Olden Polynice speaks with the strident tone of a complicated man tired of being mistaken for simple, and a smart man tired of being taken for dumb. In the course of a typical conversation, he is as likely to discuss his way of cooking of fettucine alfredo as his basketball skills, both of which are reputed to be outstanding.
Polynice acquired his culinary ability in his travels from his birthplace of Port au Prince, Haiti, to the Adriatic Coast. Meanwhile, via the Bronx and Charlottesville, he developed a 6-foot-11, 240-pound frame with unlikely grace and leaping ability that undoubtedly will make him a first-round choice in the National Basketball Association draft Monday. But some of Polynice's travels weren't by choice: his scholarship was revoked by Virginia last summer after he pleaded guilty to shoplifting.
Polynice spent what would have been his senior season playing for the Italian team Rimini, enjoying a break with his past and taking the waters. After several months of living by the sea and learning to cook pasta, Polynice returned in April and has been living quietly with agent and friend Sid Blanks in Houston. Finally, he has broken his silence about the events at Virginia that marred his reputation -- to some just another overindulged casualty of college athletics.
"I hope I can do it," Polynice said by phone from Houston. "Maybe I can't. But I'll tell you what, I'm going to make it very hard, as hard as I possibly can, for people not to like me anymore. The real Olden is back."
About 10 NBA teams have expressed interest in Polynice, but they are somewhat wary, querying him about his experiences at Virginia. An honor code trial and acquittal his sophomore year, when he allegedly submitted another student's paper as his own, began Polynice's troubles in 1984. Late in the 1985-86 season, he broke teammate John Dyslin's nose during practice. Then last summer came the guilty plea for taking a $17 pair of stereo headphones.
Had he been able to return for his senior season, he likely would have been one of the top five players in the country, playing for a potential national championship contender. But at Virginia, Polynice also acquired a sense of being misunderstood that perhaps led to his difficulties.
"He's extremely sensitive," said Blanks, who is the father of Virginia teammate Lance Blanks and calls Polynice part of the family. "He feels that people think he's not a very bright, sharp kid. He is, and he wants people to respect him as they would anyone else."
Those closest to Polynice contend that, despite all appearances at Virginia, he has a highly developed set of principles. His previous trouble, they claim, came out of anger born of an emotional temperament. But others say that is no excuse for poor judgment.
"He's very artistic, talented, creative and intelligent," said his former high school coach John Carey. "He actually is highly principled, with a deep sense of right and wrong, and of how he should be treated and how to treat other people. But sometimes he doesn't think through; he just reacts. He lets emotions get in the way of his decisions. Like the shoplifting. It was a rash judgment. But Olden is not a thief. He's a principled kid."
Yet if he is intelligent, sensitive and principled, how did he become embroiled in so much trouble at Virginia?
"I thought you'd never ask," Polynice said.
It may surprise some to learn that Olden Polynice is not named for an after shave or his great-great-grandfather on his mother's side. He is named for William Holden, dropping the H as they do in Port au Prince, and his 21-year-old brother, Widmark, is named after Richard Widmark. The two actors were his grandfather's favorite movie stars.
The Polynice family left Port au Prince when Olden was 7, moving to New York City. Olden's father, Lester, drives a taxi. His mother, Suzanne, works as a housekeeper.
Polynice did not pick up a basketball until he was 14, as a high school freshman. But unlike many inner-city people, basketball was not necessarily his ticket to college. He had an A average and a touch with a sketching pencil, which he used to draw rock stars such as Prince, local athletes and cars.
Polynice's grade-point average as a languages major at Virginia was "solid," according to basketball coach Terry Holland. But emotionally, his ability to cope was another matter.
"There was some snobbery," Polynice said. "And that's not me. I'll let something go by maybe once. But the second or third time, I'm going to do something about it."
He was adored by some for his talent but disdained by others skeptical of his right to be there, an issue that would become bitterly debated when he was called before the honor board for cheating. The situation was aggravated by the fact that he was a center following in the wake of Ralph Sampson.
"He has not had the benefit of a perfect background," Holland said. "Coming from Haiti, learning to speak English, being tall. Of all the problems you can have growing up, I think he had most of them. So it was easy for him to be self-conscious, and unsure of who he is."
As a freshman, Polynice helped lead Virginia to a miracle season in which the Cavaliers took Houston to overtime before losing in the Final Four, 49-47. With the success, Polynice felt the euphoria that comes with a sudden blossoming of ability. Then he began believing what he read about himself.
"When they started putting me on that pedestal, it felt good, but I didn't know how to accept it," Polynice said. "It changed me. I started getting conceited. I felt conceited and arrogant. And I knew it wasn't right. I was doing things and seeing things in myself that I didn't like in other people."
