JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. – The Celtics Adrian Griffin, UCONN head coach Kevin Ollie, NBA coaching legend George Karl and now current C-N men's basketball players Sawyer Williams (Owenton, Ky.) and Shaun Jones (Lawrenceville, Ga) – all credit one Carson-Newman basketball alum for helping them with their games.
That man, 1958 alum Gerald Oliver. The 81-year-old former NBA assistant and Continental Basketball Association head coach and general manager has been instrumental in turning around the free throw-making ability of both Jones and Williams. He does it because he loves Carson-Newman and people who want to get better at basketball.
"Why I work with them is part of what I feel about Carson-Newman," Oliver said. "I wanted to be good at basketball when I was young. I had a key to get in the gym at Carson-Newman so I could get in there in practice. When I look back at it, I wished I had someone who would have helped me get better as an individual outside of practice. We didn't have the Internet, we didn't have books, we didn't have information.
"If a kid wants to get better, they have all the information they could handle today. I would have liked to have someone work with me. I was good at math, I liked teaching, and I liked helping people. That flowed into basketball. If I see someone who wants to be better at basketball and I feel like I can help them, I don't care if I'm 22 or 81, I still feel good about helping them."
Oliver was a team captain of the 1958 Smoky Mountain Conference title team. It was a reunion and a win over Lincoln Memorial that brought Oliver back to his old stomping grounds.
"About five years ago, I got back to watching Carson-Newman on the Internet," Oliver said. "I was watching Carson-Newman beat (then No. 7) LMU at Holt Fieldhouse (during the 2013-14 season). It was like the old days. The crowd stormed the floor and it was incredible. I called head coach Chuck Benson to congratulate him. I hadn't been feeling well, to the point that I hadn't attended a game in five years. Later that year, Billy Henry and Jack Owenby talked me into coming for the reunion of the 1958 Smoky Mountain Conference Team. There was that, and I was so happy to see that and what Dr. Randall O'Brien was doing as president for the university, it renewed my spirit."
As Owenby began to watch more and more games, the coaching bug started to bite harder.
"I started to see flaws in foul shooting, I saw things in Sawyer and (all-conference forward) Carson (Brooks) that I could correct. I hated that they had the experience of being chased down to be fouled at the end of ballgames," Oliver said. "I liked both of their skill sets, and wanted to help them. Coach Benson had known me from when he was at Tennessee. He asked me to work some magic with them."
Williams was a career 61 percent shooter at the line coming into his senior year. He credits his work with Oliver with helping him make three out of every four foul shots in his senior year.
"Coach Oliver came in last year and helped me. He showed me the right way to shoot, but told me that it would be until next year before I really saw the benefits of it." Williams said. "I struggled with it last year, even while he was helping me. I shot a lot this summer and then with our managers this fall. Coach Oliver helped me fine tune it and get it ready for this year."
Those numbers bore slowly but surely bore themselves out for Williams. His junior year, he began to click in games in which he shot a high volume of freebies. He knocked down 7-of-11 on Feb, 6 at Catawba and hit 7-of-10 against Coker in C-N's final regular season game.
Now in his senior season, Williams has knocked down all of his attempts in four games. He also set a season high with a 9-for-11 effort at the line against Brevard, something that was unthinkable a little over a calendar year ago.
"He said anytime you change your shot, that you have to adjust on your own a little bit, especially with as many changes as I had to make with mine," Williams said. "It was about getting that muscle memory and repetition, repetition, repetition."
Meanwhile, Jones arrived at Mossy Creek from Valdosta State looking to correct his own foul shooting issues.
"He's so knowledgeable," Jones said. "He has so much information that's credible. Working with him is a good thing, I appreciate it so much because he's helped me out with small details that have improved my game."
Jones was shooting 47.1 percent for the Blazers last year. He sits at 70 percent for the Eagles this season.
"My free throws," Jones said. "Last season (at Valdosta State), I probably had my worst season at the foul line of my career. He helped me straighten out my shot and help me make my adjustments with that. I'm a much better free throw shooter because of him."
They are the benefactor, like so many other basketball players before them, of Oliver's experience. George Karl credited Oliver, then the GM of the Albany Patroons of the CBA, with bringing the right players in to help the program rattle off 23 straight home wins en route to a CBA title.
"One spring after our season with the NBA, George Karl said to me to think about how you would take an athlete and make a basketball player out of him," Oliver said. "To me, the first thing that I thought was important to develop was foul shooting. That's a part of the game that's different from the rest of the game. You can't be defensed physically during that. There can be emotional pressure, but you're in control of that if you can control your mind."
"You're at 15 feet every time, and if you come up there and focus, there's only three things, the ball, the rim and yourself. If you can control yourself, you can control the ball. You're only feedback from that if you are hitting the dead center of the rim, and it swishes through the net. If you hit the rim, it'll talk to you if you listen. If you hit it and the ball bounces back to you, you're shooting it correctly because you're shooting it with backspin."
It's UCONN head coach Kevin Ollie who helped develop his devotion and mechanics when he spent a few seasons yo-yoing between the Connecticut Pride, where Oliver was a coach, and the NBA.
It's former Boston Celtic Adrian Griffin who credits Oliver with helping him make an unlikely rookie splash with the Celtics in 1999.
All of that should be of no surprise considering Oliver's coaching pedigree.
As a collegian, Oliver earned three varsity basketball letters at Carson-Newman and captained the team as a senior, when they won the conference title. He spent eight years on the legendary Ray Mears staff at the University of Tennessee.
Oliver joined the Marquette staff as an assistant coach to Hank Raymonds in 1977. Raymonds had selected Oliver based on his varied experience and unique educational motivation program.
Oliver arrived at Marquette after being on the Jacksonville University coaching staff. Prior to that, he spent one year in the ABA,
After Marquette, Oliver bounced around the NBA, CBA and United States Basketball League as an assistant, head coach and general manager.
He helped the Springfield Fame of the USBL to a title in 1985. He took over for Karl for the Albany Patroons in 1989-90 and was named CBA Coach of the Year. He took the Fort Wayne Fury to a CBA title game after taking over the program midyear during the 1995-96 season.
His stints in the NBA included assistant coaching trips with Cleveland and Milwaukee.
"The magic has to be inside the player. I saw that in Sawyer. I saw that in Carson. I saw that in Shaun," Oliver said. "They took the information I gave them, practiced that information and corrected things. You need feedback and measurement to learn, he has that and can correct it himself. Sawyer's found the pattern to where he shoots it that way, he's going to make it.
"Sawyer and Shaun are wonderful people," Oliver said. "Why wouldn't you want to help them? They are special people in a special place."