By Adam Rossow
When one of Alex Olah’s second-half jumpers swished through the hoop on Sunday, his father, Lucian, right arm extended in the air, curled his wrist to make a gooseneck, and smiled like he had done so many times while watching his son play basketball for Northwestern.
This time, though, Lucian’s mimicking of his son’s shooting form came not while watching on a computer at the Olah’s home in Timisoara, Romania. It came from five rows behind the Wildcats bench — live and in-person — and for the first time during a game, his son was just a few feet away.
Senior Day celebrations are special for any player stepping on the home court for the final time. For the Wildcats veteran center, having his family at his side before Sunday’s game against Nebraska was literally a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Instead of being thousands of miles away like they were for each of his previous 120 career games, Lucian, Olah’s mother Adriana, and younger brother Sebastian, were all there at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
“I don’t know how I kept my emotions in,” Olah said following Northwestern’s 65-54 win. “There were times when I was thinking, ‘I’m going to walk on the court with my family,’ and then I had to be like, ‘no, no, don’t think about it,’ because I would tear up.”
Once the game started, Olah did more than keep his emotions under control, scoring a game-high 19 points on 7-for-10 shooting. The imposing 7-footer also grabbed eight rebounds to lead the Wildcats to their 20th victory, which set a program record for regular-season wins.
Lucian and Adriana, battling overwhelming emotions as well as the language barrier, said after the game the entire experience of seeing Olah play in-person was “amazing” and that it meant “everything to be here at the gym.”
— NU Men’s Basketball (@NUMensBball) March 5, 2016
The Olah family traveled to the United States from Romania for the first time on Friday, and less than 48 hours later, the trio was standing at midcourt for Senior Day festivities. It was a trek the Olah’s always wanted to make, but had been unable to complete until now.
“Put yourself in Alex Olah’s shoes,” said Northwestern coach Chris Collins. “He’s got his parents and his brother here who have never seen him play live college basketball, never been to the United States. Alex is an emotional guy, a loving guy. I just couldn’t imagine myself, what I would feel like. How anxious, how nervous, how excited, all of those things.”
Along with his parents, Olah, who was draped in a Romanian flag, was accompanied for the ceremony by Greg and Paula Smith and their two children – Olah’s host family when he was a high school exchange student in suburban Indianapolis.
When asked about the Smith family and what they have meant, Lucian’s and Adriana’s eyes both watered when expressing their gratitude to the Smiths, and said they cannot say thank you enough for taking care of their eldest son.
“He’s changed a lot, he’s changed a lot,” Adriana said. “He’s become a wonderful young man, and we are very proud what he did in school and in basketball at Northwestern.”
Olah’s journey to America, and eventually Northwestern, began six years ago when the Smiths noticed an advertisement in their children’s school newsletter about an exchange student that needed a place to live.
Unsure about the prospects of a third child joining the household, it wasn’t until a timely phone call from Dave Jamerson, the Smith’s close friend who was also the Traders Point Christian Academy basketball coach, that the family agreed to host a 16-year-old boy named Alex.
“He [Jamerson] called and asked if we would consider hosting him,” said Greg Smith, whose children Ethan and Paige, bonded quickly with Olah. “We had a family meeting, and as we talked through everything, we decided to do it and the rest is history.”
Smith said getting Olah’s family to Evanston was a priority since he first signed to play for the Wildcats. He acknowledged after the game he still couldn’t truly believe it finally happened, but said being able to experience Sunday’s celebration with Lucian, Adriana, and Sebastian, was an incredible moment that he would never forget.
“I love them so much,” said Olah about his host family. “I can’t even count how much they helped me during my time here.”
The six-year journey nearing its end, Smith said it was bittersweet knowing Olah’s career was coming to a close. He also said the entire Olah family will be part of his family forever, before pausing to smile and say that Sunday was one of those purely “touching moments” in life.
“Everything’s been an absolutely unforgettable experience,” Smith said. “People ask if we’d ever have another exchange student, and I don’t know that I would. Our expectations would never be matched after having Alex and his family.”