For 36 years at Boys’ Latin, Bob Shriver never had a losing season and helped groom future stars. But there was the time he cut one of the greatest lacrosse players ever from the team.

Even for a sophomore, the kid was small. He had great skills — everyone could see that — but because of transfer rules he had been forced to sit out the previous season. Shriver ruled that the kid would get a lot more playing time on JV and develop faster, as opposed to coming off the bench on varsity.

The kid was frustrated by Shriver’s decision initially, but the boy’s father was calm and trusting.

“He said, ‘Coach, whatever you think is in my son’s best interest,’” Shriver recounted to me recently. “Can you imagine that today?”

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The only thing that didn’t go according to plan that year was the Lakers lost the varsity championship game by a goal. But they would win the next year, because Pat Spencer would help lead them there.

The rest is history. Spencer became a star at Boys’ Latin, then a star at Loyola, where he won the 2019 Tewaaraton Award for the best player in college lacrosse. He still holds the record for most career assists (231).

Shriver is off the hook — don’t expect any Michael Jordan-style Hall of Fame induction rants about the coach who cut him, because Spencer sees now, “it came from a good place — I think that’s why I’m so resilient.”

And Spencer has needed resilience in droves on his latest journey.

Last week, you might have blinked and missed it. In the closing minutes of a loss to the Denver Nuggets, with 1:45 left, Golden State coach Steve Kerr emptied the bench. And, five years after he was the best player in college lacrosse, Pat Spencer made his NBA debut.

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Shriver was watching, gleefully losing his mind. He knows firsthand never to underestimate Spencer’s determination. But even so.

“To see him step on an NBA court, wow,” Shriver said, with a giddy cackle. “You can’t make this shit up.”

Unflinching competitiveness

You might have heard about Spencer, a story covered by ESPN and the Wall Street Journal and many other outlets at various junctures, and it’s understandable. For the best lacrosse player in the game to put down his stick and pick up a basketball feels counter to almost every bit of our cultural programming — especially today in youth sports, where kids (and their parents) are encouraged to specialize earlier and earlier.

In a recent phone call, the thing Spencer wanted me to understand is that these moments that feel like achievements in and of themselves — playing hoops at Northwestern, playing professionally in Germany, getting to the G League and even his NBA debut — are just steppingstones in his grand vision: becoming an everyday NBA player.

“It’s just another step in the right direction,” he said. “I have much bigger goals than just checking in at the end of the game.”

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Spencer was recently signed to a two-way contract, meaning he splits his time between Golden State and Santa Cruz. It’s a step up that Spencer was waiting for, but it also means a lot of back-and-forth shuttling, more glamorous in theory than practice.

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Spencer got this far not because basketball was a pivot but because it was a flame burning the whole time. In a way, lacrosse was the diversion — even if he happened to be exceptional with a stick in his hand.

His coaches, Shriver at Boys’ Latin and Charley Toomey at Loyola, understood that they were borrowing Spencer from the hardwood. Between lacrosse games and practices, he was playing hoops, squeezing it in during his free time. Before a Boys’ Latin playoff game one year, Spencer was playing pickup and fell on his back.

Shriver panicked: “We were thinking we were gonna have to call an ambulance.” But Spencer gutted through the game after his fall.

In college, as his Greyhounds teammates stuck to their offseason training regimens, Spencer stayed in shape through pickup games at Under Armour House, thriving against local competition and occasionally getting in against Rudy Gay, Carmelo Anthony or Sam Cassell.

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But no opponent can get Spencer riled up more than his brother Cameron, who plays basketball at UConn.

“We always joke that we’re each other’s biggest fans,” he said, “but we’re ready to kill each other when we play.”

The best way to understand the competitive mindset of the Spencer family is through golf. Patriarch Bruce Spencer is waiting for his youngest, Will, to pick up the game, but playing against Pat and Cameron is already a handful because they can drive the ball much farther than he can now.

“I can still get the ball in the hole, though,” Bruce told me. “I won’t take any strokes from them. They think it’s an ego thing.”

A few days later, I asked Pat about the golf games and his father’s handicap. He corrects the record. “We won’t give him any strokes.”

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But the family support system is just as meaningful as the competitive streak. After his Northwestern stint ended, Spencer’s career prospects were stalled by the COVID-19 pandemic. He decided to fix his jump shot, which was unreliable throughout his college season. It was the Spencer boys, working night after night in a private gym, Bruce doing a lot of the rebounding.

