Owen Spencer handed his father an envelope.
He opened it without any preamble or inquiry, and his eyes lit up upon inspecting the contents. Spencer’s mother peered over her husband’s shoulder to take a glance, and she immediately began welling up. They were tears of joy.
It was the same letter the Ohio State coaching staff passed along to the first-year Buckeye walk-on a short while earlier, just minutes after the program’s 93-77 win over Iowa at the Schottenstein Center Saturday.
Spencer read it aloud in front of his teammates and coaches in the Buckeye locker room. At that moment, the Cincinnati native discovered he was a walk-on no longer.
“It was a huge surprise. Obviously, I had no idea. I was just happy we won the game,” Spencer said in a press conference Monday. “You know, everyone was hyped after that. It was a really good win. And then the coaches came in, we usually clap it up and then get in the huddle and talk about the game and stuff. And they had the envelopes, one for Ice (Likekele). … Ice read his and it was like, 'We're so proud that you're a Buckeye,' or whatever. I was like, 'Oh, that's really nice. I'm surprised somebody got me one of those envelopes.'
“And then I opened it up, and it said, 'You're now on scholarship at Ohio State University.' It was just like a lot of exhilaration, happiness. All my teammates, you saw their reactions. So it was just a really special moment for me. And I was really glad I got to experience that in that fashion with my whole team. You saw how they all like jumped me. So it was really cool experience.”
Spencer may not have seen it coming, but the decision was one Chris Holtmann and company had been considering for a while. Sixth-year forward Seth Towns announced he was stepping away from the program due to health issues in September, which opened up a scholarship spot on the Buckeyes’ 2022-23 roster.
"Now being able to be placed on scholarship, I'm just so thankful and grateful for it, and to be able to help my parents out so they don't have to pay any more or help me pay for college."– Owen Spencer
Both Spencer and Colby Baumann entered the program as walk-ons in June, but neither player was immediately elevated to scholarship status following Towns’ announcement. Holtmann said he initially considered holding onto the scholarship, but Spencer's contributions to the team as a reserve center and stellar teammate made him worthy of the final slot.
“You know, Owen’s been great for us, and we had a scholarship available after Seth’s medical issue. So we anticipated all along, we thought potentially we could hang onto it. But I think he's very deserving,” Holtmann said. “He's 6-9. He's 220 pounds, he provides us a scout team center that can also play in a pinch if we need him. And great attitude, a great kid. We were really happy to provide that moment for him.”
A scholarship is no small gesture for Spencer. After two years on scholarship at The Citadel, Spencer entered the transfer portal once his head coach was fired and teammates began leaving the program. But upon speaking with potential suitors at the Division II level, Spencer said he “wasn’t really finding what I was looking for.”
Then Ohio State came calling.
“Coach Netti called me and gave me that opportunity to come back home. I really wanted to be closer to home and then obviously to play for The Ohio State University, that's like a dream come true,” Spencer said. “So ultimately, I just ran it by my parents, and they were like, 'Well, obviously you're the most excited about this, so let's do it.’”
A Turpin High School alum from Cincinnati, Spencer was “very familiar” with Ohio State athletics growing up and said he even attended some games over the years. Spencer said a lot of his friends were “diehard” Buckeye fans.
Of course, the opportunity to live out a dream came at a cost. No longer on scholarship, Spencer said his parents had to sacrifice, although they were more than willing to do so. However, Saturday’s development proved the move paid off for both parties.
“It helps me immensely. Going from, I was on scholarship at my prior school at The Citadel, and then taking that leap into a walk-on position. I was really grateful for my parents letting me be able to do that and financially supporting that decision,” Spencer said. “And that was a decision that kind of weighed on me a little bit in the decision factor and taking a walk-on role. And so now, being able to be placed on scholarship, I'm just so thankful and grateful for it, and to be able to help my parents out so they don't have to pay any more or help me pay for college. So that's nice.”
Spencer’s role in official games for the Buckeyes has been a small one so far. He’s only played 13 minutes across five game appearances, with three points and seven boards to show for his efforts. Behind the scenes, though, Spencer is an essential piece for Ohio State.
With only two true centers on the roster (Zed Key and Felix Okpara), Spencer must emulate the formidable big men across the conference as Ohio State prepares for Big Ten opponents night in and night out. At 6-foot-9, Spencer hardly possesses the size of 7-foot-4 Purdue center Zach Edey but said the Boilermaker big man had been his favorite to impersonate in practice.
But given Key's recent injuries, Ohio State’s lack of depth at center could necessitate Spencer to step in for crucial moments in big games moving forward. And Spencer's prepared for that possibility, too.
“That's something we talked about almost on the first day of me coming up here. That's a role that I'm very comfortable in,” Spencer said. “I've always known that that'd be my role in stepping into this program. I know how important it is to be a great teammate, and that's one of our core values in there in the locker room. That's something I really try and embrace as a walk-on. But also knowing if Zed goes down, Felix goes down and some situation arises, I could step on the court and play. And so it's my job to not only be a great teammate and embrace that walk-on role, but also make sure I'm ready if I'm needed on the court. So practicing and getting in workouts and stuff so I'm ready if that situation ever arises.”
Beyond his basketball ability, Roddy Gayle said Spencer provides the Buckeyes with some much-needed levity in the locker room. Asked for his best Spencer story, Gayle joked “I don’t think I can say that on air.” But he said the team gets a kick out of “the little things” Spencer does on and off the court.
“Owen's probably one of the funniest guys you'll ever meet. But you wouldn't know it because he's kind of quiet,” Gayle said. “But just his character really sets a huge goal for our team and stuff. So like during practices, I think he gives us a great look when it comes to like scout team and stuff like that. So he works hard in the weight room and in practice every day, so just seeing him get that major accomplishment, like it meant the world to him. It meant the world to all of us as well.”
A biology major at Ohio State, Spencer has aspirations of becoming a heart surgeon once his basketball career comes to a close. Helping others seems a fitting occupation for Spencer, who stands out as one of the most supportive and energetic players on the Buckeye bench during games.
And his willingness to aid the program in any way he can is as big a reason as any why Spencer can now call himself a scholarship athlete at Ohio State.
“I just love my teammates. And I really love to win. So with the role I have, I really just want to do whatever I can to help us win, whether that's motivate them, pick them back up if they have a bad play,” Spencer said. “You can't focus on missing a shot, you gotta get back on defense. So if I can get up and tell them like, 'Hey, let's go, let's go, you got to get back.' Or just encourage them or do whatever I can to help us win. That's why I like doing that so much.”