Behind the scenes

BY ADAM ZUNDELL 

Mountaineer Illustrated

Every great team has one John Oliver. A guy who is actually behind the curtain on the stage of the basketball court, setting hard screens, gobbling up loose balls, not allowing easy baskets. While the fans may applaud what they see on the stage, the production would not go on without one John Oliver on the team.

With hands as soft as goose down, John Oliver made a great goalkeeper in soccer. With his size and aggressive nature, he was a hard hitting free safety and a sweet-catching tight end in football. So how in the world did he end up playing Division I basketball at WVU?

Soccer was Oliver’s first love. He played for nine years while growing up in a suburb of Syracuse, NY. Always the tallest kid in his class, with good hands, he was an Olympic Development Pool goalkeeper. As he got into high school, his passion for soccer waned. His assistant guidance counselor was also the head basketball coach at his school and convinced Oliver to try out, even though Oliver had never really played and did not have solid fundamentals. He made the junior varsity team and his love for basketball blossomed. All the other sports he played – soccer, baseball, football – did not quite capture Oliver the way basketball did. Even though he was recruited by some smaller schools in New York, he felt he could make it to the next level, Division I, if he had a little more work.

That belief led him to Maine Central Institute, a prep school known for producing Division I talent. While he was being recruited by several area prep schools, it was his unusual encounter with MCI head coach Max Goode that decided his basketball future.

“On my visit, Coach Goode, who is a hard, mean looking guy, sat me and my mom down and said ‘I want to be frank but I don’t want to be rude. John, I don’t know you and I don’t need you, but if you come here, I can make you 200 times better,” Oliver recalls. “That was really all I needed to hear. I knew that I would be a better basketball player if I went there, and that is what I wanted.”

Coach Goode turned out to be right. Oliver continued his growth in the fundamentals and was soon being recruited by many Division I schools in the East, something Oliver had always wanted.

“I grew up loving BIG EAST basketball so I really concentrated on the BIG EAST,” Oliver says. “Morgantown was the last place I visited, and I just fell in love with the people, the atmosphere, the Coliseum. I signed early and I have never regretted it.”

Fast-forward four years and here John Oliver is, on the brink of his final season in Morgantown. While the term “role player” is sometimes a dirty phrase, Oliver knows the value of his importance. He knows the Los Angeles Lakers would not have won NBA championships without players like Rick Fox and Derrick Fisher, nor would the Duke Blue Devils have rolled without players like Mike Dunleavy and Carlos Boozer, all players who were willing to set hard screens, dive for loose balls and rise to the task defensively. Every championship team in every sport has a player like that and Oliver hopes that he is that ingredient for the Mountaineers.

“I do what I can do to help us win and get minutes,” Oliver says. “If there is a loose ball, I’m going to dive on it. If I can take a charge, then I am going to do it. If I can foul and prevent an easy basket, then I am going to. My teammates know that if there is a spick to be set, I am going to set a solid pick that he’s going to get through. I’m going to box out and get rebounds and do the little things because it helps us win and it gets me playing time.”

Oliver has certainly been known to bang around down low and give his share of hard fouls, but it’s not as if he is a dirty player who’s trying to hurt someone. He is just playing the only way he knows – hard.

“I’m not going out to try and injure anybody because I know what these athletes go through – the running, the conditioning, the lifting – I go through that too,” Oliver says. “I’m a physical player and I’m aggressive: it’s the way I do anything. That’s how I’ve been brought up. My dad started his own construction business when he was 17 and he’s worked 25 hours a day, eight days a week since then.”

Oliver applies that workman-like approach to his workout regimen. He’s the player who always tries to win the suicides in practice and the one who owns the team’s fastest time in the mile run. While these things don’t translate to basketball per se, they are indicative of Oliver’s drive to be a success on the court.

“I need to be in the weight room every day and do extra things because I wasn’t born with natural basketball ability,” Oliver says. “I run on my own, I lift on my own, I shoot on my own because those are things that I can do to put me in front of somebody else.”

While Mountaineer fans will be “oohed” by the deep threes and awed by no-look passes this season, they know that if they want to have a championship season, they need John Oliver working behind the curtain.

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