‘OP: The real dream’: Olden Polynice dishes on UVA, NBA hoops career
Olden Polynice wasn’t a basketball guy. Imagine him as a teen, growing into his seven-foot frame, playing soccer, otherwise focused on getting an education.
So focused, in fact, that he literally lived across the street from the famed Rucker Park, could see legends of the game playing from his front window, “and I had no interest in basketball, none,” Polynice said last week in an interview on “The Jerry Ratcliffe Show.”
It wasn’t until his high school coach, John Carey, said to Polynice’s parents, “if he gets good enough, he can get a free scholarship, you know, to go to college,” Polynice said. “My parents heard free scholarship to college, and they were like, oh, he’s going to play basketball.”
Polynice would go on to star at All Hallows High School, and attract the attention of a number of top college programs, including the one that had a future #1 NBA draft pick, Ralph Sampson, as a key recruiting tool.
“Ralph Sampson came and got me, and I’m like, oh, my God. I get geeked up about stuff like that, because I really appreciate what people do, and the work they put into be great. So, I do appreciate that. I’m a fan. It’s like when I’m here in Hollywood, you know, I run into celebrities, and I’m like, in awe. I’m asking for autographs,” Polynice said.
“But you know, Ralph came and got me, we went out, we hung out. We went to the Aberdeen Barn. I had never eaten a steak before,” Polynice said. “You know, I had shrimp, well, they call them prawns, I guess, because the shrimp I remember was them little things that I had in New York City. And these things were ginormous. So they were calling them prawns. I had never heard of that before.
“So I’m eating all this wonderful food. And we go to a party, I see all these beautiful women, and I was like, oh, I’m coming to this school. Yes, yes, I’m coming. I’m signing. I get there first day, none of these people are here. Oh, man, they got me. I was like, where are all these women that I saw? Oh, man, they graduated,” Polynice said.
Sampson, Aberdeen Barn and the party were the closers in the recruiting process.
The key at the outset was former UVA assistant Jim Larranaga.
“I just knew that no matter where I went, I wanted to have some familiarity. And (Larranaga) provided that for me, because he and my high school coach, John Carey, grew up together,” Polynice said. “Once I met him and knew the relationship between the two, I already knew I was going to Virginia, because I wanted that connection. I’m like, hey, John Carey’s my first coach, he’s my everything as far as basketball, so I wanted somebody that knew him, and somebody that if anything went wrong, I could just pick up a phone call, Mr. Carey, you know, hey, can you talk to him?
“I had that in the back of my mind. And so, you know, Jim Larranaga provided that for me. And Virginia, of course was, I mean, just an amazing experience, an experience that has shaped my life, and I’m forever thankful for that.”
That’s getting down the line – the Final Four, being the eighth pick in the draft, 15 years in the NBA.
Before any of that could happen, Polynice had a difficult time getting minutes in pick-up games with his new teammates the summer before his freshman year.
“When I got there, I was relatively new to basketball,” Polynice said. “All these other guys, Othell Wilson, Ricky Stokes, Rick Carlisle, they played basketball, they knew basketball. Tom Sheehey was one of the top players coming out of high school. So these guys were proficient at basketball. I wasn’t. People forget, I was learning. I was in my learning stages. Even when I got to the NBA, that was my fifth, you know, my fifth or sixth year of basketball. And so, it was always a learning experience for me.
“I wasn’t used to playing against really, really good players. I was playing high school kids, you know, because we were all high schoolers. And then I get there, these guys are, you know, they’re men, they’re strong and, you know, very physical, and I wasn’t used to that,” Polynice said. “It took me some time. But once I wrapped my head around what I needed to do, oh, yeah, the process became really easy for me.
“It was a lot of hard work,” Polynice said. “Those are the things that a lot of people don’t see. They don’t see the daily grind of getting better. Everybody always sees the finished product. They never see the grind.”
Polynice would earn his first career start in Virginia’s first road game in his freshman season, at George Washington, which featured “The New Washington Monument,” sculpted 6’10”, 260-pound center Mike Brown, who himself would go on to an 11-year NBA career.
Polynice, on his side of the ledger going in, had earned the moniker “Gentle Giant” in his high school days because of his tendency toward soft play.
That wasn’t going to work against the rugged Brown.
“I was scared,” Polynice said. “I say that somewhat in jest, but it is true. Coach Holland is like, I’m going to start you, because you’ve earned it, because of what I was doing in some of the other games in the tournament that we’d had, and, you know, he’s like, you know what, we’re going to need somebody. And he threw me out there against Mike Brown, and I swear, I was so scared because when I saw this guy in warmups, I was like, that’s not real. This dude, I had never faced anybody like that before in my life. And I was so scared that I just used that fear.”
UVA would go on to win, 65-55, with Polynice holding his own, scoring 12 points and hauling in nine rebounds in 29 minutes. And while Brown scored 24 points and 10 rebounds in 38 minutes, Polynice had somewhat neutralized him.
His performance there gave Polynice confidence as the schedule turned to ACC play, and then a key non-conference game, at Houston, and its future #1 draft pick center, Hakeem Olajuwon.
Houston was ranked fourth in the nation and on its way to the Final Four.
Virginia, for its part, was reeling, having lost eight of its last 12 after a 9-0 start.
