It was Nov. 20, 2008 when John Olinger realized he would be broke in six weeks.
Olinger ’05, MBA’07 had just completed his second basketball tour with Athletes in Action, a Christian organization that had taken him across the globe to Israel and then back to the U.S. East Coast.
Since he had not been picked up by a professional team, his traveling basketball days appeared to be over.
“I said that on Jan. 1, if I didn’t have a basketball job, I’d have to get a job in the Pacific Northwest because I would have no money left to support myself,” Olinger says.
On Dec. 30, just two days before his self-imposed deadline, Olinger finally got the call he had been waiting for: The Coventry Crusaders wanted him on their team. Shortly thereafter, Olinger was on a plane to England.
Today, Olinger continues to integrate his passion for basketball into his professional life, working as a social media specialist for Nike Basketball.
Though his path has taken many twists and turns, Olinger says his success is rooted in the skills he acquired as a Willamette student-athlete.
“At Willamette, I learned how to juggle many problems, I learned teamwork, I learned how to relate to people,” Olinger says.
“The benefits of my experiences as a student-athlete can’t even be quantified, because they are so interwoven into my story.”
Pursuing his Passion for Basketball
When Olinger graduated from South Salem High School, he knew he wanted to continue playing basketball — the question was, where?
He first tried the Division I route at Portland State University, where he red-shirted for a year before the coach that recruited him resigned. Olinger then transferred to Clackamas Community College, where he endured an injury-plagued season.
At this point, Olinger found himself looking at Willamette University.
“Throughout my time at other schools, Coach James (Willamette’s men’s basketball coach at the time) and I stayed in touch, and he said that if I wanted to come to Willamette he would still welcome me with open arms,” Olinger says.
“I realized that this was a great opportunity to play basketball and get a really good education out of it, and it ended up as a phenomenal experience.”
With the help of his professors, teammates and coaches, Olinger says he learned how to balance a challenging course load with a rigorous basketball season.
“It was a learning process for me, because I came from a large public university and then secondly a junior college,” says Olinger, an economics major. “At Willamette, I got to take classes with only 15-20 people in them. … Not only did I get to play basketball, I formed personal relationships and really got to know my classmates and professors on a deeper level.”
Attending Willamette also allowed Olinger to pursue his MBA at Atkinson Graduate School of Management, while completing his last year of basketball eligibility.
“I thought I was busy while I was an undergraduate, but playing and doing Atkinson at the same time was on a whole different level,” Olinger recalls. “The experience pushed me to maintain quality work and perform on the court at the same time.”
During his three years as a Bearcat, Olinger led his team to two Northwest Conference second-place finishes, and he received first team all-conference honors his senior year.
An assistant coach at the time, Kip Ioane remembers Olinger for his talent and exceptional dedication to the team, but even more so for his unmatched commitment to character.
“Johnny O. didn’t just talk the talk about being a quality person and making quality choices off the floor, he walked the walk,” Ioane says. “He is the perfect example of the type of man I want my guys to strive to become.”
A Life of Service
In keeping with Willamette’s motto — “Not unto ourselves alone are we born” — wherever Olinger goes, he aims to serve others.
Since graduating from Atkinson in 2007, Olinger has volunteered at Union Gospel Mission as its learning center coordinator, traveled the world with Athletes in Action, served as the assistant director of the nonprofit Crusader Foundation while playing professionally in England and launched the Mid-Valley 211 helpline for the United Way of the Mid-Willamette Valley.
At this year’s team retreat, Ioane — now the head men’s basketball coach — asked Olinger to speak as a role model to his players.
“Everything that made him the player he was makes him the professional he is now,” Ioane says. “He’s a leader, a great communicator with different types of people and a guy who won’t stop working until the job is not only done, but done to its absolute potential of greatness.”
Today, Olinger monitors and analyzes shoe and product comments for Nike Basketball via Twitter. Additionally, as the basketball lead in Global Consumer Services, he ensures that all the groups are aligned by gathering information from Nike’s Basketball category and sharing that information across his department.
At Nike, Olinger strives to use his passion for basketball to touch the lives of others.
“Without being a student-athlete at Willamette, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity for this role that I’m in, and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be at this company,” he says.
“I want somebody else to have sports impact their life the way they impacted mine, because if I hadn’t had that, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
• Story by Katie Huber ’13, politics major