Oliver inspiring at SJU

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St. John's senior John Oliver was born without his left hand, but not without athletic talent, a love for basketball and a magnetic personality.
Photo by Alexus Jungles, St. John's athletics


They say high-ankle sprains are the most difficult of ankle sprains to overcome.

St. John’s has been down a senior starter to begin the 2017-18 season because of one.

“Something I’ve been battling, been about three weeks,” John Oliver said. “Now I’m just ready to get back out on the court.”

If you know John Oliver, you’re betting this high-ankle sprain – however painful – won’t keep him out long.

“I just suited up this past weekend,” he confirmed in an interview last week.

Oliver made it this far with one hand. His senior season won’t be derailed by a sprained ankle.

* * *

Of course John Oliver was going to play basketball. It was the game of choice for his cousins and siblings when they were all together at his grandmother’s house. At a young age Oliver, a twin who was born without his left hand, joined in.

“Whether it was my parents, my sister, my cousins, my friends, nobody really treated me like I had a disability,” Oliver said. “I was never in that mindset growing up. When it came to sports, or even little things like tying my shoes, I knew one way and I just made that way work.”

But surely there was bullying along the way, right?

“Of course not,” said Oliver, who has definitely been asked this question before. “People liked me too much.”

He could only remember one incident on the school bus in second grade. Otherwise, it was a typical life growing up in Chicago. That meant basketball played a big part.

“I really just go through life as normal as possible,” Oliver said.

One eighth-grade basketball game in Chicago was anything but normal.

Oliver’s team was losing big. He had a fastbreak. Just him and the basket. And he had a thought.

“Might as well.”

The eighth-grade Oliver rose up and attacked the rim. He slammed the ball through the hoop, landed, grabbed the ball and chucked it to the fans.

“Should have got a tech,” said Oliver, laughing as he tells the story.

Maybe the officials wanted to let a junior-high kid live up this moment. Maybe they were too shocked to do anything.

Eighth grade. In-game dunk. Clearly, this kid didn’t need two hands to be a high-level basketball player.

“I most definitely have people who try to set limits on my talent and what they expect,” Oliver said. “I take it as a challenge and take head on and so far, it’s been rewarding.”

* * *

At 5-foot-10, Phoenix Suns point guard Tyler Ulis is one of the shortest players in the NBA. Size has never hindered him.

Ulis was a 4-star recruit at Marian Catholic in Chicago Heights, Ill. He played two years at Kentucky and was drafted 34th overall by the Suns.

His best friend at Marian Catholic? John Oliver. It was fitting. Two players putting physical obstacles aside to exceed at a game they loved.

“If he’s accomplishing this,” Oliver said of his friend, “I still can accomplish a lot more things.”

Ulis and Oliver helped Marion Catholic reach the final eight of the state playoffs their senior years, then both had a change of scenery.

“I just wanted something a little different from Chicago,” Oliver said, “and what different can I get than central Minnesota?

“I just loved the environment, the people and the program, especially. I haven’t regretted my decision in the past four years.”

* * *

A few years back, the St. John’s admissions department allocated money to help the men’s basketball program tap into the Chicagoland area.

Head coach Pat McKenzie was a St. John’s assistant at the time. He reached out to Catholic high schools in Chicago. Then he met John Oliver.

“Certainly, you were intrigued,” McKenzie said. “Anybody that kind of follows basketball, it’s a pretty neat story. You just thought, how does he do it?

“Then you watch him play and you see, boy, he does a lot of things well and at times you just forget that he’s only doing it with one hand.”

It was obvious to McKenzie that Oliver could not only play at the collegiate level, but contribute to a winning program like St. John’s.

“Right away,” McKenzie said. “When you meet him, I think you’d have an appreciation for that energy, that magenticism he has in his personality. I think people are just drawn to him. When you watched him play, you just knew he was a guy that you wanted.”

He played in 15 combined games his first two years in Collegeville, then emerged as a starter last season – McKenzie’s second as head coach – for a team that went 19-9. Oliver averaged 2.9 points and 3.0 rebounds in 15.5 minutes per game. His main role is on defense, where he routinely draws the toughest assignment of the night.

“I think growing up in that Chicago league and playing against some of the best players, really the main thing back home is not getting embarrassed out on the court. In order not to get embarrassed, you’ve got to guard somebody,” Oliver said. “I just take that aspect as a big priority when I step out on the court. If I can do anything possible to not let the other team score, and give us an advantage that way, I’ll do it.”

Other coaches in the MIAC have taken notice.

“The first time we saw him on film, immediately your mind just goes to a place of tremendous respect,” said John Tauer, the head coach at rival St. Thomas. “Because you can only imagine the obstacles he's overcome along the way. The more and more you watch him, I think the greater the appreciation you have for all the little things that he does.”

* * *

Oliver drew attention on the AAU circuit in Chicago, but mostly for his play.

In fact, he said, it was after the games, when people would talk to him about his play or congratulate him a win, that many noticed he was missing a hand.

By now, it’s not a secret in Minnesota. Oliver is another athlete who’s in Division III for the love of the game. That’s how he wants it.

“Probably in high school, (my opponents would) probably see this guy they’re competing against and say, ‘Oh we have a night off.’” Oliver said.

