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Monday, December 17, 2018  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  NBA

Trail blazed: Washington State grad Brooke Olzendam found her calling on the hardwood. Now she’s living out her dream

UPDATED: Sat., May 12, 2018, 8:44 p.m.

PORTLAND – It may have been all the hours Brooke Olzendam spent trailing her father around the basketball gym in Medical Lake. Or the posters attached to the walls of her bedroom – David Robinson, Gary Payton and Clyde Drexler were never too far away when Olzendam tucked in to go to sleep. Or it could’ve been all those years hoisting jumpers on baskets around town, on the cool hardwood of Shadle Park High, or the toasty asphalt of Spokane’s world-famous 3-on-3 tournament.

No matter how it happened, Olzendam discovered her calling at a young age – and she discovered it in Spokane.

“As soon as I could literally hold a basketball,” she said, “I’m sure I was holding it.”

From the underbelly of Portland’s Moda Center, where she’s logged two years as a sideline reporter for the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers, Olzendam describes her affinity for the game, dishing out a major assist to the city that helped define it.

“Everywhere you looked, you’re watching Zags, you’re going to Hoopfest or I was going to my dad’s games,” she said. “Playing basketball, 24/7.”

Olzendam’s last name might ring familiar to Spokanites – not necessarily because there’s an overwhelming population of Blazer fans in the Inland Northwest, but because her father is an accomplished high school basketball coach who spent a significant portion of his 31-year career winning big time at Medical Lake.

Medical Lake boys basketball coach Dave Olzendam. (Shawn Jacobson)
Medical Lake boys basketball coach Dave Olzendam. (Shawn Jacobson)

Dave Olzendam, a Washington Interscholastic Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame inductee, compiled a record of 430-303 during stints with Medical Lake, Rochester, Coulee-Hartline and Interlake. Dave led two decades of greatness at Medical Lake, finishing runner-up in the 1995 state tournament before leaving the school with a 286-197 mark.

His hoops-starved daughter often took the backseat when the family made cross-state pilgrimages to the Tacoma Dome for the state tournament.

“The big dream for me was, dad would make the state tournament and I got to go to Tacoma, we got to stay at the La Quinta Inn and they had a pool,” Olzendam said. “And that was like the best thing in the world, better than Christmas.

“So basketball was life for me, that’s all I know.”

The details are fuzzy, but Dave Olzendam recalls one particular state play-in game.

“I forget who we were playing, but it was coming down to the bitter end,” he said, “the last 30 seconds and she actually went over to an auxiliary gym, got down on her hands and knees and prayed to God that we won so she could go to the state tournament.”

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Like so many in town, Olzendam and her parents grew up Gonzaga fanatics, but her mother, aunt and uncle had all obtained degrees from Washington State and it was the school 80 miles away that was responsible for Brook’s 101 into the world of broadcasting.

After suffering through a day or two of macroeconomics lectures, Olzendam switched paths and enrolled in communication classes. The Murrow School of Communication put her in front of a camera, behind a camera and gave her every opportunity in between.

She produced an SNL-style comedy show for WSU’s Cable 8 station. She gave weather reports. She broke hard news. She recapped a Cougar men’s basketball game.

Bingo.

“I was like, this is it. The second the light came on, I just felt energized,” she said. “This is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing, I love talking about sports. I love talking in general, I love telling stories, I love engaging people, entertaining people. It was just the perfect fit. That’s when I knew, OK this is exactly what I have to do and there’s no other option for me.”

Olzendam graduated from WSU with a communications degree in 2003 and broke into the industry shortly thereafter, getting an entry-level gig with Fox Sports Northwest in Seattle. She split her time waitressing at a hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant in Bellevue and logging tape for the TV station. After her shifts were over, she’d spend extra time in the lab creating personal reels to pad her resume.

Portland Trail Blazers sideline reporter Brooke Olzendam works a game earlier this season. (Brooke Olzendam / Courtesy)
Portland Trail Blazers sideline reporter Brooke Olzendam works a game earlier this season. (Brooke Olzendam / Courtesy)

“I would just shoot fake standups, put my reel together, go to the EP, say, ‘Tom, please look at this.’ And he’s got a million things to do, but he’s like OK,” Olzendam said. “So he’d look at it and go, you need to do this, you’re a little too stiff here, this doesn’t make sense. Blah, blah, blah. And so I’d write it down, go out, shoot 10 more standups with that advice.”

Olzendam’s on-camera debut came at a University of Washington volleyball game. She aced that test and earned more opportunities to work the sideline at Husky football and basketball games. Olzendam eventually became a lead anchor for the Huskies’ All-Access show and the jobs continued to get bigger and better.

After awhile, she relocated to Los Angeles when she was offered a chance to host Fox Sports’ “Runnin’ with the Pac” and simultaneously work the sideline at UCLA football games.

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Basketball is a game of momentum swings. Olzendam’s life wasn’t immune to them, either.

Her first meeting with Andy Collins was a chance encounter. A friend of hers was visiting in Southern California when the duo stumbled upon Collins and one of his friends at a Venice Beach establishment.

