SJU student turns challenge into an inspiration

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January 3, 2018

By Dave DeLand

It’s 10:45 on a Tuesday morning, and a solitary figure is pounding a basketball into the hardwood at Jim & Adrienne Smith Court.

Sweat pours down his face as he practices low-post moves, over and over and over again.

He starts on the right block, dribbles twice and spins into the lane for a layup or short jump shot – always with his right hand.

John Oliver was born without the left one.

“In a way, it’s kind of like celebrating,” the Saint John’s University senior said with his omnipresent infectious grin. “You’re able to do so many things, and you don’t have that hand.”

“John Oliver has spent his life focusing on what he can do,” Johnnies head basketball coach Pat McKenzie '04 said, “and not worrying about what he can’t do.”

“He could make all the excuses in the world, and put that as a barrier between him and accomplishing his goals,” added Garrett Goetz '18, Oliver’s teammate and housemate. “But it’s never like that.

“He just steps up to the plate and gets after it – that’s with everything.”

And that’s both a reflection and an asset for Saint John’s, where four years ago an upbeat kid from the south side of Chicago infused his adopted surroundings with the relentless dedication needed to play college basketball with one hand.

“He just brings all of this positivity. It emanates from him,” said CSB/SJU communications instructor Dana Drazenovich, who relished Oliver’s contributions to her Introduction and Advanced Media Writing classes.

“If they were visible, you’d just see this huge shield of positive vibes hovering around him.”

That’s the essence of John Oliver – his demeanor, his persistence, his devotion to friends and dogged determination to let nothing stand in his way.

“He is a true ambassador of what Saint John’s represents,” Goetz said.

“I’ve looked at my situation as one I can’t change. I make the best of it,” Oliver said. “The energy and positivity that you give out – what your aura is – people will pick up on that.”

Making his mark

“With energy, you’re a fountain or you’re a drain. He’s a fountain – always.” Pat McKenzie

John during a game

You see snippets of that energy in facets of Saint John’s that have nothing to do with basketball.

  • There’s J.O. the vibrant, inspirational person.

“He stands out personality-wise with a two-second interaction,” McKenzie said. “I was trying to think of the word, and it’s ‘magnetic.’ He’s a remarkable kid.”

  • There’s J.O. the involved student.

SJU’s “Fired Up Friday” initiative was launched largely by students in Drazenovich’s Advanced Media Writing class during spring semester 2017, and Oliver was at the forefront of the project.

“He brought so much energy that he drew people like a magnet to see what was going on,” Drazenovich said.

“I was first to raise my hand in class for that one,” said Oliver, a communications major, “just to make connections with people and get them on board for the campaign.”

  • There’s J.O. the hyper-social Johnnie.

“We’d go to dining hall, and even by the end of first semester freshman year he knew everyone,” said teammate and housemate Brent Hentges '18. “You can’t go anywhere with him without getting stopped a million times.”

“The energy you put into things is the energy you expect to get back from it,” Oliver said. “I’m enjoying what I’m doing. Why not fully immerse yourself into it?”

Having one hand isn’t a deal-breaker for a college student.

It usually is for a basketball player. But J.O. is anything but usual.

Positive contributions

“You have to work a lot harder when you’re at a disadvantage. That’s what formed him as a player. Nobody ever outworks him.” Tyler Ulis

John and his roommates in their house

Oliver and twin sister Nia were born Feb. 12, 1996 in Chicago Heights, Ill. Because of the way they were situated in the womb, John’s left hand never developed.

“They were trying to put me in a prosthetic hand when I was a kid. I didn’t like it,” said Oliver, who learned to tie his shoes one-handed at age 5.

“To me, it was like a crutch. I didn’t want to be dependent on it.”

With the support of parents Renee and John Oliver and a cadre of similar-age male cousins, he grew up as simply one of the boys.

“They treated me as if nothing was different, whether it was wrestling around in the house or playing basketball in the back yard,” Oliver said. “Nobody treated me like I had a handicap or a disability.”

That carried over to Marian Catholic High School, where Oliver was a starter as a junior and senior on one of the top-ranked basketball teams in Illinois. That team featured future NBA point guard Tyler Ulis.

“We’re best friends,” said Ulis, who is in his second season with the Phoenix Suns. Oliver and Ulis communicate almost daily.

“When I passed the ball, I never really thought about his hand,” Ulis said. “I’d throw crazy behind-the-back passes, over-the-head passes. He never had trouble catching them, no matter where I put the ball.”

“You’d get surprised facial expressions (from opponents) when they’d see me in actual competition,” Oliver said. “You can hear young kids – ‘Look, he doesn’t have a hand.’ “

Oliver made up for it in myriad ways, tangible and otherwise.

“He’s always positive,” Ulis said. “That’s the type of energy he brought to the team – just being there for his teammates, no matter what was going on.

“He feels like that probably made him a better player, and a better person. It’s definitely inspiring.”

It also helped make Oliver a Johnnie.

Love at first sight

“The people that I’ve been able to connect with here really opened my mind to different ways of thinking.” John Oliver

JO takes a shot during a gameSaint John’s began recruiting the 6-foot-3 Oliver during his junior year at Marian Catholic, despite the obvious question.

