Before racking up 15 NBA seasons with some of the top teams of the ’90s, including the Seattle SuperSonics, Detroit Pistons, and Utah Jazz, NBA veteran Olden Polynice — a six-foot-eleven, Haitian-born, Harlem-raised center with a friendly smile and an unforgettable name — was told by doctors that he would never walk, let alone share a basketball court with the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon, Karl Malone, and Michael Jordan.
(Photo Credit: Olden Polynice | Facebook)
From Haiti to Harlem
Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 1964, Olden Polynice (pronounced Poly-neese) and his family immigrated to the States when he was 7. He grew up in the Harlem section of New York City, and attended All Hallows High School, an all-boys Catholic school located around two blocks from Yankee Stadium in the South Bronx. Though he initially dreamed of becoming a lawyer, Polynice rerouted his plans at age 14, when All Hallows coach John Carey suggested he give basketball a shot. He did, and got hooked.
Polynice laid the groundwork for his pro career at the University of Virginia, where he spent three years playing college ball for the Cavaliers while studying English. (Incidentally, Polynice arrived at UVA directly on the heels of fellow former Cavaliers center Ralph Sampson, a three-time College Player of the Year, and No. 1 pick in the 1983 NBA draft).
After spending the 1986-87 season playing overseas with Italy’s Hamby Rimini, Polynice launched his NBA career as a first-round pick (No. 8 pick overall) with the Chicago Bulls in the 1987 NBA draft, before being immediately traded to the Seattle SuperSonics.
“Polynice didn’t stay a Bull very long,” read a New York Times recap of the ’87 draft at the time. “In fact, he entered the interview room wearing a Bull cap and by the time he left the area, he had on a Seattle SuperSonic cap.”
So Polynice packed his umbrella and headed to the Pacific Northwest, a move that marked the beginning of decade-plus career playing for some of the league’s household names which, in addition to the Sonics (twice), included the Clippers (twice), Pistons, Kings, and the Jazz. After 1,037 regular and 22 playoff games, he eventually retired from the NBA in 2004 with career averages of 23.5 minutes, 7.8 points, and 6.7 rebounds per game.
Forging a post-NBA path
Now, 11 years later, many aspects of Olden Polynice’s life and career remain well-documented: his reputation as a tough defender, hard-nosed rebounder, and journeyman center; his host of post-NBA gigs, which have included coaching for the ABA’s Long Beach Breakers, working as a color commentator for the WNBA’s Sacramento Monarchs and a Fox Sports Radio Analyst, and running youth basketball training camps through his company, Nextstar Basketball.
Also widely known is Polynice’s deep allegiance to his native country, which he illustrated in 1993 by fasting in protest of the imprisonment of HIV–positive Haitian refugees in Guantanamo, earning his status as the first American athlete to participate in a hunger strike during an active season. And more recently, through his work with the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund until its closing in 2012, and his appointment as a goodwill ambassador to Haiti since 2012.
Even Polynice’s distinctive name, handful of minor brushes with the law, and a cameo in the ’96 Whoopi Goldberg flick Eddie, have made headlines. Lesser known, however, is the significant impact Polynice has had as an activist for disability-related causes and organizations, and the deeply personal motivation from which the work he does stems.
While plenty of pro athletes use their visibility as a platform to affect change, Polynice’s advocacy, including his current role as an ambassador for National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM)’s annual 31 Days campaign, is a product of first-hand experience.
Unable to walk until age 4
Long before he came to the United States or picked up a basketball, Polynice spent the early years of his life in Haiti essentially immobile — the result of being born with “both of my feet basically turned inward,” he said, which prevented him from being able to walk.
Doctors “couldn’t do anything early on,” said Polynice. “They had to wait a while.” Eventually, his “feet were basically broken and reset,” and he gradually gained use of his lower limbs. But not until after he had already spent a significant chunk of his childhood essentially unable to move his lower body, including two years with both legs in casts in order to give the broken limbs time to heal.
