FAIRBANKS - Brad Oleson went from being a "little skinny freshman" at North Pole High School to becoming a professional basketball player who returned home Tuesday and saw his number retired, something no Patriot before him had ever experienced.
"If they had told me when I was in high school that my jersey would be retired eight years later, I wouldn't have believed it," Oleson said Tuesday afternoon, a few hours before the ceremony, which was between the North Pole-Eielson girls and boys basketball games.
Kevin McHenry, Oleson's former coach at North Pole, said Olesen's No. 23 - which he picked because Michael Jordan wore it - is the first to be retired at NPHS in any sport. To widespread applause, Oleson was presented with his framed blue and red road jersey, while the white home jersey will be displayed in a Hall of Fame at the school.
"What did this guy do to get the first number retired? Let me tell you," McHenry said before reading for several minutes from a long list of accomplishments.
A modest Oleson later called the award a "great feeling," and an "honor," but he did not speak to the crowd, preferring instead to let McHenry do the talking.
McHenry also read a message from Frank Ostanik, Oleson's former coach at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who was not able to attend.
Ostanik, in the message, called Oleson his smartest, toughest and hardest working player.
"A player like Brad only comes around once in a lifetime," Ostanik said.
The event was a long time coming, McHenry said, but the timing had to be coordinated with Olesen's pro schedule in Spain.
"We decided to retire this jersey four years ago. We're grateful to have this opportunity finally," McHenry said.
Oleson had to travel 24 hours to get back to North Pole, but relished the moment on Tuesday.
"I'll never forget where I came from. This is my home. This is where I learned a lot," Oleson said.
Oleson's potential as a basketball player took off when he grew 8 inches - from 5-foot-6 to 6-foot-2 - between his freshman and sophomore years at North Pole.
Oleson was promoted to the varsity team as a sophomore, but he only played sparingly that season before an "OK junior year." However, a school record 43-point performance against Lathrop in a game that clinched the conference title highlighted his breakout senior year in 2000-01.
"I just remember in the first half I had 31," Oleson said of the Lathrop game. "It was kind of unreal. Every shot I threw up was going in."
Oleson's next stop was Peninsula Community College in Olympia, Wash., where he spent a season before returning to Alaska to play for UAF.
His three years at UAF are legendary. In 2001-02, the season before Oleson arrived, the Nanooks were a dismal 4-23. Oleson immediately helped turn things around, and the Nanooks went 64-24 and qualified for the NCAA Division II Tournament each of the next three seasons.
Oleson was twice the Great Northwest Athletic Conference Player of the Year and in 2005 eclipsed Milo Griffin's long-standing mark as the Nanooks' all-time leading scorer. He finished with 1,883 points and in 2004-05 was a DII First-Team All-American.
After playing briefly with the Dodge City Legend of the United States Basketball League, Oleson moved overseas in 2005-06, signing with Spain's Beirasar Rosalia of the mid-level Leb 2 league.
Despite the stigma of having played for a DII school, Oleson gained a tryout for the summer-league team of the National Basketball Association's Miami Heat after his first season with Rosalia.
He spent two more years with Rosalia, and after winning the 2006-07 title, the team was promoted to the Leb 1 league for 2007-08. Oleson's continued success (he was the second-ranked scorer last year) earned him a job with Fuenlabrada in Spain's ACB league.
"After the NBA, the ACB is by far the best league in the world," Oleson's Ohio-based agent, Emilio Duran, said by phone Tuesday.
Oleson has teammates from Serbia, Georgia, Latvia, Argentina and Puerto Rico. They include 7-foot-3 PJ Ramos, who had a stint in the NBA, and Nikolaz Tskitishvili, who was picked fifth overall by the Denver Nuggets in the 2002 NBA draft.
The move to a higher level hasn't brought Oleson's production down.
Oleson, a shooting guard, is the ACB's second-leading scorer with 20.1 points per game. In a league-leading 33 minutes per game, he is shooting 58 percent from the floor, 47 percent from behind the 3-point line and 83 percent on free throws. He is fifth in the latest MVP rankings.
"It's probably my best year yet," Oleson said during an interview at the News-Miner.
Oleson, 25, hadn't expected to immediately excel upon joining the ultra-competitive league, in which packed arenas are the norm.
"I just wanted to fit in and win games. I didn't know how I'd do," the 6-3, 200-pounder said.
Hard work - an ethic instilled by McHenry - is his key to success.
Oleson said his game revolves around "playing hard, shooting threes and creating opportunities for teammates."
Fuenlabrada, located in a Madrid suburb, is 10-10 and in eighth place, the final playoff position in the 17-team league. Oleson was able to return for Tuesday's ceremony because his team has a bye this week.
Earlier this season, a Cleveland Cavaliers scout watched Oleson play and then invited him to a "mini-camp" in June. Oleson is not sure whether he'll attend.
"It's an opportunity for (Cleveland's) staff to really take a close look at a handful of players," said Duran, who represents about 30 players, most of them overseas. "(For Oleson to attend) there has got to be some sort of (future) commitment from them."
Duran, who has worked with Oleson since he finished at UAF, said the argument against Oleson reaching the NBA is that he is undersized for a two-guard. While that may prove true, Duran said Oleson has plenty of positives, such as determination, quick feet and a great shooting touch.
But it's his smarts that really stand out.
"Clearly what separates him is his basketball IQ. He understands the game better than the average player, and he translates that onto the court," Duran said.
Oleson doesn't have any illusions about reaching basketball's highest level.
"I know the chances of making an NBA team are slim to none," Oleson said.
Not that Oleson isn't happy in the lucrative ACB, where his salary tripled when Fuenlabrada signed him to a four-year deal. Duran expects a richer European team to pick him up for 2009-10 and make his client quite wealthy.
"I am sure that he is not going to be with (Fuenlabrada) next year," Duran said. "Someone's going to buy out his contract."
Oleson is just grateful to be making a good living playing the game he loves.
"Especially this year, I really had to sit back and say I'm really blessed to have an opportunity to play in this league," he said.
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