Lacrosse legend chasing NBA dream with Wizards' affiliate originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
Trace Pat Spencer's basketball journey from The Boys' Latin School of Maryland to the Wizards' practice facility where he is now at training camp with the Capital City Go-Go and you will notice a four-year gap that simply does not compute. Here he is, now part of an NBA organization. Yet, from 2016 to 2019, he didn't play organized basketball.
Okay, so what happened in between?
Well, Spencer wasn't rehabbing an injury, or studying abroad. He was busy becoming one of the greatest lacrosse players in the history of the sport.
Some would say he is the greatest. Spencer left Loyola University in Baltimore as the NCAA all-time leader in assists and second in points. He was a first-team All-American and won the Tewaaraton Award for national player of the year. He was the No. 1 pick in the Premier Lacrosse League draft.
He's a G.O.A.T. at one thing, but now he's got his sights set on another. A local kid, he mastered a sport that is perhaps more popular in the Mid-Atlantic region than anywhere else. And after accomplishing that, he hopes to make the local NBA team.
"I'll be pretty blunt, my goal is the NBA. My main focus is basketball," Spencer told NBC Sports Washington. "Lacrosse is unfortunately out of the picture. It's important for me to give everything I have. Basketball is my first love and I'm a believer that if you have a passion for something, you've gotta pursue it."
Whether reaching the NBA sounds farfetched or not, he keeps clearing hurdles along the way. Spencer earned a spot in Go-Go training camp by competing in an open tryout held by the Wizards organization in August. If he makes the Go-Go, he will be in the pipeline with a chance to work his way up to the best basketball league in the world.
Go-Go head coach Mike Williams happens to be a lacrosse fan, having attended games during his time locally both at Gonzaga College High School and the University of Maryland. The team had three roster spots to offer and Spencer made a compelling case.
"Pat's intensity and his effort is at an extremely high level," Williams said. "He fits what we're trying to do."
Spencer's path to this point goes back to his high school days when a sudden growth spurt helped him make the jump from junior varsity to varsity in both sports. His basketball coach at Boys' Latin, Cliff Rees, remembers Spencer as a fierce competitor, even as a freshman when he was only 5-foot-4.
By his senior year, he was "unstoppable," Rees said. Rees had to keep telling Division I college coaches in town to scout other players, that he was off-limits.
"They were like what's the deal with this kid? I said well, he's the best lacrosse player in the country," Rees said.
Rees knew there was something special about Spencer as a basketball player, too, in part because of his understanding of the game.
"There were times where I would call timeout and say 'alright Pat, what do you think, what are you seeing, what do we want to do now?'" Rees said.
Spencer would have played both basketball and lacrosse at Loyola if the schedule allowed. But the lacrosse team played its biggest non-conference games in February against teams like Johns Hopkins and Virginia. It just wasn't feasible.
So, Spencer went all-in on lacrosse and became the most successful student-athlete in the history of the school. Loyola lacrosse head coach Charley Toomey has both played and coached in national championship games. He also coaches for the U.S. national team, and Spencer is as good as anyone he's ever come across.
"I've seen some of the best and there's no question Pat Spencer is in the conversation among the best to ever play the game," Toomey said.
Toomey said after Spencer's first practice as a freshman, he had upperclassmen coming up to him saying how special he would be. Before his very first collegiate game, Toomey approached Spencer in the locker room with an objective:
"'Go take this game over.' What coach looks at a freshman and says 'go take over a game?'"
Throughout Spencer's four years at the program, his competitiveness became the stuff of legend. Toomey recalls taking the team on a trip to Portugal following Spencer's senior year. They all got surf lessons and in doing so finally found something Spencer wasn't great at, at least at first.
After most of the team had figured out how to get on the board, Spencer wouldn't let it go. According to Toomey, the bus had to wait for him to accomplish the feat.
"That's Pat," Toomey said. "He just wasn't going to let nature beat him in that moment."
The entire time he was at Loyola, he never fully gave up on basketball, spending his entire offseasons playing pick-up and rarely playing lacrosse. Spencer would play against top competition across the area. He got into games with NBA players like Carmelo Anthony and Josh Selby in Baltimore. In D.C., he ran with Jerami Grant, Jalen Smith and Luka Garza.
During lacrosse season, he had to lay low. He would train with Loyola's intramural basketball team, which practiced two nights a week.
"I never told anybody just because I didn't want to cause any problems with the [lacrosse] team, but, yeah, the intramural team would let me come play with them," Spencer said.
About midway through his career at Loyola, Spencer decided he wanted to pursue one year of eligibility to play basketball as a graduate student. He got linked up with Jimmy Patsos, the former head basketball coach at Loyola who was on Gary Williams' staff at Maryland when that program won the national championship in 2002.
Patsos is well-connected locally and around the basketball world. After meeting Spencer and his parents, he went to see him play lacrosse. He was blown away at how he moved. It reminded him of the time he saw NHL legend Wayne Gretzky play in person.
Patsos was able to see enough of Spencer play basketball to realize he had a chance. So, he started making calls.
"I said 'you've got a year to convince somebody,'" Patsos said.
There was one thing. Spencer wasn't interested in mid-major programs, telling Patsos he only wanted to play at the highest level, meaning a Power 5 conference or the Big East.
Patsos was able to garner some interest from teams like Maryland, Cincinnati and Seton Hall, but he thought the best fit was with Chris Collins at Northwestern. Collins and Patsos go way back to when Collins was an assistant at Duke and Patsos coached at Maryland during the heyday of their rivalry. There was trust, but not enough to make it an easy sell.
"My initial reaction was 'call me when you have a real player for me.' But he was persistent, man," Collins told NBC Sports Washington over the phone.
Spencer and his father, Bruce, flew out to Northwestern and helped convince Collins to give him the last remaining scholarship. It was a risk, Collins says, but one he's glad he took.
"He's maybe the greatest of all-time in a sport. When you have that level of greatness... there's some qualities that really stand out," Collins said.
"I've been lucky in my life to be around the Michael Jordans and Kobe Bryants and some of those guys. I'm not saying Pat is that level of a player, but he was in his sport. He was Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant in lacrosse. There's a greatness that he is used to having."
Collins helped Spencer understand the similarities between the two sports. When he was an assistant at Duke under head coach Mike Krzyzewski, Duke's lacrosse coaches would attend basketball practice to share notes on inbound plays. In lacrosse, you can play behind the net. The angles and strategies are similar to baseline inbound plays in basketball.
Spencer said there are other parallels like spacing and utilizing picks. One of the main differences is basketball is a vertical sport, though Spencer doesn't have a problem there. Watch one of his games and you're likely to see him throw down a dunk, even an alley-oop despite being a 6-foot-3 guard.
"You can't overstate enough how physically imposing he is as a point guard. He's really strong and really explosive," Collins said. "He's definitely a pro-level athlete. I would never bet against that guy."
Spencer made his pro debut earlier this year in Germany before returning to the U.S. to take a shot at the NBA. Now, he has his chance.
Before he can get there, he hopes to play for the Go-Go this season with his family, including all four of his grandparents, attending games in Southeast Washington.
There have been other two-sport athletes who had to make a choice. Kyler Murray, Pat Connaughton and Charlie Ward come to mind. But all of them were well-known for the sports they chose.
For Spencer, there was also a very big difference in the earning potential. Still, he is trying to chart a new path and, if he makes it, his story will be one of a kind.
"I realized that my journey is going to be quite different than most people's journey," Spencer said. "But it's something that I pride myself on, kind of being that underdog."