October 4, 2022

Northwestern men’s basketball coach Chris Collins was skeptical when he first heard of a lacrosse player interested in major hoops.

It wasn’t just that Pat Spencer hadn’t played the sport competitively since high school. Just weeks earlier, he capped off one of the greatest careers in college lacrosse history by winning the Tewaaraton Award – lacrosse’s Heisman Trophy.

“I was like, ‘Why would he want to give this up? “”Collins remembers thinking back in the spring of 2019. “Being the best at something is a special thing. Most people aren’t ready to walk away from that.

Spencer — a 6-foot-3, 205-pound guard set to compete for a spot on the Golden State Warriors roster next month — isn’t like most people. Even though he broke lacrosse records at Loyola-Maryland, he snuck into intramural basketball games whenever he could, stayed up late to watch the NBA and is asked if he picked the right sport in high school.

Now at least Spencer won’t have to lose sleep at night wondering what would have happened if he had given the basketball a serious shot. After a graduate transfer season under Collins at Northwestern, a brief stint overseas and a stop in the G League, Spencer has a shot at becoming the first former college lacrosse player in modern history to play in a game. regular season NBA.

Although his summer league stats with the Wizards last month were modest, he possesses an intriguing mix of athletic ability, court vision and physicality. Then there’s the fact that 26-year-old Spencer has come this far despite crucial years of basketball development. By signing him to a 10-piece contract, the Warriors can see what he looks like when surrounded by Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green in training camp.

Chances are Spencer will land with Golden State’s G League affiliate in Santa Cruz next season. The Warriors have 13 players on guaranteed contracts, one shy of their preferred number going into Game 1. Andre Iguodala, who has yet to tell the team whether he will retire, could fill the latter spot. Even if he doesn’t, training camp guests Mac McClung and Trevion Williams are more likely to make the regular-season roster than Spencer.

But if Spencer has proven anything over the past six years, it’s that he tends to shatter outside expectations. When he signed up to Loyola-Maryland for lacrosse, he was a 5-8, 165-pound junior with just one other Division I scholarship. By the time Spencer left the Greyhounds, he was arguably the greatest lacrosse player of all time – a strong and agile forward who set the NCAA career high in assists (231) and ranked second all-time in points (380).

When Spencer decided to play basketball at Northwestern despite being selected No. 1 in the inaugural Premier Lacrosse League draft, some thought he was mistaken. His solid performances at summer pickup races in Maryland hardly suggested he was ready for the Big Ten. In fact, even Collins admits he had no idea what Spencer would offer the Wildcats.

But given Northwestern was poised to have a young roster, Collins knew he could do far worse than use his last purse on a proven winner desperate to build a new legacy.

Spencer was so passionate about the sport that he ate lunch in the Loyola-Maryland gymnasium so he could watch the basketball team practice. Every offseason, Greyhounds men’s lacrosse coach Charley Toomey knew his best player would forego lacrosse practices to play basketball every day.

“It didn’t bother me because he got back to form in the fall,” Toomey said. “Everyone knew he loved basketball. But when he was with us, he gave lacrosse his all. That’s all I could ask for.

Unbeknownst to his lacrosse coaches and teammates, Spencer decided halfway through his time at Loyola-Maryland that he would use his final year of eligibility as a basketball graduate transfer. His family was filled with hoops. And as an undersized guard at The Boys’ Latin School in Baltimore, Spencer had garnered some interest from Division I coaches in his senior year.

The problem? Spencer had previously signed with Loyola-Maryland for lacrosse. Although he toyed with the idea of ​​playing both sports for the Greyhounds, he figured it wouldn’t be fair on Toomey. The lacrosse team’s biggest non-conference games have overlapped with the basketball team’s season.

“I can’t really express what I love so much about basketball,” Spencer said. “It’s just a part of me, you know? It was always my first love, followed closely by lacrosse. But at the end of the day, I’m a loyal guy. I had to show Coach (Toomey) that loyalty.

To justify giving up all the opportunities that awaited him in professional lacrosse, Spencer needed to do more than just participate in a mid-major basketball program. His goal was uncompromising: get a scholarship to a high-major, then pursue an NBA contract.

But out of respect for his lacrosse team, Spencer didn’t visit other schools until the summer after his senior year. It only gave her a few weeks to find a new home. With help from former Loyola men’s basketball coach Jimmy Patsos, Spencer garnered interest from Maryland, Cincinnati and Seton Hall, among others, before settling on Northwestern.

By Spencer’s second week of practice, Collins knew he would be one of the Wildcats’ biggest contributors. Playing in his first organized league in four years, Spencer averaged 10.4 points, 3.9 assists and 4.1 rebounds in 29.4 minutes for a team that went 8-23 – Northwestern’s worst record in two decades.

The next two years were a blur of suitcases, trials and new cities. After just eight games in Germany’s top league, Spencer was invited to train for Wizards’ G League affiliate Capital City Go-Go, which gave him one of its last spots on the roster. and quickly slotted him into the rotation.

These days, he intends to follow Juan Toscano-Anderson and Gary Payton II as the G League’s final thinking to secure a guaranteed deal with the Warriors. That might seem like a bit of a stretch for someone who averaged 7.5 points for the Go-Go last season.

Again, Spencer is not like most people.

“I would never bet against him,” Collins said. “I just think he’s one of those guys where when he has something in mind he’s going to do whatever he can to make it happen.”

Connor Letourneau is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @Con_Chron