Olzendam and Collins clicked. He hailed from Zillah, Washington – a tiny suburb of Yakima she knew of because of her father’s pedigree as a small-school prep basketball coach.

Collins was a former University of Oregon quarterback who’d backed up his best friend, Kellen Clemens, before transferring to NCAA Division III Occidental College, where he still holds a handful of school passing records.

Olzendam and Collins married in Seattle in 2011 and moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where she’d accepted a job with CBSSports.com.

Her spouse of less than two weeks was running on a treadmill when he collapsed from a heart attack. Collins, an aspiring pro football player who’d led a healthy lifestyle, died at the age of 27, just 10 days after the wedding.

Shattered and devastated, Olzendam didn’t go through with the job in Florida, instead retreating to her mother’s house in Spokane. She buried herself in the dark, desolate basement for weeks at a time.

“I was laying there thinking, if I don’t get out of this bed I could literally never leave this house,” she said. “I was in such a dark place.”

The depression didn’t fully wear off and the scar of her husband’s death is everlasting, but reminded of Collins’ drive and go-getter mentality, Olzendam picked herself up and began browsing for her next opportunity.

In hindsight, she thinks she should’ve spent more time recovering close to family and friends, but Olzendam’s agent Bredes LaFemina found her a can’t-miss opportunity in Indianapolis. The Indiana Pacers needed a sideline reporter. Olzendam pounced.

“She’s the most amazing person I know,” Dave Olzendam said. “She’s been through a lot and to see her fight back and be so strong, it’s a blessing. She just keeps going and going and beats every challenge.”

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Olzendam now has more than five years of NBA experience under her belt and she’s become one of the game’s most vibrant sideline personalities. She complements that with a sharp understanding of the game and an innate sense of her interview subjects.

“She really can read people well, which is a whole other talent,” said Jeff Curtin, Olzendam’s boss and the Trail Blazers’ Director of Broadcasting. “It’s like being able to understand when a player’s in a bad mood or a coach doesn’t want to talk about this story. So she knows just from body language, being able to pick up on that is a huge trait that she has because it’s tough.”

Her interview subjects may not know it, but Olzendam conducts deep studies of each player on the roster – their personalities, their comfort level in front of a camera and how they’ll receive certain questions. Then she’ll adjust accordingly.

Portland Trail Blazers sideline reporter Brooke Olzendam chats with guard Damian Lillard. (Brooke Olzendam / Courtesy)
Portland Trail Blazers sideline reporter Brooke Olzendam chats with guard Damian Lillard. (Brooke Olzendam / Courtesy)

“Lance Stephenson (of the Pacers) is a character, right?” Olzendam said. “And so at first, I realized that quickly and so what worked with me for him is when I got him for a postgame interview, I’d quickly tell him a few things I was going to ask beforehand. Because that worked for him, he didn’t worry, he didn’t stress and so he knew it was coming.”

Portland was one of a few NBA clubs without a sideline reporter two years ago when Olzendam made her pitch. The Blazers had become playoff regulars behind one of the league’s most entertaining – and likeable – backcourt tandems and the fan base grew with them.

“It was really one of the part of the broadcasts we were lacking was that extra storytelling,” Curtin said. “The play-by-play and the analysts really cover the game, but it’s that other part of, inside the huddle kind of stuff and off the ball stuff.”

Olzendam, who’d already moved to Portland to work for CSN Northwest – which has since rebranded itself as NBCS Northwest – pushed for Curtin and his team to add the position. It didn’t hurt the sales pitch that she’d be the one filling it.

“Right time, right place for all of us,” Curtin said.

“Truly when I say dream job, I’m not just blowing smoke,” Olzendam said. “It truly is.”

Olzendam attends every home game, shootaround and media availability, and she travels with the team on the road – a task that may be more grueling had her first year in Indiana not coincided with the 2011 NBA lockout, which occasionally forced teams to gut out three games in as many nights.

The Pacers had more of those back-to-back-to-backs than anyone else in the league.

“It was like a quick hello, a nice welcome to the NBA travel schedule because it was insane,” she said. “But you get used to it, it’s just your way of life.”

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Portland Trail Blazer fans flip on the live broadcast expecting to see Lillard’s deep shooting, C.J. McCollum’s crafty ball-handling and Jusuf Nurkic’s savvy moves in the post.

Make no mistake, Dave and Alison Olzendam are basketball nuts, but when they turn on the television, they’re anticipating the throws to the sideline reporter and then waiting anxiously for the postgame interviews.

Brooke and her father bonded over basketball, but she also owes credit to her mother, a former Whitworth professor who “was a strong female in my life,” and taught her daughter the precious life lesson to finish everything you start.

“They’ve never missed a game,” Brooke said of her parents, who are now divorced and live on opposite sides of Washington – her mother in Spokane and her father in Bellevue.

“It’s a religion now,” Dave said. “I try not to miss any games.”

Commitment and dedication only befitting of the Olzendam name.


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