The ‘Hoos were able to hang around, in large part because Polynice was able to, not necessarily stop Olajuwon, but at least keep him in check, to the point where Olajuwon was visibly frustrated, which would become obvious in an elbow that would follow the two throughout their NBA careers.
“He wasn’t having a great game. I do remember that,” Polynice said. “I was frustrating him, and I’m smiling. A little tidbit is the fact that I was chewing gum during the game, and I think he was like, I’m playing basketball, and this guy’s over here chewing gum, smiling, having a good time. I was just enjoying it. I was enjoying the experience.
“You know, the Mike Brown situation gave me confidence. Once I got past Mike Brown and the fear, I was like, wait a minute, I belong, I’m pretty good. So once that I wrapped my head around that I was good, now, you know, some people might say it’s arrogance or whatever, but I started believing that I belonged, and that I was good. So when it was Hakeem Olajuwon, I didn’t care, I was like, yeah, come on, bring it on.
“And so I was, you know, a little, you know, like I said, a little arrogant. I’m chewing gum, laughing, scoring, you know, stopping him, you know, I wouldn’t say completely stopped, but I played well against him, and he got frustrated and threw that elbow, and the bubblegum got lodged in my throat,” Polynice said.
Houston went on to win, 74-65, with Olajuwon scoring 12 points on 4-of-9 shooting and grabbing 14 rebounds, with Polynice putting in 11 points and five rebounds for the UVA cause.
The two teams would meet again in Seattle in the Final Four, with Houston winning that one in OT, 49-47, Polynice again neutralizing Olajuwon, who had 12 points and 11 rebounds, while Polynice had nine points and seven boards.
The two would come to cross paths often in their NBA careers, and the elbow from their first meeting in 1984 would hang over their interactions throughout.
Polynice was glad to let it linger.
“It wasn’t until I retired, and we ran into each other in Houston, and we were sitting down having a beer and everything, and he just said, like, I always wondered when you were going to get me back,” Polynice said. “But in my head also, even during my career, I remembered him doing it, but I was like, OK, I’m going to use this to my advantage. He doesn’t know when I’m going to get him back, and so I just always had that in my back pocket.
“It was just funny between the two of us, and he’s like, you know, why didn’t you? I’m like, dude, I just wanted you to think I was going to get you back. And so that’s how we played, and it worked a little bit to my advantage, because I really had success against Hakeem over the years.”
Polynice is “proud” of his 15-year NBA career, which you can understand – he had to be talked into playing basketball at the outset, was viewed as soft in high school, could barely get into pick-up games when he showed up at UVA, had to work, grind his way into minutes his freshman year.
“I wasn’t supposed to be there,” Polynice said. “You know, it’s so funny, Marty Blake, who was head scout for the NBA, said I would last maybe two, three years max. It was always funny. Every year after my third year, I’m like, hey, Marty, thank you. That was motivation, because you’re a head scout, you’re supposed to know this stuff.
“One of the things that always made me happy was 1993,” Polynice said. “There was like a five- to seven-year stretch where I was in the top 10 in rebounding, but in 1993, I was number two. And I did all that with a broken hand. I played the last 30-plus, 35, 40 games, with a broken right hand. And I finished tied for second with Hakeem Olajuwon. So it was Dennis Rodman, myself and Hakeem. And the names that were always on the list with Dennis Rodman, David Robinson. Dikembe Mutombo, Hakeem Olajuwon. I’m talking about, I mean, these are major players. Yes, you know, so it was always like, like, what was that ‘Electric Company’ song? One of these things does not belong.”
That was back when bigs played big, which is to say, didn’t float around the perimeter, spot up on the three-point line, waiting for dribble penetration to free them up for an open three.
“Years ago, when I was in Sacramento. I wrote a rap song. And I’m not a rapper. It was something we did for fun. And it’s funny, because I was saying to myself, every night I went up against Shaq and Alonzo, Patrick and David, Dikembe Mutombo. Last but not least, is my man Hakeem, your worst nightmare, but OP’s the real dream,” Polynice said. “I remember making that rap, but I’m like, wait a minute, think about that from it. Mutombo, Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Alonzo Mourning.
“My first game was against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,” Polynice said. “I’m like, oh, my goodness. I checked into the game, and I run up there and I’m looking at him, and he’s looking at me like, who is this young rookie? He shoots the sky hook on me, and I’m smiling. My coach is yelling at me, get your head in the game. But that’s Kareem.
“I played against Moses, and you know, people forget about how great he was, you know, rest in peace, played against Moses,” Polynice said.
“The whole thing is cyclical. It’s going to get back to that again,” Polynice said. “I think, you know, some of the guys, they’re starting to do it, and they’re starting to see it, while things we’ve been talking about is with Giannis Antetokounmpo, it’s like, dude, if you get in the post, no one can defend you. But he’s so adamant about shooting threes, and that’s why Milwaukee struggles. At some point, it’s going to take a guy like him to get into the post and work in there to get it back.
“I do believe it will get back to that again, because the three, the three is a bad shot unless you make it. That’s how I look at it. It’s really a bad shot. And one other thing, just because you can make a three doesn’t make you a three-point shooter. And that’s what these guys need to understand. You know, there’s only a few three-point shooters, really, really great shooters. Everybody else just doing it up there is pretty much just hoping it goes in.”
Story by Chris Graham