“I still remember it,” said Polynice of the first several years of his life. “It was the weirdest thing. I remember my dad carrying me. We couldn’t afford a wheelchair. Even at that young age, I still have images of that. My mom has pictures of it. I remember my mom used to rub oil on my legs and massage them. That was basically the therapy.”
Things changed around Polynice’s 4th birthday. “I began to walk slowly and surely, and just progressed after that until my legs got stronger.”
“If you want me to do something, just tell me I can’t.”
Polynice considers the fact that he remembers these early challenges so vividly as a positive thing.
“I never looked past it,” he explained. “It made me what I am. My disability didn’t define me, it actually just enhanced me.”
It was this tenacity that drove Polynice to succeed in the NBA and in some ways helped him get there in the first place.
“I learned how to walk and run. I used that. It was my motivator. Anytime someone told me I couldn’t do something: ‘You can’t walk.’ ‘You’re not going to learn English in six months.’ ‘You’re not going to college.’ Oh, I won’t ever play in the NBA? Well, guess what?”
“There’s always going to be someone who tells you that you can’t do something,” he continued. “Tell me I can’t do it! If you want me to do something, just tell me I can’t. I used to love it when people told me that.”
“Americans with disabilities make up almost one-fifth of our population, but are unemployed at a rate that is twice that of people without disabilities.” — Barack Obama
Polynice now applies the same positivity and stick-to-itiveness that he utilized to get him on the court and stay there for 15 seasons, to increasing awareness about disabilities, which he has been doing throughout his life, but even more so since retiring from the NBA.
Most recently, he is currently serving his second year as an ambassador for NDEAM’s 31 Days Project, an annual campaign held to educate the public about disability employment issues, which impact nearly 20 percent of US citizens, according to President Obama: “Americans with disabilities make up almost one-fifth of our population, but are unemployed at a rate that is twice that of people without disabilities.”
In an attempt to decrease this ratio, 31 Days encourages employers to make a concerted effort to “take action and employ qualified individuals with disabilities” for 31 days every October.
Practicing what you preach
In addition to his work with 31 Days, Polynice has advocated for people with disabilities in other ways as well: “I’ve carried the torch at the Special Olympics. I go to schools and talk to kids.”
One of his favorite past experiences has been hosting youth basketball camps that “integrate mentally and physically challenged individuals with non-mentally and physically challenged kids.”
(“NBA Star Olden Polynice hanging out with kids and his amazing Trick Shot!” | Video Credit: Theekholms | YouTube)
According to Polynice, the camps helped to decrease the stigma sometimes associated with disabilities by creating a positive environment in which the mystery and unknown aspect of what it means to have a disability was stripped away, and kids could just be kids regardless of their individual backgrounds or life circumstances.
“All of the kids had fun and became friends. It really made a difference. Even though a lot of kids weren’t skilled, it was just a way to bring kids together.”
Whatever Polynice is involved in, its important to him that he’s practicing what he’s preaching.
“It’s about following that path on a consistent basis,” he says. “What I’m talking about is what I do on a daily basis. It’s not a one time-thing.”
Recently, Polynice sat down with PayScale to talk about his (multiple) dream jobs and share some of the most valuable insights he’s gained both on and off the court.
15 Questions With Olden Polynice
Name: Olden Polynice
Hometown: Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti; grew up in Harlem, New York.
Current Location: Los Angeles, California
Role / Position: Former NBA center; current ambassador for the 31 Days Project; ambassador to Haiti for sports and entertainment.
PayScale: What was your favorite thing about being a professional basketball player? What made it your dream job?
Polynice: It wasn’t really my dream job. I wanted to be a lawyer, but basketball came along in high school because I worked hard and everything materialized. It was important to me because I wanted a scholarship for college. I really enjoyed the traveling and the comradery and the money of course.
PayScale: When did you first know you wanted to play? How did your disability influence or not influence that decision?
