Tell Me When It's Over is an interview series in which we ask former athletes about the moment they knew their playing days were over. Today: Willie Wise of the 1969 national semifinalist Drake Bulldogs and the 1971 ABA champion Utah Stars.
The Drake Bulldogs came as close as any team to stopping UCLA during the Bruins' run of five consecutive titles from 1967 to 1971, losing by only three points in the Final Four. Of all the Drake players, including future Celtics draft pick Dolph "Scoop Shovel" Pulliam, All-Tournament selection Willie McCarter, future Pan American decathlon champion Rick "Wany" Wanamaker, and Don Draper (yes, Don Draper), it was senior defensive leader "Wondrous" Willie Wise who would last longest in the pros: 475 games in the ABA and 77 games in the NBA.
Wise made the ABA's All-Rookie team, was twice selected for the All-Defensive Team and was a three-time league All-Star. In 1971, Wise's Utah Stars won the ABA Championship, and one season later Sports Illustrated called him "the best two-way performer in professional basketball."
He's flown a plane solo once, read the Bible twice and, like Joe Quigg, has seen Star Wars at least three times. Despite playing several seasons in Utah, he has never been on snow skis. These days, Willie Wise can be found driving a truck somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.
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I think the mindset was that they were looking past us toward the championship game, and we were right with them. We were probably down by one point at the half. And I think that kind of shocked them. And Wany blocked Kareem's shot, and that literally did wake them up. Like, whoa, we're in for it this time.
Then they pulled away beginning in the second half and I think we went down, if memory serves me correctly, we went down by 11. And I recall vividly, we are lining up for a free throw, they are shooting the free throw, UCLA, and I'm on the inside, and next to me in the middle was Curtis Rowe. I'll never forget this. He leans over and he says, "It's all over now, baby." I think they went up by 11 and were threatening to go up by 13, something like this, and he leaned over and said that to me.
And I was just livid. Because number one, we don't talk that much in the Missouri Valley. And number two, we felt in those years the Missouri Valley Conference was the toughest in the nation from top to bottom. It was Bradley and Cincinnati and Louisville and Memphis State and St. Louis, Drake, Wichita State. And so we felt like, Hey, are you kidding me? You're going to say something like that to us? So I leaned back to him and I said, "We're going to show you how we play in the Missouri Valley."
Pretty soon, with like seven seconds to go, we were down by one [laughs]. And if we had stolen the inbounds pass we just know deep in our hearts we would have won.
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I thought I was going to be a professional baseball player. That's what I was aiming at. Willie Mays was our idol at that time. Along with Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey, Jose Pagan, you know, San Francisco Giants. And, of course, we hated the Dodgers. We would go to the baseball games all the time, and so I thought, One day I'm going be out there on the diamond.
I never thought about basketball. Didn't like it. I thought, Maybe I should play football. And then I got a little scared because I thought, If I get hit wrong and my knees go out, then my career is over, so maybe I'll just concentrate on baseball.
Then, of course, growing up in the ghetto, everyone has to play basketball. You're a nerd if you don't. Being black. And so, I'll play it, but I'm going to play baseball. And so, probably when I was 11 years old, I wanted to be a professional baseball player.
The second thing was, I wanted to drive. I just was fascinated all my life with big machinery, especially trucks. I thought, OK, I want to do two things in life: one is be a professional athlete, and, two, I want to drive a truck. And so I was two for two [laughs]. I was fortunate.
After we played baseball, we'd go right over to the courts. "Let's hoop it up, man," that kind of stuff. I realized, Man, I've got to get better at this or these guys are going to make fun of me to no end. So I started watching my idol, which was Oscar Robertson, and I tried to imitate him in everything.
And eventually, probably when I got to be a sophomore in high school, I started running from the curveball. I could hit the fastball, but the curveball just made me jittery in the box. I thought, Whoa, I can't hit this curveball, I better concentrate on basketball.
On the baseball diamond back in those days, it's very hard to play the Temptations and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and Marvin Gaye. But on the basketball court you could. So it was kind of like a big dance [laughs] every time you got on the court. My taste for basketball changed dramatically when I was in the 10th grade. From then on I thought, You know what? I've got to try to perfect this.
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When I was in high school I worked for the city of San Francisco during the summers, and I drove a dump truck around the block. That was the sum total of my experience. That was something that I had in the back of mind since I was a kid that I wanted to do, and let's see if we could make it work. And I kind of fell into it.
I knew I didn't want to be a doctor. I knew I didn't want to be in an office. I just can't take it. I cannot be cramped. I just feel claustrophobic. I knew I couldn't. I did like physical therapy, and that was something I kind of briefly had a brush of consideration with, but not much.
