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July 13, 2012
A'Kila O'Liney is 13. A teenager. A teenage girl. Not an easy time for any father. With his daughter middling between childhood and adulthood, Paul O'Liney knows he'll need to be tough to keep her in line.
A little more than a year ago, O'Liney and his daughter were separated by 1,400 miles. Dad had to uproot himself and move across the country. He did it. He had to gain legal custody to be there for her. He did that, too. For the past 13 months, Paul O'Liney has loved A'Kila, taught A'Kila, scolded A'Kila and parented A'Kila, leaving his past life behind to save a daughter in serious trouble.
Paul O'Liney has always been tough. Norm Stewart told him after his final college basketball game in 1995 that the coach had never seen a Missouri Tiger with a bigger heart than O'Liney. Assistant Kim Anderson called him "fearless." Teammate and close friend Corey Tate used the same word.
But Paul O'Liney's toughness, his fearlessness, every bit of his heart, could not prepare him for what happened on May 8, 2011. That was the day his daughter's life changed forever.
"It was last year, on Mother's Day," O'Liney says, his tone dropping to a nearly inaudible pitch. "We had to bury her mom."
It is March of 1995. Paul O'Liney finds himself in Boise, Idaho, face-to-face with the best team in college basketball. With eight minutes remaining in the first half, he's standing beyond the three-point line on the right wing as Missouri teammate Sammie Haley makes a move in the post against a defender. The ball knocks loose from Haley's hands and falls right to O'Liney, like a gift from above. He does the only thing he knows how to do. He lets it fly. Swish. It's the 76th three-pointer O'Liney has made on the season, the most on the team by a wide margin. Eighth-seeded Missouri leads No. 1 UCLA 25-22, and an upset is brewing in the Great Northwest in the second round of the 1995 NCAA Tournament. "He had no chance to set for that at all. What a shot by O'Liney!" bellowed the CBS crew announcing the second-round game.
Two minutes later, O'Liney is standing with the ball in the exact same spot. He gets a screen and dribbles right. Suddenly Ed O'Bannon, the All-American and future first-round NBA Draft selection, is guarding him. O'Liney, a 6-foot-2 guard with a stocky build, blows past the Pac-10 Player of the Year and violently approaches the hoop, where he lays the ball up and in with another defender's hand in his face. "The senior from Pensacola, Florida! He scores 20 a game, and he's got 10."
Kim Anderson is watching O'Liney from his spot on the bench next to Stewart. He's in as much awe as the rest of the building.
"He just worked so hard that year and played so hard," Anderson saidalmost two decades after the fact. "He just played with such an energy level that made him a really good player."
O'Liney has scored five straight points, but he's not done yet. With seven seconds left on the shot clock and the first half winding down, his team needs him again. The Tigers trail by two and he's standing this time on the left wing, well beyond the three-point line. When he receives the inbound, he's about a step from the sideline. Cameron Dollar sits in a defensive position out of default. There's no way O'Liney should take, much less make, a shot from that far.
"NBA range! That's range from the locker room!"
Missouri by one. On the next possession, his team knows it needs to get this man the basketball. With a hard chest pass, Jason Sutherland shoots O'Liney the ball at the top of the key. He pulls up from NBA range again. "O'Liney! Wow! He's streaking!" Missouri by four. Paul O'Liney has scored 11 points in five minutes, and he'll wind up with 23.
But an hour or so later, Tyus Edney's mad 4.8-second-dash from baseline-to-baseline will end O'Liney's career. It is Edney who will go down in history for this game, but O'Liney who will cement his legacy as a beloved figure in the Norm Stewart era. They will remember O'Liney as the most famous walk-on Missouri ever had, a guy who stepped onto campus in the middle of the 1993-94 season in the most bizarre of circumstances.
Sitting out the first semester while he finished his junior college credits, O'Liney claimed to choose the Tigers because he watched them lose by 52 points to Arkansas on national television and thought he could offer some assistance. Stewart had no scholarship for him, so O'Liney walked on just a year after leading Pensacola Junior College to a national title. From there, he became an integral sixth man to help his team go unbeaten in Big Eigth play and reach the NCAA Tournament's Elite Eight before leading the Tigers in scoring as a senior at 19.7 points per game in 1994-95.