Polynice: I started later in basketball. I didn’t know I wanted to play basketball — I just wanted to get a college scholarship. I didn’t think the NBA was possible, even up until the time I was drafted. My disability didn’t influence my decision to play in the NBA. What I had overcome as a child may have been tough, but it helped me to realize I could do anything and get over anything.
PayScale: How did you end up in the NBA? What interesting or unexpected jobs or experiences prepared you along the way?
Polynice: The only other job I had was working at McDonald’s, and I quit that after a week. So the NBA was my next job.
PayScale: What did you study at the University of Virginia before you were drafted?
Polynice: I was an English major. It prepared me for all the sports broadcasting I have done, as well as being able to communicate effectively on a global level.
PayScale: How else did school prepare you for your career, or how did it not?
Polynice: Being an English major was a lot of reading and a lot of studying. Being into books all the time and reading, it really just expanded your mind. Playing basketball, you get a lot of scouting reports. It’s not just playing basketball — it’s scouting reports. I could pick up a scouting report and read it front to back and process it faster than anyone else.
PayScale: How does a player’s intellect factor into the game?
Polynice: That’s what separates all the great players.You can grab a thousand kids that are physically gifted, but it’s the mental aspect that people don’t realize [is so key]. People forget that [a gifted player without a college background like] Kobe Bryant has always been smart, even as a small young man. He was always an intelligent kid. He had that understanding. Kids can’t just look at these guys [like Kobe and other famous players]. Those are aberrations. Don’t look at one or two guys who come along every 50 years.
PayScale: So, “stay in school” is an important piece of advice for someone who aspires to the NBA?
Polynice: Not just stay in school — learn.
PayScale: Talk a little bit about your disability and how it impacted your career.
Polynice: I was born with a disability which caused my feet to be turned inwards. I was not supposed to be able to walk, but I did. Not because I wanted to play in the NBA; I just wanted to play with my friends and run around outside. It made me tougher when I got to the NBA. Every injury I had, I was able to recover quickly, because my mindset was focused on being victorious.
PayScale: What was one of the most rewarding moments in your NBA career?
Polynice: The first game I played was against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Lakers. I so admired Kareem and to have my first game playing with him, I knew I made it.
PayScale: What was the toughest part of your job that might surprise people?
Polynice: The toughest part of my job was being away from my kids. I missed all of their birthdays when I played — we were always on the road. I missed so many special moments that I can’t get back.
PayScale: Describe the work you’re doing now, post-NBA, and why its so important to you.
Polynice: Regarding the 31 Days Project, I help bring awareness about individuals with disabilities and their significant contribution to the workforce. My goal is to expand the purpose of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), to not just bring awareness, but to ignite action by inspiring employers to give people with disabilities an opportunity to work. I do this by telling my story and encouraging people, disabled and non-disabled, to support our efforts by signing our “Wall of Fame” on www.31days.org. I do this because everyone deserves a chance to follow their dreams and to be included.
PayScale: What’s the main message you’d like to impart through the 31 Days Project, and disability awareness in general?
Polynice: That it’s not about disability, it’s about ability. My goal is getting people to an understanding point. You don’t have to agree with what I’m saying. The disability is not giving someone an opportunity based on a disability. That’s the true disability — closing your mind. We’re not just saying “give away a job.” [By opening up your mind], you might find a gem. If we don’t open up and give someone a chance, what good are we doing on this earth?
PayScale: What would you tell someone who wanted to follow the same path as you?
Polynice: Do what you are passionate about and go for your dreams. If it’s what you want to do, you have to work for it. I always say, you need 10,000 hours to become a professional at anything.
PayScale: Best word or words to describe how you work?
Polynice: Intensely, with perseverance. I’m a fighter.
(Photo courtesy of Olden Polynice)
Links to Further Reading
- National Disability Employment Awareness Month – www.dol.gov/odep/topics/ndeam/
- 31 Days Project – http://31days.org
- Olden Polynice on Twitter – https://twitter.com/OldenPolynice1
- Olden Polynice on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/OldenPolynice