In His Words: John Olinger - Creating Your Own Luck

I am honored to have John Olinger provide this weeks content. I have always looked up to John, both as a person and a basketball player. When I was in high school, watching him during his senior year motivated me not to give up; that the possibility of succeeding at basketball despite a lack of early success. Most importantly, his words are great lessons to everyone. You can check out more of John's writing at his blog, Like Me, Only Different. Thanks, John! +++

If you looked at my life now - the things I’ve gotten to experience with and because of basketball – you would assume I was always one of the best players on each team I played on growing up. You would assume the results are natural from being one of the best. You would assume it’s always been as easy as it looks in retrospect. And your assumptions would be wrong.

It’s been said nothing worthwhile comes easy, which is true of my journey. The things I’ve experienced with and because of basketball are worthwhile but they weren’t easy. And I don’t want you to think that I’m so great – I just tried to make the most of every opportunity, and some things worked out. I hope you’ll enjoy reading about my journey in basketball, and life.


In elementary school I liked basketball, but I spent much more of my time as a long distance runner. The combination of being a runner with my genes, led to me being a pretty scrawny kid. My mom had been deeply involved during my time running, but when she passed away after a bout with breast cancer, I turned my attention away from running and onto basketball. And though my attention turned, my body did not. I was still a scrawny kid as I started to play more and more basketball in middle school. I made the “A” teams in both my seventh and eighth grade years, but was the one of the last guys off the bench. I kept working on my game throughout the summers and off-seasons – knowing I had a lot to improve upon.

Lesson 1: Nothing substitutes for hard work and dedication

When it came time to try out for the freshman team at my high school, I was the last guy to make the team. At the end of my high school career, my coach said the only reason he kept me as a freshman was because I was a nice kid and I worked hard. Yet, my game was improving – I remember one of my freshman teammates remarking that my ball handling had really improved, and he wanted to know how. It was one portion of the previous summer’s workouts – twenty minutes of ball-handling drills every day. When our freshman season ended I continued to work hard on my ball-handling and other parts of my game, hoping to be a bigger contributor on the junior varsity (JV) team.

As JV tryouts ended my sophomore year I was no longer the last guy kept. A few guys from our team the previous year didn’t play which helped, but also my game had improved. I turned into the sixth-man on our team, being a regular contributor off the bench. Throughout the year I continued to work on my game and I thought it looked bright for me to join the varsity team the next year. As the school year ended we had a head coaching change on the varsity team, meaning it was a fresh start for everybody. I played well in the summer league games in front of the new coach, so it seemed to me that I must have impressed him and set myself up well for the upcoming season.

Lesson 2: There is only one outcome when you quit

Yet, as tryouts started during my junior year, the new coach asked me to spend most of my time playing JV. He said I could swing (meaning playing for the JV team and the varsity team), but that pretty much meant I wouldn’t play much varsity as a junior. It felt like a slap in the face. I had worked so hard, and frankly, I thought I was good enough to contribute. And if I wasn’t going to get to play as a junior, then I probably wouldn’t get to play as a senior. It seemed that basketball wasn’t going to work out for me, so I heavily considered quitting.

I can’t remember the exact reason I didn’t quit – maybe it was because I loved basketball, or I really hoped I would get my chance – it doesn’t matter the reason, all I know is that I kept working hard and did whatever I could to prove my level of play. In the end, I didn’t get much of a chance on the varsity team, only playing in one game that really mattered during my junior year. But if I would have quit, what happened next would have never been possible. If I had quit there was only one outcome – I would have no longer been a basketball player at my high school.

In the summer after my junior year, two guards from our program transferred schools. And this meant our coach had no set options at point guard.

Lesson 3: Luck is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity

If a guy says he wants to be a great basketball player but doesn’t actually prepare to be a great player, it is almost 100% certain he won’t be ready to be a great player when the opportunity comes. You don’t just wake up one day and become a great player – who you are as a player (and a person) is born over a series of moments leading up to an opportunity, not on a single occasion. The reality is that you can prepare for something your whole life, and the opportunity you are expecting may never come. (I do believe God uses all our experiences to prepare us for things, even when we don’t get to do what we want or think we are preparing for – but that is a longer discussion for another day.)

While preparation does not guarantee opportunity, what if your opportunity does come? That’s my story as the two other point guards on our roster transferred before my senior season. The coach threw me the keys to the team, and it turned into a magical year for me. Our team won the Valley League with me as the starting point guard. The season was capped with my selections to the Valley League 1 st- Team, as well as the 1st Team All-State Tournament. I ended up leading the State Tournament in scoring – even tallying more points than guys who went on to play short stints in the NBA.

Some people would say I was lucky. Others would say you make your own luck. Isn’t that life though? Sometimes you’re in the right place at the right time, and other times you aren’t. But when you are in the right place at the right time, your preparation is what will determine what happens. I didn’t magically become a better basketball player my senior year of high school – I had been preparing for several years for that opportunity. If I had quit there would have been no opportunity. And if I hadn’t worked hard, there would have been no luck.


After high school I went on to play a year at a Division 1 school (Portland State University), before a year at a JUCO and three years at a Division 3 school (Willamette University). I was selected All-Conference two times and had a fabulous time as a collegiate player. If my basketball journey ended there I would have been happy.

I also started my MBA while I was still playing for Willamette. When I finished my MBA I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to continue my time as a player. I was able to go to Israel with Athletes in Action (AIA) – traveling the country by day, and playing games at night. That led me to play on a traveling tour in the US with AIA, which ultimately opened the door for me to spend two seasons playing in England.


My time as a player has officially come to an end, but I’ve been really blessed to land a job where I still get to work around basketball. This job is a culmination of what has happened over a series of years in my life – combining my playing and life experiences, with my education. And frankly, it is all tied together with basketball playing a central role in what I’ve done, and will continue to do.

The rest of my life and basketball journey has been largely shaped by what happened as a senior in high school. My senior year in high school was shaped by the years of hard work prior to it. I didn’t know that when I started – I just knew I loved basketball and wanted to work hard at it. My encouragement to you is to find what you love and work at it. You may not get the opportunity out of it you want, but if you quit there’s only one outcome. Your hard work is preparation for something – and in the end, you won’t be sorry for giving it all you have. That’s where luck is made.

Looking at where I’m at now makes it seem like it must have been easy, as if it just happened for me. It doesn’t just happen – things ultimately happen because of preparation. God often opens doors when we least expect it, and the person who is ready for that opportunity is the one who has prepared.