O'Liney had all the storylines- his mysterious arrival on campus as a walk-on, his shockingly productive play as a senior, and his Irish-sounding name despite an upbringing in the deep South. So even though he did not even play two full years at Missouri, the name Paul O'Liney won't be forgotten any time soon.
A'Kila O'Liney knows her father played basketball, but that was a long time ago. She was born a few years after O'Liney scored 11 points in five minutes against the eventual national champions, so she doesn't necessarily identify her father as a star basketball player. She knows him as something much bigger: one of the only people she has left to rely on in life.
Sonya Poleate graduated from Booker T. Washington in 1991, a high school in the heart of Pensacola just a short ride from the airport. It is also down the street from Pensacola Junior College, where the eventual father of her child attended school and played basketball. It is a humid, steamy city located in the Florida Panhandle on the cusp of the Gulf of Mexico, and it's the city where A'Kila O'Liney would grow up. Sonya missed her 20-year high school reunion by two months.
She was 38 years old when she died of cancer, leaving A'Kila all alone without a mother and a father 1,422 miles away. Paul O'Liney was living in Colorado Springs at the time, just after his ten-year professional career ended because of an Achilles tear. The drive from Pensacola to Colorado Springs took 23 hours.
O'Liney had to make a difficult decision. He had spent much of A'Kila's childhood on the road in exotic places like Austria, chasing the dream of pro hoops. But with a decimated Achilles and 40-year-old legs, basketball wasn't an option anymore. He would leave Colorado behind and return home to Louisiana near his mother and other family members in Marksville, and he would move A'Kila there with him to start a new life in this town of fewer than six thousand people.
"It's been hard on both of us, especially her," O'Liney said. "The situation is hard. She goes through things every now and then, but she's doing good."
He repeats himself. Same words, but an enhanced meaning this time: "Yep. She's doing good."
O'Liney also has two other children, Rivera and Zaikeem from a marriage in 2003, but they're still living in Pensacola. O'Liney said he makes that manageable six-hour drive to visit them often. O'Liney and Sony did not live together. But it is still not easy for him to talk about her death. Nor is it easy for him to talk about how basketball kept him away from his children for part of their lives. His voice stays quiet- friendly, but reserved.
Ever since Edney's shot, his life has taken another course.
"I never forget the 4.8 seconds. Basketball, that was my life. If we had just won that game, then everything would have been different," O'Liney said. "I'm at a tough place in my life. Raising a teenage daughter, because of what she's going through, I needed to be around family."
Even after bouncing from pro team to pro team-- after living abroad, after tearing his Achilles, after being away from his children-- O'Liney has rekindled his relationship with A'Kila during the past 13 months. He's grown into an attentive father figure, the kind of single dad who uses tough love with his 13-year-old. When A'Kila's grades began to slip, O'Liney cracked down on her behavior and eventually helped her land on the honor roll.
It is obvious O'Liney likes to talk about A'Kila-how she's doing in school, how she's dealing with the pain. He says being near her grandmother in Marksville, as well as countless other relatives, has helped both of them.
"Not too many men would be able to step in and just take that over," said Tate, who played with O'Liney in 1994-95 and still keeps in frequent contact. "That's a big, big thing. That says a lot about Paul."
Almost two decades after that magical two-year run in a Tiger uniform, O'Liney answers the phone with sneakers squeaking and children screaming in the backdrop. He's not in front of a roaring crowd at the Hearnes Center anymore, not in Boise facing UCLA anymore. This time, he's helping his 14-year-old nephew, Quadarius, polish his game at a local gym. His voice elevates when he talks about Quadarius' potential, since he's already 6-foot-1 and appears to still have room to grow.
"I didn't have anybody on my side in my ear all the time, saying, 'You need to do this, you need to that,'" O'Liney said. "People need that."
He has not been able to find work in Marksville yet, even though he said he'd like to get back into coaching. In fact, O'Liney said he is in the preliminary stages of organizing a local AAU team.
"That's perfect," Anderson says when he hears of O'Liney's plans. "He'd be great."
And O'Liney hasn't forgotten about the Tigers, either. With the move to the Southeastern Conference, his former program has joined his geographical territory, which means he'll get to attend Missouri games in person against LSU and rib his various family members who work at the school. Best of all, he'll get to share it with the little girl that has nobody else but him.
"I'm gonna take my daughter to all the games," O'Liney said. "I can't wait."