The Miami Heat conduct practice under the watchful eyes of Erik Spoelstra and the wailing voice of former Journey frontman Steve Perry. The typical sounds of basketball are muted by music plucked from a jukebox straight out of a neon-lit, smoke-filled bar from the mid-1980s. It is not the image typically associated with South Florida. It is devoid of the pulsing lights, tanned bodies and non-native palms that line Ocean Drive. Instead, there is Boston, Kansas, and maybe even a little KISS.
Pat Riley, the team’s architect, is known for the slicked-back hair and fine Italian suits he made famous as a coach. But that carefully crafted persona was never authentic. Before he was “The Godfather” and a basketball legend, he was just a rough, hard-nosed son-of-a-coach born in Schenectady, New York. Riley, appropriately enough, is a big Bruce Springsteen fan. And it’s the iconography of New Jersey’s hoarse-voiced poet — one of sweat and hardhats and a cold beer after a full day’s work — that truly defines Riley and, by extension, this team.
Kelly Olynyk is missing the requisite plaid shirt and ripped jeans but that ragged goatee and long mane is pure early-1990s grunge. A decade or two late in terms or Riley’s musical preferences but at least Olynyk looks the rock-n’-roll part. “Under Pressure,” the collaborative 1981 hit by Queen and David Bowie, plays in the background as Olynyk tucks his hair behind his ears and a smile breaks out across his angular face. He is talking about garage sales.
Olynyk left the City of Boston and signed with the Heat in 2017. When the Celtics drafted him out of the University of Gonzaga, across the country in Spokane, Washington, Olynyk opted for pragmatism over luxury and furnished his new home with items purchased along the well-manicured lawns around Bah-stahn. When he moved to Miami, he sold it all back, even after signing a contract that would pay him over $45 million before he reached his 30th birthday. He admits that garage sales aren’t the norm among the young and rich of the NBA but it felt right to do it when he joined Boston in 2013 and again four years later. “It went full circle,” he says with a hint of mischief. When asked if the garage sale was a success, even if he didn’t need the money, Olynyk shrugs his shoulders and nods as Freddie Mercury’s voice rises to a crescendo. “Met some new people. Had some fun. Yeah,” he says, “it was good.” And as Bowie sings about the terror of knowing what this world is about, it’s clear that Olynyk might have a pretty good idea.
“I don’t think he’ll ever be accused of taking himself too seriously,” says John Karalis, a contributor to Boston.com and the host of a Celtics-based podcast. Karalis covered Olynyk’s stint in Boston, one that was marked by near-constant change. When the former ‘Zaga Bulldog from Kamloops, Canada, was drafted in 2013, the Celtics were in year one of a rebuild under newly-hired head coach Brad Stevens. In Olynyk’s first season, they would win just 25 games. The next, they made a huge leap and reached the playoffs, losing in the first round. They added versatile big Al Horford as a free agent after that, developed a steady stream of role players and, two years later, they reached the Eastern Conference Finals, challenging LeBron James on his path to the NBA Finals. With a deep roster, a seemingly inexhaustible number of high draft picks and Stevens’ emergence as one of the league’s top coaches, the Celtics were poised to be a legitimate threat for years to come.
Olynyk grew up in a basketball family, “around the game so much it was tough to not want to play it,” he says. His father, Ken, was the men’s basketball coach at the University of Toronto; mother Arlene was a referee and former Raptors scorekeeper. A younger sister starred at the University of Saskatchewan. Kelly was a point guard when he first played the game, developing a solid handle, sharp passing skills and legitimate 3-point range. He kept getting taller, though, eventually reaching 7-feet. But while the body underwent a radical change, the point-guard skills remained the strength of his game.
In Boston, the challenge for Olynyk was how to balance that size with the abilities of someone much smaller. It wasn’t always met with success. There were flashes of promise, occasional scoring binges and savvy playmaking. But there was also great inconsistency and moments where Olynyk, perhaps not elite in terms of NBA-levels of athleticism, would be exploited defensively by players stronger or quicker than he was. He also showed a tendency for pump-faking his shot attempts along the perimeter, perhaps a byproduct of having grown up a guard. “He always seemed to be afraid of being blocked,” explains Karalis. “He never had that feel for just how close a defender could get without actually bothering his shot. It was his biggest downfall in Boston, because he probably could have had more big nights if he just shot more.” Making matters worse, adds Karalis, was that Olynyk was drafted 13th overall in 2013, two spots ahead of Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo. A segment of Celtics fans focused on Antetokounmpo’s unique blend of size and athleticism, fuming as “Giannis turned into the ‘Greek Freak’ while Olynyk was just Olynyk.”.
As a restricted free agent in 2017, “just Olynyk” entered the offseason unsure of what the market would yield but planning to re-sign with the Celtics. Karalis maintains that Boston would have preferred to keep Olynyk’s blend of size and shooting, however raw, for the right price. Instead, he says, the team knew “the money could have been better spent elsewhere,” and they added Gordon Hayward, thus signaling the end of Olynyk’s tenure with the team that drafted him.
The fit in Miami didn’t seem like an obvious one. Kamloops is over 3,300 miles (or, more accurately, about 5,300 kilometers) from Miami. There are no mountain views; the tallest peaks are the glass-lined skyscrapers overlooking Biscayne Bay. Olynyk possesses a self-described unique style, one that stands out, figuratively and literally, in South Florida.
