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From passive newcomer to self-proclaimed celebrity: The transformation of Alex Olah

Now in his junior season, Alex Olah is expecting to be a star.

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports
He towers above his peers. Not in a menacing way of course, but in a way that commands attention. His mere presence catches the eye.

His long strides carry him across campus – to class; to his dorm; to the gym; to social events; to the beach; to the shuttle that takes him to the athletic facilities. He occasionally wears shades, or headphones around his neck. He barely fits through some doorways.

He seems comfortable. A smile comes with little difficulty, and jokes come plentifully. He playfully chides members of the athletic department. He uses the occasional American slang term, like "bro" or "true dat."

He’s the center of attention. And he loves it. Girls approach him and enthusiastically ask for pictures. He willingly obliges. Random students recognize him in the dining hall and greet him. But it’s not annoying. He welcomes the popularity.

"Being on campus, meeting so many people," he says casually, "it’s pretty neat."

Alex Olah, Northwestern’s big man on campus in more ways than one, is living the life.

***

For Alex Olah, the story begins in Timisoara, a fairly large city in western Romania near the Serbian border. Born into what he describes as a low-middle class family, his upbringing was modest. It wasn’t a life of romantic European luxury. In fact, he says, many of his meals growing up came from the garden in his backyard.

But when discussing his childhood, Olah is quick to turn to sports. Even with basketball yet to enter his life, he was a competitor from a young age.

"Soccer was my first sport," Olah says. "And then I tried a bunch of others like tennis, European handball, judo, volleyball, swimming… [I just liked] being competitive, having fun, and playing as a team… And then finally, in eighth grade, I started playing basketball."

And from there, his ascension was rapid. Before he knew it, he was being named to all-star teams, receiving awards, and being watched by club coaches. "I said [to myself]," Olah recalls, "‘oh, this might end up somewhere.’"

Soon enough, he was playing for the Romanian national team at his age level. "I won gold medals, and MVPs," he says. "And I saw a future in this."

But even with the success, 15-year-old Alex Olah, who lived alone in an apartment during his freshman and sophomore years of high school, was still a bit unsure of himself. "[I was a] shy guy," he says. "Really soft. Really skinny. I didn’t know much about basketball, I had only played for two or three years."

But when Bill Carmody, Ivan Vujic and Northwestern came calling, Olah decided to make the jump. "I got the opportunity to come here to the States," he says, "and I saw this as a big step."

***

"When I came [to America]," Olah says, "I didn’t know anybody. Literally nobody. I enjoyed spending time with my host family, and just going to school. I just pretty much focused on basketball and school the whole time."

It wasn’t the first transition of Alex Olah’s life, nor would it be the last. But the move from Romania to the U.S. was probably the biggest. Even just the language barrier by itself might make it so.

And according to Kale Abrahamson, one of Olah’s best friends over the past two years, when the big Romanian showed up in Evanston, first for his official visit and then to begin his freshman year, timidity still lingered. "I mean, he couldn’t speak much English at that point," Abrahamson says. "I guess he could, but he was more shy, and wasn’t as confident with it. He was pretty quiet."

"Even back home in Romania, I was always the guy in the shadow," Olah says. "I was always doing small work. I was doing it well, but I was never too famous. People in the basketball world knew me, but other guys, they had no idea who I was. Coming here, I didn’t expect anybody to know me. I just said, ‘I’m going to come here, play basketball, go to school, and do the best I can to represent Northwestern."

But, while he says the transition to the college life was smooth, the transition on the basketball court was less so. Early in his freshman season, Olah realized that he was unprepared.

"I was afraid," he says. "It took a little bit to adjust. Playing in Indiana in high school, it wasn’t very good because I didn’t have any big bodies to go against as competition. I was almost afraid to be too physical. So that didn’t help me."

To say his freshman season didn’t go as planned would be a euphemism. With a 7-foot frame and impressive high school statistics come expectations. Whether those expectations were realistic or fair can be debated. But whether they were met in year one cannot be.

In 2012-13, Olah only twice scored more than 10 points in a game, and never pulled down double-digit rebounds in a single 40 minutes. His offensive rating dwindled at 88.8 and his effective field goal percentage was an underwhelming 42.3. His season, as fans and media alike would’ve told you, was less than stellar.

Throughout the year, frustration was discernable. According to Abrahamson, on multiple occasions, Olah would let his discontent with his performances stick with him long after games. And Olah admits his attitude wasn’t ideal.

After a bad game, Olah’s morale, and thus his confidence, would plummet. "I would feel bad for my teammates," he says. "I let them down, and that kind of brought me down. And then in practice, I was not as competitive."

"He doubted himself," coach Chris Collins said in early May when he and father Doug spoke at Northwestern. "He was under a lot of criticism, and he’s not an overly confident kid."