In the fall of 1984, the honor code matter changed his career for the worse, perhaps permanently. He was acquitted of turning in another student's paper when the honor board ruled he had not intended to cheat, but some argued he was cleared because he was a basketball player. He was infuriated, and never got over it.
"People thought I was acquitted because of basketball," he said. "That's wrong. I got all this . . . because I was a basketball player. If I was a normal student, it probably wouldn't have happened. I hated people at Virginia after that. From then on, I was just spiting everyone. I wanted to leave."
Polynice decided against transferring because he would have had to sit out a year. But he became progressively unhappy as the Cavaliers struggled through a 17-16 season his sophomore year. His play did not reflect it, however, and, in his junior season, he was the team's leading scorer and rebounder, averaging 16.1 points and eight rebounds.
Then, late in the season, he fought with reserve center Dyslin. According to Polynice, Dyslin had a habit of playing him physically in practice, not unusual in heated competition between teammates. At one point, Polynice left the court for a breather and said furiously to guard Tom Calloway, "If he hits me again, I'm going to get him." When Dyslin collided with him a second time, Polynice wheeled around and threw the nose-breaking punch.
"I was angry about I don't know what," he said. "I just threw the punch. I never meant to break his nose."
Just two months later, on April 30, he drove a girlfriend to a stereo store, and while he was there attempted to slip a pair of headphones under his shirt. He said he simply snapped, fed up with the school.
"That last thing was my three years there all rolled into one," he said. "I went after something I already had. I didn't even need it. I was reaching out. I felt Virginia had hurt me, and I was trying to get back at them. All I did was hurt myself."
Polynice received a 30-day suspended sentence after pleading guilty last summer. He said he does not know exactly why he took the headphones, and that he had two or three pair in a drawer at home. He was waiting in the car for his friend when he suddenly got out, went inside and took them.
"I did it out of need, to be wanted for me instead of basketball," he said. "People never seemed to take the time to understand.
"I was fighting back. I was sitting there, thinking and thinking, and just got mad. I still don't remember what made me get out of that car. I walked in, took them and walked out. I put them under my shirt. I didn't start out to take them. Like, if you're going to take something, you should at least wear heavier clothes so you can hide it, right? You tell me."
Holland suspended him, and at first Polynice announced he would take the hardship route to the NBA, a decision Holland says he supported. But the next day Polynice changed his mind and decided to remain in school. Holland told Polynice that, if he stayed, he would be off the team and would have to have counseling. The following December, his counselor and a review committee could decide whether he could rejoin the team, not a likely prospect.
Polynice initially agreed. But Holland saw him become more and more depressed as he struggled to regain his equilibrium in surroundings that offered little sympathy.
In July, Holland decided Polynice should surrender his scholarship. He said he felt the chances of Polynice being successful again at the school were slim in light of the continuing poor public perception of him.
"It would have been a very difficult and probably impossible task," Holland said. "I said to him, 'You have to be able to turn this thing completely around, not just neutralize it.' People have to call me and say Olden Polynice is a good representative for this school, instead of the opposite. I told him he had created a perception of Olden Polynice. I said, 'It's not what I see, but what others see. You may have changed yourself, but has the perception changed?' "
Polynice remains somewhat angry. He said, "I was going back and they took my scholarship. So I left in anger. That hurt me. They weren't thinking about me, they were just thinking about themselves." Since then, Holland and Polynice have spoken just once, when the former player called the office looking for someone else. Polynice said, "It was okay. I still respect the man."
Whatever their disagreements, Holland and Polynice agree that public relations may be his biggest problem, which is one reason the player said he has decided to talk. The self-revelation process has not been an easy one and there are still signs that he feels misunderstood. But those around him contend that the real Polynice, the bright and charming one, is more often present.
He tosses off a recipe for spaghetti carbonara, talks cheerfully about his 11-week-old daughter, Tiara, and impending August marriage to the girl's mother Shawna, or discusses Moses Malone, Clyde Drexler and other Houston-based NBA stars who he has been working out with while waiting for the draft. He plans to take classes at Rice, is 27 credits short of a degree in languages and makes hopeful references to law school.
The teams most likely to draft him are the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Clippers. Officials from both teams did not return phone calls for this article, but Blanks said Polynice's reception has been good. That a new career will begin Monday makes it easier for Polynice to forget old grievances.
"Italy, my fiance and my baby have cured all of that," he said. "I've grown up, that's the only way I can put it. Finally, thank God, I've matured. I know now that the only person I hurt is Olden."