There are other factors, too, related to basketball. The Heat already had Hassan Whiteside on the roster when they drafted promising big Bam Adebayo in 2017. Adding Olynyk as a free agent to a glutted frontcourt seemed like a questionable decision. The Heat had lost out to the Celtics in trying to sign Hayward, and instead doubled down on a 30-11 run to end the 2016-17 season by re-signing James Johnson and Dion Waiters to pricey contracts, and then combined Olynyk’s lucrative deal to a team lacking a clear-cut superstar. And for a team that views itself as a serious, determined group of overachievers, Olynyk’s quirky individualism seemed out of place.
Still, the road from Kamloops was paved by a trait that conforms perfectly with Miami’s blue-collar identity. “There are always doubts,” Olynyk says about his ability to reach the league, “But this was always my goal and my dream. And that’s what you work for every single day to get here on this stage. And then it happens, and all your hard work, sacrifice and dedication and everything you gave up to work and to play at this level,” he adds as his voice trails off, “it all pays off.”
Olynyk has embraced the “Heat Culture” more completely than anyone expected. “We love Kelly and who he became,” says Spoelstra before the team’s season-opener in Orlando. “He really reinvented himself, reshaped his body.” Spoelstra isn’t prone to effusive praise. If Riley is the architect of Miami’s grinding ideology, then Spoelstra is its tireless overseer.
Teammates, too, have taken notice. “When he first got here, he was…,” says Josh Richardson, carefully searching for the right word, “not chubby, but not in awesome shape. He was kind of slow.” That wouldn’t do, not for a team whose mission statement categorizes itself as the “hardest-working, best conditioned, most professional, unselfish, toughest, meanest, nastiest team in the NBA.” The mantra could be mere marketing, a well-developed brand that borders precariously on the cultish. But too many players have undergone a change in Miami to dismiss it altogether. Goran Dragić, Miami’s All-Star guard, notes that the team simply guides you into making better choices. Olynyk lost the weight and, as Richardson says, is quicker than he’s ever been. “We used to joke, ‘You lost a whole [other] Kelly!’”
The pump-faking which dogged Olynyk in Boston hasn’t been as egregious in Miami. “Yeah, when he got here, he would always pump fake it and [get called for the] travel. We’d all yell, ‘Just shoot it, bro!’” says Richardson, throwing up his arms in frustration as so many Celtics fans once did.
Olynyk’s versatility adds style to a team that, true to form, is more likely to abuse its way to the basket. There are the artful fake dribble-handoffs that work like magic, the passing rarely found in a man that size. “It makes it that much easier playing with that kind of a player,” says Dragić. “K.O. is dangerous as a shooter, and at the same time, he can put the ball down on the floor and make plays for others. He’s, uh, how would I say..? A ‘triple-threat’?” Shooting, dribbling, passing, just like the guard that grew up almost a world away. “He’s really a unique player because you don’t know what he can do, you don’t know what to expect from him in certain moments.”
Dragić was being complimentary, describing Olynyk’s greatest strength while unintentionally hitting on his biggest weakness. The inconsistency that marred his stint in Boston is still exposed in Miami. There are nights when Olynyk can be a game-changer at center, incorporating that versatility in a way that Whiteside can’t and Adebayo yet does not. Then, there are others, when potential can’t be counted on to lead the Heat to victory and a player as skilled as any on the roster watches with bland resignation as close games become losses.
Olynyk’s determination to reach this level is perfectly symbolic of Miami’s gritty ethos but his inconsistent play is representative of its obvious faults. Without a true go-to scorer to carry the offensive burden, it is distributed evenly among its roster. Egalitarianism by necessity. Spoelstra and the Heat will tell you that lacking a superstar gives any player on its roster the opportunity to take the reins but so far this season — and the one before it, and the one before that — no one has. It’s why Miami has been the most determined suitor to acquire Jimmy Butler from Minnesota. Olynyk has reportedly been included in whatever offer Riley has made to the Timberwolves.
There has undoubtedly been progress from Olynyk in Miami, as Spoelstra and teammates will attest. Even Karalis believes that Olynyk’s passing, rebounding and shooting have all improved with the Heat. Miami’s player development program is a proven one, but you can only chisel away at a rock for so long before it loses its discernible shape or erodes into nothingness.
Ask Olynyk about food and he can wax poetic for a while. He’ll take to social media and randomly ask for restaurant recommendations or even offer his own. He explains that his parents always made him clear his plate, and he learned to appreciate food in a way that fashion or other hobbies did not. Presentation is a big part of it, he says, and how culinary experiences help define a culture. For a man who was once goaded into teammates into eating a burrito in four bites, his appreciation of the finer side of all things gastronomic might seem surprising. Hunger plays a factor, too. As he kept growing, there was a need for him to eat more and more quantities to sustain an evolving metabolism.
It’s that side of Olynyk that probably would be most appealing to Riley and the Heat front office. If Miami fails to land Butler or any other superstar over the next season, they’ll need Olynyk to focus less on perimeter-based garnish and be more aggressive with the meat-and-potatoes scoring that could satiate his true potential. The 7-foot foodie that can do it all just needs to figure out how to take a bigger bite.