“I thought, ‘Well, how does this work?’ ” McKenzie said. “But they were really good, and this kid starts on one of the best high school teams in Illinois.

“If the kid had two hands, we probably couldn’t get him.”

As it turned out, Saint John’s had Oliver from his initial campus visit.

“I think it was my first fly-in,” Oliver said. “Wow, this place is completely different. The people are different.

“I think I love it.”

From the very start, Saint John’s loved him right back.

“I said, ‘That kid’s going to run Saint John’s when he comes up here – he’s going to own the place,’ ” McKenzie said. “And he kinda does.”

Still, coming from Southside Chicago to Central Minnesota constituted a culture shock.

Basketball helped bridge that gap.

No limits

“What he lacks in having one hand he makes up for in every other aspect of the game. He knows that he has something to prove. He’s proven himself.” Brent Hentges

The tattoo on Oliver’s left shoulder is the four words that have become his mantra – “Set Your Own Limits.”

That sentiment resonates with his SJU basketball teammates, who are like family.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him have the mindset of ‘I can’t do this,’ ” Hentges said. “Everyone loves him.”

“I’ve loved the connections I’ve made here,” Oliver said. “I consider them my brothers now.”

Those brothers initially weren’t sure how to react to a one-handed teammate.

“Honestly, my first impression was ‘No way – this is unbelievable,’ ” Goetz said. “After playing with him so long, you don’t even think about it anymore.”

As a junior, Oliver started all 28 of the Johnnies’ games, averaging 2.9 points and 3.0 rebounds per game and shooting 59 percent from the field. He had the fewest turnovers of any SJU regular, was second on the team in blocked shots and is a tenacious defender.

“There’s great strength in understanding a weakness,” McKenzie said. “John plays to his strengths.

“He’s good on the offensive glass. He doesn’t turn it over. He’s going to be in the right place, pick up some garbage points, and he’s a great defender. It just fit with the group we had.”

A highlight in the Johnnies’ 19-9 season was a two-point overtime win at Hamline in which Oliver had 12 points, 9 rebounds and 6 offensive boards – all college career-bests.

A high ankle sprain delayed the start of Oliver’s senior season, and the addition of 6-8 Lucas Walford to the Johnnies’ roster changed his role.

Still, Oliver remains a focal point – at the center of every pre-game team huddle, vocal and energetic and supportive and willing to make any contribution possible.

“He definitely sets the standard for the team,” Goetz said. “It’s just leading by example. Everyone loves J.O.”

“I get it from (opposing) players, usually after games – ‘Hey, man, I love what you’re doing. I respect you for what you’ve accomplished,’ ” Oliver said.

He makes even bigger contributions elsewhere.

An inspiring plan

“J.O. is a guy who embodies the Benedictine values. I don’t think he adopted them when he came here – those things have been ingrained in him his entire life.”
Garrett Goetz

Oliver familyOliver got a call last summer from Marian Catholic basketball coach Mike Taylor, who wanted him to talk with a freshman who was missing a hand.

“The first name he mentioned when he got to high school was your name,” Taylor told Oliver. “He wants to be like John Oliver.

“When I heard that, it really hit home for me,” Oliver said. “That somebody can consider me an inspiration – I’d never experienced that before. Some people never get it.”

Oliver also partners with former SJU football player Antoine Taylor '17 in The Cause International, an apparel company that donates proceeds to charitable causes in the U.S. and South America.

“We’re trying to help as many people as possible,” Oliver said. “We want to continue to inspire through what we do.

“This doesn’t happen if I don’t come to Saint John’s University.”

Oliver’s postgraduate plans include continuing The Cause International and a career in marketing and public relations for a sports organization.

“To me, it’s like God has a plan for everybody,” he said. “I feel like my plan is unfolding just fine.”

It’s unfolding without limitations.

It’s been shaped by Saint John’s – and vice-versa.

“I can’t imagine meeting John Oliver and forgetting him,” Drazenovich said. “He’s the kind of guy who when he gets an opportunity, he absolutely makes as much out of it as he possibly can.”

“He’s shaped us – I really believe that,” McKenzie said. “Saint John’s is a little better because he’s here.

“I would never bet against that kid.”

Nobody should. There have been obstacles. There will be more.

John Oliver has never met one he couldn’t handle.

Photo information:

Photo 1: (Photo by Ali Jungles '18) John Oliver (center) and teammates (from left) Patrick Strom, Oakley Baker, Garrett Goetz and Brent Hentges celebrate during the closing minutes of the Johnnies’ victory over St. Olaf Dec. 9 at Warner Palaestra.

Photo 2: (Photo by Jen McNelly '20) Garrett Goetz (from left), John Oliver, Brent Hentges and Patrick Strom share a laugh during downtime at their rental house in St. Joseph.

Photo 3: (Photo by Ali Jungles '18) John Oliver started all 28 games for the 2016-17 Johnnies, shot 59 percent from the field and was second on the team in blocked shots and offensive rebounds.

Photo 4: John Oliver (from left), his mother Renee, sister Nia and father John share family time with their dog Rocky.