You know, there's more to life than running up and down the court half-naked with people screaming obscenities at you.
I majored in physical ed. The other thing that I really thought I was going to do was be a teacher, a phys ed teacher. I did my student teaching. I got my certificate in the state of Iowa. But eventually, I just can't be in that classroom. I just can't do it. I've got to do something outdoors.
When I got closer to graduation at Drake, I worked for the Oakland A's Triple-A farm affiliate. They were there in Des Moines. And Vida Blue was there and Gene Tenace. There was a ton of them. Anyway, I loved it. I've got to do something outdoors. And so that's when it was cemented in the depths of my being. OK, outdoors. But what? Well, maybe construction. Man, that seems kind of hard. I don't want to labor that hard. But eventually I was fortunate that I got led to a company that was willing to train me to drive, and I've been doing it ever since.
* * *
We were playing the San Antonio Spurs and I knew my knee wouldn't hold up any longer. For some, it's different. If you are in the category that I fell into, you just realize, Hey I just can't push off this knee or this ankle. Usually it's knees. And I don't want to take aspirins to continue trying to play. Which I did. I don't want another surgery. You know, there's more to life than running up and down the court half-naked with people screaming obscenities at you [laughs].
The finality, again, it's just kind of shocking. All of sudden you can't do it anymore, because you're a step slower. Or you can't jump as high. Or you can't get yourself set on defense, and you can't get by guys that you used to blow by. And then the other side of it is, you just burn out and you realize, I just can't go through another preseason. I just can't go through another grueling season. I just can't do it. Mentally. And so you just realize, You know what? It's time to walk away. I can't give it my all.
I remember they put me on the Iceman. That's George Gervin. And I don't mean this in a vain, proud way, but I used to be able to stay with the Iceman as long as he was out on the court. If he took me down on the block, he could elevate over me because he was 6'7", almost 6'8", and he could leap. But if he tried to beat me out on the floor, he couldn't. And boy, he blew by me. I thought, Whoa. And that's when it really hit me that I just couldn't move laterally anymore. That was the time on the court that I thought, You know what? I can't do it. I just can't do it.
* * *
But I was young enough. I thought maybe if I just took some time off and let the fluid drain out of my knee and heal, and not practice every day but just play the games, then maybe I could make it through the season. Because I wanted to go 10 years and retire and I was in my ninth. But the fluid never subsided because I was always pounding the knee on the court. I was always playing. And then they put me on waivers and that was it.
I knew it. I knew it. I had a guaranteed contract, and so they had to pay me for that final year but I could see the direction the team was going. I just knew I wouldn't be a part of it because I couldn't give my all.
It was Lenny Wilkens who gave me the news, by the way, that they were going to put me on waivers. He's a class act. He took me in the back room and took me away from everyone and was real apologetic. He said, "We need to put you on the injured reserve list so you can get that knee better." And then, after a certain amount of time, they have to bring you off that list or drop you. And they brought some young players in who could elevate and run all day. And I kind of knew that they wouldn't put me back on the active roster.
* * *
It wasn't like I had a grand exit. I was forced, because I was only 30. I felt like I was going to play until I was about 35, and then hang it up. I never expected a farewell tour a la Kareem and the Doc and ones like that, but I thought, Hey, at least I can go out on my own terms. Well, I couldn't. My knee wouldn't allow me.
So it was like, the shock of not playing a game you'd played for 20 years and that you love. The finality of it was kind of a shocker. But again, you know, my mentality was, OK, that's over. What's next?
And so that's kind of the way that I'm facing retirement now. I guess I'm going try to walk away this year. If not this year, then early next year. But I just feel like there's so much more in life to do. Even at this age, 65 and nine days, I just feel like there's so much more and there's still some potential left there that could be developed and useful to help others in different walks of life.
I want to go into the ministry full time. The peace, joy, and harmony that I've experienced since I became a born-again believer is unbelievable. And so I want to trumpet that story and experience to all who would listen. I don't want to force it on anyone, but if there's an audience I'd surely want them to hear. I just think that there's so much grief in the world, there's so much vanity, there's so much, so many who are wandering around aimlessly. Even the ones who are quote-unquote successful. And I want to reach anyone who would listen and let them know that there's something that's far greater and far more satisfying than what they're doing currently.
Last year Rob Trucks interviewed current and former D-I basketball coaches Jay Wright, Mike Adras, Charles E. Ramsey, and Kevin Stallings as part of his oral history of 49-year-olds. His other work for Deadspin includes interviews with former NHL goalie Clint Malarchuk and the late Dave Duerson, and an oral history of Big Star co-founder Alex Chilton's time in Tuscaloosa. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @tusktusktusk.
Photo of Wise layup via the Des Moines Register.