KUA Hoop Coach Sees World
Kimball Union Academy boys basketball coach Mike Olson, left, talks to his U.S. Select team during a game at last week's Albert Schweitzer Tournament in Mannheim, Germany. The American team finished second, its best result at the 54-year-old event for 18-and-under national teams in 18 years. Courtesy photograph
Meriden — If the United States ever decides to have a serious debate of the value of club versus country, Mike Olson now has evidence to support one side of the argument.
When Olson accepted an invitation to coach a United States team in Germany for last week’s Albert Schweitzer Tournament — essentially the unofficial world championship for U18 men’s basketball — he’d hoped to cull a roster from the country’s top talent bases. He then discovered the 16-nation event coincided with a key NCAA recruiting period, and high-powered Amateur Athletic Union coaches weren’t willing to release their charges for a chance to represent their nation.
Olson got around that roadblock in a big way. With help from his contacts, including one within his own family, the fifth-year Kimball Union Academy boys basketball coach produced a team that left with a silver medal following Saturday’s championship game 86-73 loss to Italy.
The runner-up finish was the Americans’ best since 1996, when it won the last of its tournament-record 10 championships. The AST has been staged biannually in the German city of Mannheim since 1958.
“I had a little bit of a problem building a roster in the fact that it was an NCAA live period this past weekend,” said Olson on Wednesday from his Meriden office, one day after returning from Europe. “AAU coaches, some of them, are a little territorial with their kids.
“I’ve never quite understood how you could turn down an opportunity to play for your country to play for your club. One of the eye-opening things for me was the passion of the other 15 teams to play for their country.”
Olson has some international experience, having done clinics in Australia, Iceland and England and having brought a KUA team to England and Scotland for a seven-game tour two summers ago. The AST, however, is a different animal: Consider working with the triple whammy of foes very familiar with one another, USA Basketball’s refusal to recognize the AST as an official event, making top players available, and add the timing of the NCAA recruiting window.
So Olson used his assistant coach selections to give his squad as good a chance as he could. He tapped the shoulders of long-time friend Chris Leazier, the head men’s hoop coach at Vermont Technical College; Olson’s Hanover High-educated son, Erik, an academy coach in Iceland; and prep colleague Joe Mantegna, the boys basketball coach at New Jersey’s Blair Academy.
Combined, the group pulled together a roster of 12 players, many of whom had already committed to college programs and had no need to be part of the recruiting crush. Mantegna helped build the roster, Leazier and the younger Olson put their scouting and video editing skills to work, and the U.S. came within a win of history.
“Anytime you assemble a group of coaches open to new ideas and learning from each other, it’s exciting enough,” said Leazier, who lives in Norwich. “But when you add in the context of trying to play a style of basketball that’s not anything any of us do, it’s really challenging.
“It’s one thing that happens in your career when you can say, ‘Look, this is requiring my best effort every day.’ It’s exciting. We were fortunate to have done well.”
Mantegna’s contacts yielded a roster featuring nine athletes either bound for or considering offers from Division I universities. Ethan Happ, a 6-foot-7 forward from Illinois bound for Wisconsin in the fall, proved particularly useful and eventually earned the tournament’s most valuable player award.
The Americans buzzed through pool play for their first three wins, beating Chile, Ukraine and France. That moved Olson’s crew to the winners’ stage of the draw, where the Americans added victories over Spain — ranked No. 1 in the world at the time — and the Italians to make the semifinals.
Happ introduced himself to the Italians with a 21-point, 17-rebound effort. He followed that up with 29 points, 13 rebounds and seven steals in a 74-68 semifinal ouster of Serbia that left Olson with impressions greater than those left on the basketball floor.
“Again, it was an eye-opening experience, the hatred the Serbs have for Americans,” recalled Olson, who punctuated an account of the day on his Twitter feed with the hashtag #theydon’tlikeus. “Their fans were banging on our bus and chanting obscenities toward our team, slowing our arrival to the gym. Then they had a deafening crowd of 3,000-plus.”
The work of cramming a week of practices, games and lessons for an unfamiliar group of athletes finally caught up with the Americans in the final. Italy reversed a 41-35 halftime deficit with a 14-point run in the third quarter, withstood a U.S. rally and pulled away in the fourth quarter for the championship, the nation’s fourth at the AST.
Olson pinned the Americans’ performance on the efforts of his assistants. Leazier works for a company that produces sports video and analysis software throughout the NCAA and NBA.
The younger Olson has extensive experience playing and coaching the international game.
“What that showed was: A, we had a lot of talent on our roster and, B, I think we handled it intelligently from a coaching point of view in terms of giving them a simple system that could nonetheless be effective,” said Leazier, whose recent coaching stops have included a one-year stint with an NBA Developmental League franchise in Bakersfield, Calif. “Game prep and scouting was huge. Once we knew who the next opponent was, he had it loaded in the computer to break down. We tried to get a game plan to go and have it for the shootaround (the next day). … We had great kids; we got lucky. This is the kind of thing where you take 12 kids over, they’re staying out late, it could be a disaster. The kids wanted to be coached; they wanted to compete.”
There were also the moments that no AAU tournament can capture. After the pool win over Ukraine, Olson recalled players “literally asking if there would be opportunities to leave their country,” given the nation’s political instability. “It was heartbreaking,” the KUA coach said, “but yet we kept moving forward.”
The event left an impression on the players as well.
“Personally, this is one of the best experiences I’m ever going to have in my life,” Happ told the U.S. military newspaper Stars and Stripes after the Italy defeat.
That’s one vote for country over club. Olson can provide a second.
“We’re thrilled with our showing,” Olson said. “It really was a surprise … a really special experience.”
Greg Fennell can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3226.