Interestingly, Abrahamson attributes some of this to external factors. "I think a lot of the situations that were going on, and a lot of the stuff that was out of his control contributed to [his lack of confidence]. And a lot of people as well." When asked to clarify, Abrahamson says, "I don’t even want to get into it." But he maintains that this wasn’t just Olah’s problem.

But regardless of those situations, Olah carried high expectations for himself, and came away disappointed. "I was not very satisfied with my season," he says. "I knew I could do more."

***

When Alex Olah walked into his new boss’s office for the first time last offseason, he wasn’t there to endear himself in whatever way possible. He hadn’t come to flatter his new coach, a former star at Duke, or to engender a false first impression. He came with a simple message.

"I told him," Olah says, "‘Hey coach, I know you're great… and I just want to be good. I want to be the best big guy in the Big Ten, and I just want to be coached. I want you to show me the way.’"

According to Olah, Collins, the new boss, responded affirmatively. "He said, ‘Yes, let’s do it. I’m going to push you every day. If I see you’re not doing well, I’m going to yell at you – and it’s not personal, it’s just because I want you to do well.’"

In public, many see the light-hearted, even goofy side of Alex Olah. But behind the scenes, he’s serious. He’s a competitor. He’s intense. He’s even fiery. "In practices," Abrahamson says, "if he’s getting fouled a lot or something, he’ll shove people off of him. No one wants to mess with him if you see that certain look he gets in his eye. It’s that Romanian fury."

At the heart of Olah’s transformation has been a competitive drive, and an urge to succeed. It has manifested itself in many ways, not the least of which was that conversation with Collins. But it’s also much more than that.

Behind the scenes, that urge surfaces on a regular basis. It surfaces at team practices at Welsh-Ryan Arena in November. It surfaces at Big Ten arenas throughout the Midwest in February. But perhaps most importantly, it surfaced with consistency last offseason, and continues to do so this offseason.

"Alex worked incredibly hard to develop his skill," Collins said. "On a daily basis, he was in there watching film, just working hard." Abrahamson also says he bore witness to just how dedicated Olah was to bettering himself as a player.

Olah’s offseason work is multifarious, strenuous, and time-consuming. A big theme is physical fitness – losing weight, gaining muscle. "I knew I had to gain a lot of muscle to compete," he says. He’s even been doing morning workouts with the football team to improve his conditioning.

On the court, he works extensively with coach Brian James on his skill set in the post. He also takes the floor alone to work on his shooting – including, as fans will love to hear, his 3-point shooting. And he’ll even play pickup with students on campus, where he’s been known to call the occasional isolation for himself, or get a rebound, go coast to coast, and finish with a euro step at the other end.

Olah estimates that some days, basketball consumes up to five or six hours of his day. "So yeah, I have a busy schedule," he says. But he clearly understands that the busier the schedule now, the better the results next winter and beyond.

***

Soon after Olah expressed his desire to Collins, he once again stepped into his head coach’s office after a workout. This time, it was Collins who had a message for his starting center. It went something like this:

"Olah, every time you wake up in the morning, I want you to look in the mirror and tell yourself, ‘I’m a beast.’"

"Just from that," Olah says, "first I laughed. But then I saw he was serious, and I was like, ‘Okay, well…’ So every time I see him, I always say, ‘Hey, I’m a beast.’"

"That was huge for him," Abrahamson says. "That’s what I wish we could’ve said to him earlier. Because he is a beast, and he needs a coach that has confidence in him and wants him to be that."

It’s no coincidence that Olah’s improvement overlapped with the appointment of Collins as head coach. Collins understands Olah – he understands who he naturally is as a person, and he understand what he needs to be successful.

"When I first got here," Collins said, "I could sense he was insecure about his game. Especially for bigger guys, the power of confidence and belief in yourself [is crucial]."

Throughout his life, and during his freshman year, it wasn’t necessarily that Olah’s confidence was perpetually low. But it was excessively prone to prolonged recessions. He would let an off-game gnaw away at him mentally, hindering his performance for days thereafter. But now, both Olah and his peers recognize that everything has changed.

"I’m just going to walk in and be the best big guy on the court," Olah says of his current mindset. "And of course my confidence goes up when I have a good game. But if I have a bad game, it still stays the same. I just learn from it, and move forward.

"I just know I can compete against anybody. I know I can be a big part of this team. And just by being cocky and confident, I make my teammates even more confident and make them trust me even more. And that helps a lot. Before, I was not doing this, and that was bad. But now, it gives me confidence in everything, and makes me play better."

Abrahamson says that Olah’s new mentality and his newfound confidence have been easily discernible since last season. "Everybody has seen how much better he’s played," he says, "and how much more confident he’s been as a result of that. And the confidence led to even more success, so it’s a snowball effect."

But imposing this attitude on Olah hasn’t been the only massive effect that the new coaching staff has had. Their commitment to him from a basketball perspective has been exemplary too. And as anybody around the program will point out, much of the credit goes to assistant coach Brian James.

