- After four years as an All-American lacrosse star, can Pat Spencer successfully make the jump to college basketball? He'll get his chance with Northwestern this winter.
In a late 2018 meeting with his star player, Loyola (Md.) men’s lacrosse coach Charley Toomey heard the two words no college coach wants to think about: transfer portal.
Of course, Pat Spencer had no intentions of leaving Baltimore at that point. The senior was already gearing up for yet another first-team All-American season, a campaign that would end with him receiving the Tewaaraton Award as the nation’s top lacrosse player.
Basketball, however, was also on Spencer’s mind.
“After my freshman year of college I knew I wanted to play basketball, but I had a pretty good year—we went to the Final Four, so it would’ve been way too weird to step away at that time,” Spencer told SI. “I loved the situation I was in at Loyola, but unfortunately, basketball and lacrosse overlapped too much, and it wouldn’t have been possible to play them both. I knew after that year I was going to play basketball again, just obviously wasn’t sure where down the line.”
Spencer will now get that chance as he joins a rebuilding Northwestern hoops program as a grad transfer. Although Chris Collins famously helped the Wildcats make their first-ever NCAA tournament in 2017, they have gone just 28–36 in the two seasons since.
Because Spencer completed his undergraduate degree in four years and did not redshirt, he retained the ability to play one year as a graduate transfer in a different sport. And while he hasn’t played competitive basketball beyond a few summer leagues since his high school days, the hope is that Spencer will serve as a veteran leader for a roster that is set to feature 11 underclassmen—regardless of what he can ultimately contribute on the court.
“Pat is an accomplished athlete, who exudes toughness and a drive to be great,” Collins said in a release announcing Spencer’s signing. “He knows what it takes to compete and to win at the highest level.”
At Loyola, Spencer did a whole lot more than winning. He set records, becoming the NCAA’s all-time leader in assists with 231 and moving into second on the career points list (Albany’s Lyle Thompson still remains at the top with a whopping 400). He made history as the first Greyhound to ever be named an All-American each of his four seasons and is just one of six players to be a three-time Tewaaraton Award finalist.
And Spencer helped Loyola sustain excellence, as the program made four straight NCAA tournament appearances for the first time since a run of 14 consecutive trips came to an end in 2001.
“From Day 1, our seniors recognized that this kid has the chance to be really special,” Toomey said. “He not only showed that in practice, but he also put the time in in the film room and in the coaches’ room to learn both the players and the offenses. He really developed great chemistry with the players around him, so our challenge to him in his sophomore, junior, and senior years was to be more selfish and go to the goal.”
By the end of his run, no one had questions about what Spencer could do on the field. The Davidsonville, Md., native had gone from a guy that didn’t play varsity until his junior season of high school to one of the most prolific attackmen in NCAA history.
While that should ease the transition to the hardwood, it doesn’t mean that things will necessarily go smoothly. Greg Paulus, 2005 Gatorade Athlete of the Year, flopped in football after a solid four years as a point guard at Duke—in 12 games he threw more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (13) as Syracuse scuffled through a 4–8 season in 2009.
On the other hand, Chris Hogan parlayed a 29-goal season as a junior attackman for Penn State’s lacrosse team into a spot on Monmouth’s football team. While Hogan went undrafted in 2011, he eventually found a home with the New England Patriots, earning Super Bowl rings in 2017 and 2019.
It’s not that multisport athletes are uncommon. There just aren’t many that have taken a route like Spencer, returning to a sport after not playing it competitively since high school.
“It seems when you listen to him that playing hoops is his first love,” said an anonymous coach that recruited Spencer. “Getting into basketball conditioning will be his biggest hurdle.”
Once he gets on the hardwood, the 2015 Maryland high school basketball state champion hopes others will see his passion for hoops.
“I don’t think people understand that I can actually play basketball,” said Spencer, who was named to the Baltimore Sun’s All-Metro second team as a senior at The Boys' Latin School of Maryland. “People think I’m doing this as an athlete who had a pretty good lacrosse career, and people haven’t seen me play basketball, so they form their opinions on my basketball game without having any idea what I can do on the floor.”
Spencer thought about staying at Loyola, where he could’ve played alongside his brother, Cam, who will join the Greyhounds this upcoming season. But the program hasn’t won more than 11 games just once in the last six season and hasn’t been finished above .500 at any point in that span.
When it came time to make a choice on his home for the next 12 months, though, Spencer knew he wanted “the biggest platform” he could play on. Plus, it helped that he and Collins, who was known for his feisty streak as a player, hit it off.
“We’re both super, super competitive,” Spencer said of he and his new coach. “He knows what I’m capable of as a leader and as a player from lacrosse, but I was able to do a workout here and he was pretty happy with what he saw basketball-wise, too. As far as personality goes, we matched well, and then he had a vision for what I’m capable of in terms of helping this team”
As good an athlete as Spencer is, one would think he could figure out how to succeed in any sport. On a recent team trip to Portugal, though—Spencer’s final hurrah with Loyola—he met his kryptonite: surfing.
“We finally found something that Pat can’t do,” Toomey laughed. “He struggles in the water.”
But Spencer is confident that once his playing days are over, he’ll figure things out on the surfboard, too.
“I was doing it wrong the whole time, so that pissed me off when I found out afterwards,” Spencer said. “Don’t worry, I’ll find time in a summer here or there and I’ll try to master that eventually.”