mentioned how he’s helped pay for Jesse’s tuition as she pursues her law degree, had the family home basement renovated into an apartment where Jesse and her husband, Derek Pue, could live while she attends law school and chartered a plane last year to see Gonzaga play in the Final Four.
“We never really had a ton growing up,” Kelly said. “There are a lot more important things in life … people and relationships. I know that I don’t need (material things). Other people may enjoy that kind of stuff, but that’s to each their own. I’d rather spend my money on my family and my friends. I’m fine living the life that I live. If I can help them out in any way, that’s a blessing.”