“A lot of people check out when something gets in the way of their goals,” Bruce Spencer said. “The boys just go after them.”

Spencer has shot 37.3% from the 3-point line in the G League after struggling as a shooter during a season at Northwestern. (Santa Cruz Warriors)

Over the hurdles

Spencer thought his breakthrough was coming in 2022, when he was one of the stronger competitors in training camp. He can do a bit of everything. As on the lacrosse field, he has good passing vision. Spencer straightened out his shot and has become a 37.3% career 3-point shooter in the G League. And he can dunk — teammate Stephen Curry’s reaction to Spencer’s preseason dunk that year was a bit of a viral moment for the former lacrosse star.

But Spencer was unexpectedly reintroduced to a familiar feeling: He was cut. Kerr regretfully told him he wouldn’t make the NBA roster or a two-way spot to start the season.

“I was hot,” Spencer admitted. “I thought I had outplayed some guys who had made it.”

But Kerr encouraged Spencer to stick with it. Though Golden State is best known for its superstars who have played together for more than a decade, it also has produced quality role players from Santa Cruz, including Gary Payton II, Juan Toscano-Anderson and Damion Lee.

Spencer had to deal with another issue last season: getting hurt. He played through a hip injury that he believes restricted his play, then was undercut on a dunk attempt and landed hard on his wrist. He had hip and wrist surgeries in the offseason — a tough hurdle for someone who had never had an injury he felt he couldn’t play through.

Although Spencer plays down the importance of the two-way deal, there aren’t many NBA teams using those spots on 27-year-olds. The Warriors have supported him through the hurdles, and the organization has several coaches who have similarly worked their way out of Santa Cruz. He sees the pipeline in place and feels he’s advancing.

“I knew, if I worked hard, they would give me that opportunity,” Spencer said. “You see why they win. It’s a cool thing to be a part of. You see the confidence growing.”

SAITAMA, JAPAN - OCTOBER 02: Pat Spencer #61 of the Golden State Warriors contests for a rebound against Isaiah Todd #14 of the Washington Wizards during the Washington Wizards v Golden State Warriors - NBA Japan Games at Saitama Super Arena on October 02, 2022 in Saitama, Japan.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.    (Photo by Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images)
Playing for Golden State in 2022, Spencer contests for a rebound against Isaiah Todd of the Washington Wizards during an exhibition game in Japan. (Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images)

Still giving back

It has been years since Spencer picked up a lacrosse stick, he says. But that doesn’t mean he’s done impacting the game.

When he played at Loyola, Toomey quickly learned the easy way to get Spencer to buy in was to make a drill into a competition — make the losers sprint. Spencer didn’t love rote drills, but he did love winning. To this day, Toomey said, his practices are more competitive because of Spencer’s impact.

Spencer has visited Boys’ Latin and Loyola over the years, as recently as the All-Star break last month when he went to a dinner at Sabatino’s before the Greyhounds played Johns Hopkins. He stays in touch with Paul Rabil, the crusader who is pushing to make pro lacrosse into a larger, more sustainable enterprise.

In a way, what Spencer is doing is a huge PR boost for lacrosse. Around the same time he was breaking into the G League, former Maryland star Jared Bernhardt had made it to the NFL as an undrafted receiver. Having two of the top lacrosse players in two other sports leagues made a statement about the athleticism in the traditionally East Coast-based sport. Spencer hopes that people like himself can help liberate lacrosse from the “lax bro” stereotype and culture that make the game less inclusive.

“I want to make sure I’m a part of getting the sport trending in the right direction,” he said. “Hopefully, the lacrosse community feels like I’m putting the game on the map.”

Spencer has a limited window to make the most of his basketball career, but it’s clear he’d be welcome if he decided to come back to lacrosse. Toomey would never be so bold as to ask him to stop playing basketball, but if he ever wants to play for the U.S. men’s national team, he’s welcome to try out. “I think he’d be a shoo-in,” said Toomey, an assistant for the program. One figures Rabil would also welcome Spencer to the Premier Lacrosse League if he decided to hang up on hoops.

For Spencer, it’s not something he can think about yet.

“I’m still chasing,” he said. “I’m just locked into what I’m doing now.”