CHICAGO — Alex Olah hadn't seen his parents in a year and a half. His entire junior year, nothing. Just Skype and Facebook.
"Not seeing them for so long — you could feel it," Olah said. "You miss it."
It was a feeling Olah knew well. During his junior year in high school, the seven-foot center moved 5,000 miles from Timisoara, Romania to Zionsville, Indiana, in an effort to further his basketball career at Traders Point Christian Academy.
"There's not a better continent to be on to play basketball than this," Olah said. "But it was really tough. You leave everything behind, you go somewhere you've never been and you don't know anybody...I knew English coming in, but it wasn't perfect."
Olah has been back and forth, to and from Timisoara since he emigrated to the U.S., but the time period starting with the beginning of his junior year was tough on him and his family. So when Northwestern announced it was going to take a trip to Spain this past summer, Olah started to put a plan in place. When the team flew back to Chicago, Olah would take a separate plane flying eastward to Romania, where he would stay for two weeks, surprising his parents.
"My parents had no idea," Olah said. "A couple of my friends and my uncle were the only people who knew I was coming home. I literally just walked in the yard, and my mom saw me. She couldn't believe it. My dad was about to go to work for a night shift, but he saw me there and he canceled his work. We just had a nice barbecue and celebrated me being home."
Although he hadn't been back in a while, the support from Olah's hometown remains forceful. His most loyal supporter is his grandmother, who has not missed a single one of her grandson's games on TV in spite of the time difference, often having to stay up until 4 a.m. to watch.
"She's my number-one fan," Olah said with a laugh.
That was 44 days ago.
Now, Alex Olah navigates his way through the ballroom at the Chicago Marriott O'Hare. In a sea of Big Ten basketball players and coaches mingling with hundreds of media members, he finds the Northwestern delegation in the back left corner of the expansive room.
He stops right in front of the gathered media and flips his light-gray sport jacket in a model-esque manner.
"GQ!" one reporter remarks.
More on Alex Olah
More on Alex Olah
It is October 15 — Olah's 22nd birthday. But being Big Ten Basketball Media Day, it is already a special day for the big man, whose bubbly personality allows him to thrive in front of reporters.
"You see him smiling, bopping around the lobby today," head coach Chris Collins says of his center on Media Day. "Alex is an emotional guy — he wears his emotions on his sleeve."
"I don't know much about the Romanian culture," adds senior guard Tre Demps as he sits across from Olah, "but Alex is one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet. He always has this big smile on his face and it's just fun to be around him. He has such a sincere heart."
It is clear Olah is comfortable with the media attention he's receiving as a senior. He relishes it, really. But it wasn't always that way.
"I like talking to media," Olah says. "I kind of hated it at the beginning because my English was not that good, and I was shy. But now I'm a senior, and I just got so comfortable with it."
His growing comfort level reflects his improvement on the court too. A few years ago, it would have seemed crazy to think Alex Olah would be one of the most impactful players in the Big Ten.
That year, Olah averaged just six points and four rebounds per game. Granted, he was playing just 22 minutes per game, but that still works out to a point just under every four minutes and a board every five-and-a-half minutes. For a seven-footer playing Big Ten basketball, those numbers didn't jump out. He seemed to lack a presence — a command — on the court. For the first time, Olah was going up against players who could consistently challenge him.
"He was not a confident guy," Collins says at Media Day. "There was not a strong belief in himself."
Soon after he arrived at Northwestern following the conclusion of Olah's freshman season, Collins assigned Olah to assistant coach Brian James as James's "project." And now there's no doubt around the conference that Olah has improved. He has nearly doubled his points and blocks per game and was fifth in the Big Ten in rebounding last year.
"The thing I admire most about him is where he started versus where he is now," Illinois head coach John Groce says. "You can tell he's really worked. His body has changed, conditioning has changed, game has changed. I think he's really improved."
Olah has trimmed down. He's added more muscle. He's more assertive and physical in the post, playing much more effectively on the defensive end. His footwork has improved and he's even added some range to his offensive game. Olah, once a developmental project whose English was shaky, is turning into one of the Big Ten's best centers.
While James was in charge of refining Olah's skill level and getting him to improve his physical attributes, Collins emphasized the mental part of the game.
"I saw that the talent was there," Collins says. "A lot of people laughed at me when I first got the job. I saw great footwork. I saw good skill level.
"I'll never forget when I first met him," he continues, "he sat down in my office and said, ‘Coach, help me become a player. Help me be good.' And he almost had tears in his eyes. He said, ‘Just work with me. I want to be a good player. I'll do whatever.'"
First, it started with Collins repeatedly calling him "Beast." No matter where the coach saw his center, he called him Beast. Then, once Olah took that to heart and became the anchor of Northwestern's defense and a major part of the Wildcats' offense, his role changed to one of a motivator.
Olah was named a team captain this summer alongside Tre Demps and Sanjay Lumpkin, and he considers himself more than ready for the responsibility, especially after reading a variety of books on leadership over the summer.
"[Coach Collins] expects me to be a leader in practice and on the floor," Olah says. "Being the best man on the floor every time I can...I have to make sure everyone is ready to go."
But for Olah, the question will always come back to his physical play. Even heading into his final year of college basketball, his tendency to allow his emotions to overwhelm his performance is troubling. Last season, he drifted in and out of some games, starting slow and finishing strong or vice versa. In order for Northwestern to have the type of season those inside the program think it can have, it has to start with Olah.
"When he plays with that chip, when he plays with that emotion," Collins says, "I think he's a top-tier center in our conference and someone that can be a real force in our league."
After three seasons in the Big Ten, Olah is now a different man. Refined and confident, he jokes about his status as an elder statesman now. He constantly repeats how this is his last chance to do something special in college and that the notion makes him feel pressure, but also excitement.
"I feel old," Olah says. "Everyone is calling me grandpa...But year 22, number 22. I think it's going to be a good year."