When asked what James has done for him, Olah says, "I mean, what didn’t he do for me? He did everything. He’s been great. He’s always willing to help me, make me a better player. He’s always there for me. He’s coached a bunch of pro guys, so just having so much patience with me, and guiding me through everything, it’s really helped. He’s a really good mentor."

James has had a distinguished coaching career. After coaching Chris Collins in high school at Glenbrook North, he went on to become a top NBA assistant during a tenure that spanned 17 years and 5 teams, including, most recently, the Philadelphia 76ers, where he was Doug Collins’ right hand man. He also spent time as an NBA scout for Seattle.

When he signed on to join his former high school pupil at Northwestern, he had one principal task: transform Alex Olah. And he’s done everything he can to do so.

This past year, Abrahamson says he noticed a distinct difference in Olah’s on-court work. "And I don’t think it was anything with [Olah’s] work ethic changing," he says. "It was that the coaching staff’s work ethic changed. Coach James had a plan: ‘I’m going to work you hard.’ And that was huge for Olah, having someone that always wanted to push him."

Olah is quick to shoot down any suggestions that Bill Carmody and his staff hindered his development, or didn’t do enough for him as a player. But he's enthusiastic about everything that has transpired this past year. And he hails his relationship with Collins.

Whereas Carmody maybe kept everything to a traditional coach-player relationship – "it was a little less personable," Abrahamson says – one of Collins’ outstanding attributes is his ability to seemingly connect to his players, both as individuals and as a group. And that’s been vital for Olah.

"The thing with Coach Collins is, he’s younger," Olah says. "He understands us better. He’s kind of like our generation. He’s kind of like our friend, but also our coach."

And then, unprompted, he states a thought that’s become obvious.

"I couldn’t ask for a better coach."

***

"My freshman year," Olah says, "nobody knew me." And as the shy, unassuming European import, Olah didn’t have a problem with that. He didn’t expect anything different.

"But now," he says, "every time I eat at a dining hall, there’s somebody saying, ‘Oh, you’re Alex Olah, it’s so cool to see you.’ Or if I go to some event on campus and people see me, they recognize me. It’s cool kind of being a celebrity."

Yes, Alex Olah self-identifies as a celebrity. And what’s more, he acts like it. Abrahamson, who spends more time with him than anybody, says his friend is not mistaken. "I’m like his bouncer," Abrahamson says. "And we’re not trying to be cocky about it, but we’ll show up at a gathering, and girls will be like ‘Oh my god, can I take a picture with you!?’"

A year and a half a go, this would’ve been unimaginable. But Olah’s transformation on the court has gone hand in hand with a transformation away from it as well.

"As the season went on," Collins said, "I just saw the way he started walking around. He had his chest up a little more, and he was a little cockier.

"[On the court], he started hitting threes, and making three signals, and it was like, ‘He’s getting it. He’s getting there.’"

Asked if he’s cocky now, Olah laughs, and says, "Yeah, I guess. You know, I think I had a pretty good season this past season, and that really boosted my confidence even more."

Unlike at big state schools, at Northwestern, not many athletes are able to achieve celebrity status. Sports don’t hold the same lofty status in the minds of students, and therefore big-time athletes aren’t as revered – especially quiet ones from Romania.

But there’s something about Olah – yes, naturally, his height, but also the way he carries himself, and his newfound swagger and self-belief – that have given him a certain charm in the eyes of the student body. And after living a pedestrian life for so long, Olah is relishing his time in the spotlight.

***

Success.

It’s a relative word, and one that is loosely defined. But in many cases, you know it when you see it.

In 2013-14, Alex Olah had success.

Stats back up the claim. His offensive rating jumped by more than 12 points to 101.2, his effective field goal percentage by nearly 11 points to 53.2, and his block rate of 6.4 ranked in the top 130 nationally.

He especially made great strides on the defensive end. His foot speed improved, and he was no longer just a big body down low; he was a presence in the paint, and one who held his own against some of the best frontcourt players in the Big Ten. Throughout the season, Chris Collins praised him time after time for his ability to defend pick-and-rolls, something he struggled with in 2012-13.

"The last month of the season, he was in the upper tier of big guys in the Big Ten," Collins says. "And I think we have one of the best big guys in the Big Ten for two more years."

But in 2014-15, averages of 9.1 points and 5.2 rebounds per game will no longer be seen as success. Stagnancy won’t be acceptable. More progression is expected.

And Olah is fully aware of that. In fact, he’s thinking even bigger. He doesn’t stop at wanting to be the best big man in the Big Ten. Olah aspires to play in the NBA. "And I told him," Abrahamson says, "if he doesn’t [make the NBA], I’m going to come back here and kill him. He should – I mean, he’s 7-foot tall and can make a hook with both hands. I see no reason why he can’t."