There’s a good chance that Kris Oliver would be signing a basketball scholarship next month if he had stuck with the decision he made after his ninth-grade year.
The Arkadelphia High School senior, who is young for his grade, was barely more than 5 feet tall and weighed only 130 pounds as a ninth-grader. He decided he wasn’t going to play varsity football but would stick with basketball and baseball.
That decision didn’t last long, as Oliver grew to 5 feet 5 and 150 pounds the summer before his sophomore season. Without the benefit of spring football or offseason workouts, he joined the varsity squad for fall camp.
Oliver impressed Badgers coaches enough to earn a starting cornerback spot. By the end of the season, he started at running back and torched Hope for close to 170 yards rushing.
“I went from thinking about not playing to getting all-conference,” said Oliver, who has grown to 5 feet 10 and 170 pounds. “I didn’t want to play football; I thought I was too small. I thought I was a better basketball player.”
As a junior, Oliver grew some more and emerged as one of the better prep running back prospects in the state, garnering football scholarship offers from several in-state programs, including the University of Central Arkansas.
Even after a dazzling sophomore football season, he wasn’t going to give up basketball. He decided to balance both and lettered on the Badgers basketball team in his varsity debut.
“I’ve always loved basketball. That’s something I’ve always done,” he said.
Last season, he broke out, averaging 14.5 points, 4 assists and 3 steals per game on his way to Class 4A all-state honors.
“If there is a better point guard in the state, I’d like to see him,” Badgers coach Donnie Williams said. “He is a true point guard. We went to a few team camps [this summer], and they were pressing us. I just told [the players] to give it to [Oliver] and get out of there. Oliver went coast to coast on them. [Other teams] quit pressing us after that.
“He brings so much to the table. He is a floor general out there. I’ve coached some good point guards, but he is near the top.”
The quickness and physicality he uses to elude tackles in football helps him contain smaller guards.
“Playing football gives me a big advantage. Most of the guards don’t want me in their face, hand checking them,” Oliver said. “It’s a big advantage in high school.”
Sometimes football players, especially those playing on teams that make deep playoff runs, have to get into “basketball shape” upon completion of the football season. Not Oliver. The uptempo offense the Badgers run on the field prepares him for the court, he said.
“I don’t have any problem with [playing football],” Williams said. “I think it helps them overall with everything — character and discipline and all of that. I tell them if they are going to play, play 100 percent, and don’t half step.”
If Oliver has his way, he won’t hit the court until after the second weekend in December when the 4A State Championship football game is played at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.
“I’ve only got five guys in the gym right now — the rest are playing football,” Williams said. “We may not do much in January, but we are going to make some noise later on. I just want Kris to take the momentum he has in football and take it right into basketball. If he stays healthy, we should be fine.”
Oliver’s childhood friend Jakhari Howell wasn’t healthy last year and missed the basketball season after he injured his ankle in the fall. Howell, a star quarterback, said he will play basketball — news that delights both Oliver and Williams.
“He’s been my friend since we were little. We spend almost all of our time together,” Oliver said. “It would be great to play basketball with him this season and see if we can make a deep run in football and basketball.”
The friends, who also roam the outfield together on the Badgers’ state-championship baseball team, plan to attend the same college and play football together. That’s a prospect that didn’t seem possible just 3 1/2 years ago.
“I know I’m not going to play basketball again, so I don’t want this season to end. I want to play as many games as I can knowing it’s going to be my last season,” Oliver said.