College Basketball

Loyola junior trades volleys for baskets

He had managed it all through high school, and his dad had played with a guy who'd done it at Maryland, so the idea wasn't completely alien to Robert Olson when Loyola coach Jimmy Patsos pitched it his freshman year:

Why not play basketball and tennis?

Olson, after all, had played more years of varsity tennis (four) than basketball (two) at Georgetown Prep. He'd also done all right against at least one Division I-level talent, splitting sets against the Greyhounds' No. 5 singles player a few months before. He wouldn't be Loyola's Roger Federer, Olson knew, but he wasn't an Interstate Athletic Conference runner-up in high school by accident.

As he mulled the offer, though, one thing became obvious to Olson: He'd rather shoot 3s on the court than chase deuces on another. As much as he loved hearing those stories from his father, John, about his playing days in the mid-1970s with John Lucas, the former Terps star who earned All-America honors in both basketball and tennis, there was still a ways to go before Olson could even think about all-MAAC honors in either.

Two years later, it's clear the sharpshooting junior did the right thing. Olson might not be playing tennis as much as he once did, but his sweet stroke could still make a racket in No. 15 seed Loyola's opening-round NCAA tournament game Thursday night against second-seeded Ohio State.

"He makes movements like a tennis guy," Patsos said of Olson, the Greyhounds' third-leading scorer this season (11.2 points per game). "He's quick and he's determined and when he's down 40-0, you'd say, 'Hey, [expletive] this. Hey, it's your serve.' Bobby's going to fight back for that. … He has this approach that's just like that. I can see it in him."

Despite his good bloodlines —his mother captained Georgetown's women's team during her own playing days —Olson didn't pick up tennis competitively until middle school. His parents, figuring they could offer whatever tennis tips he needed, never sent him to any lessons, so his serve turned out a little funky. His groundstrokes weren't the purest, either. But his nonstop motor and natural athletic gifts were good enough for Georgetown Prep's varsity team, which he made as a freshman.

On the hardwood, Olson wasn't so lucky. He didn't make the Little Hoyas' varsity team until his junior season. Worse, he didn't even make their junior varsity team until his sophomore season. An undersized guard with not much of a shot , Olson's brighter days seemed to lie in tennis.

Then, before his junior season, Olson, the 5-foot-10 point guard, grew to become Olson, the 6-foot-3 shooting guard. Before long, Patsos had seen the brand-new Olson, offered him a scholarship and secured a commitment.

"I really didn't have any other looks right then, and I was just like, 'Wow,'" said Olson, who later received heavy interest from Virginia and Northwestern.

Even though Olson last played tennis two years ago, his days on the hardcourt have a habit of showing up on the basketball court. He's reluctant to blame anyone but himself. He's always in motion. And his hunt for the upper hand is so relentless that as he chased down one loose ball in a January win against Iona, Patsos said, "you would've thought he was going to hit it between his legs."

"No matter what we're doing, he doesn't want to lose in anything," said Bryan McCarthy, a student manager for the Greyounds who's played —and lost to — Olson in tennis. "We could be playing a board game, we could be doing anything— he's not going to let me win in anything."

Olson said he plans to pick up tennis again once his career at Loyola ends. For now, he'll have to settle for the plaudits – third-team All-MAAC honors, a spot on the All-MAAC Tournament team – that come with his 3-point stroke, not his backhand.

"No one's seen me play tennis," Olson said, "but they know I can play."