Then they’d get the ball. And Oliver wouldn’t let them move.

“I sense that none of my competitors since then have said the same thing since,” Oliver said. “I love to compete. I give 110 percent when I go out there, especially for my team.”

Carve out some time to watch Oliver play this year – whether in person or online. Appreciate how far he’s come. Cherish another unique Division III story.

After a few trips up and down the court, you’ll forget anything is different.

Well, you may notice No. 11 wince every now and then. He’s working his way back from a high-ankle sprain.

“This is not a charity case,” McKenzie said. “This is a kid that’s helping us win games.”

Column continues below

Neil Eichten and Bethany Lutheran picked up a big road win against UMAC preseason favorite St. Scholastica last weekend.
File photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com

Four takeaways from the start of conference play

1. Don’t forget about Carleton

My top regret from my superlatives column is leaving out the Carleton men.

This week, I’m here to tell you to stop overlooking the Knights.

Wins over Hamline, St. Mary’s (Minn.), Macalester and Augsburg give Carleton (6-1) a 4-0 start in the MIAC and a 17-game conference winning streak. Carleton started 1-6 in the league last year before reeling off 13 consecutive conference wins.

Leading scorers Kevin Grow (6-8 forward) and Kent Hanson (6-5 forward) returned and are off to hot starts this year. Hanson scored a career-high 29 points against Hamline and Macalester, while Grow pitched in 29 plus 12 rebounds in a 72-69 loss to No. 10 UW-River Falls. Freshman Matthew Stritzel is making an immediate impact, averaging 15.5 points and shooting 44.7 percent from 3-point range.

2. Bethany Lutheran takes early UMAC advantage

The UMAC gave us a December meeting between the teams picked No. 1 and 2 in the preseason poll, and Bethany Lutheran made an early statement with a win at the conference favorite.

The Vikings led St. Scholastica 26-8 before the Saints (3-5, 1-1 UMAC) rallied late. Collin Anderson’s buzzer-beating 3 didn’t fall and Bethany Lutheran (4-5, 3-0) came away with a 65-62 victory.

Neil Eichten led the way on a cold-shooting night for both teams with 15 points and six assists.

Elsewhere in the UMAC, it could be a down year for a young Northwestern (2-5, 1-1) team. Meanwhile, Minnesota-Morris started 2-0 in conference play after losing its first seven games.

3. On a roll

You expected the top-ranked Whitman men to be undefeated at this point. Same with the No. 4 Wartburg women, and a host of others.

And while you may have favored a few more teams to be unscathed in mid-December, a few teams are clicking like few in their programs’ recent history.

Despite losing starting point guard Nate Schimonitz until January with a torn meniscus, defending Iowa Conference champion Nebraska Wesleyan is 8-0, its best start since the 1997-98 team won its first 23 games.

The Pacific men are 8-0 for the first time since 1971-72, when the Boxers started 11-0.

And while UC-Santa Cruz has lost four games, the Banana Slugs (6-4) are above .500 through 10 games for the first time ever.

5. Pushing the pace

Grinnell isn’t too far from the West Region, and now a few West Region teams are giving us a Grinnell flavor.

Puget Sound unveiled something resembling the system to begin the season and is scoring 101.6 points per game, sixth in the country. While the Loggers’ system may have its quirks under 11th-year head coach Justin Lunt, anyone who has watched Grinnell will recognize it. They’re subbing five guys at a time, pressing relentlessly and making 15 3-pointers a game.

That gave us a fascinating matchup – and a near upset – Dec. 2 when top-ranked Whitman and its high-pressure system visited Tacoma, Wash.

Both teams wanted to force turnovers and push the pace, but with slightly different philosophies – UPS still launching 3s (they were 17 of 44) and the Blues looking for easier buckets.

The teams combined for 48 turnovers and 50 fouls and Whitman trailed at halftime (51-50) for the first time all season. Puget Sound was up 108-106 with 57 seconds to go, but Tim Howell made two free throws, Austin Butler blocked a shot and Darne Duckett hit the go-ahead free throws with 13 seconds left. Jimmy Wohrer missed a go-ahead 3 with 3 seconds left and Nate Vieira’s potential game-tying 3 at the buzzer didn’t fall.

Meanwhile, Macalester abruptly reversed course after a 1-4 start, unveiling a similar game plan in losses last week to St. John’s (114-96) and Carleton (101-76), two of the MIAC’s best teams.

The Scots don’t play again until Dec. 29 at Loras, plenty of time to refine the system … or scrap it and try something else.

As a Grinnell native, I love it. Some will say it gives the appearance that Division III basketball is a quirk. But I talked to a handful of people at an extremely loud Small Multi-Sports Center in Mount Vernon, Iowa, last week who were there to see Grinnell in action against Cornell. It was a terrific game. It’s absolutely not for everyone, but if the system spreads and gets more people interested in Division III basketbal, I’m all for it.

Nathan Ford

Nathan Ford is the digital sports editor at The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He graduated from Wartburg College in 2015, where he covered Wartburg and Iowa Conference athletics in print and broadcast for four years. He began contributing to D3football.com in 2013.