How A Career Ends: I Ditched Basketball For The Decathlon

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: Rick Wanamaker, a center for the Drake Bulldogs, who in 1969 provided one of college basketball's great "holy shit!" moments when he blocked Lew Alcindor's shot in the second half of Drake's near-upset of UCLA in the Final Four.

Wanamaker was a junior coming off the bench that year (we've already met two of his teammates, Dolph Pulliam and Willie Wise). He was a starter at the onset of the following season, but he lost the job to a junior college transfer well before the Bulldogs returned to the NCAA tournament. He played his final basketball game in the 1970 Elite Eight, an 87-78 loss to New Mexico State. A couple months later the Cleveland Cavaliers selected him in the 15th round of the 1970 NBA draft.

Wanamaker gained greater renown off the court: The native Iowan was the first NCAA decathlon champion and an All-American. In 1971, he won gold at the Pan American Games.

Wanamaker now sells real estate in Des Moines. His favorite movie is It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

* * *

I don't think Lew Alcindor made very many points the last 10 minutes of that game. Our team was a running team in great shape and we ran those guys into the ground. And if that game had gone another minute, we would have won. They were like a fighter on the ropes, and they were saved by the bell. Drake made up about a 10-point deficit in a minute and 10 seconds at the end of the game because we were stealing the ball and we were making points. You know, with eight seconds to go we were behind by only one point but they had the ball and we had to foul them. But yeah, they were cooked.

I didn't think the block was that big of a deal. I was hoping to block several of his shots. I was disappointed I got only one. But that was before the game and I didn't realize how hard it was going to be. You better know what he's going to do before he does because he's already got a head start with the tremendous reach he had.

* * *

I ran track in junior high and high school. I did the hurdles and the high jump and the pole vault. And those happen to be the hardest events to learn if you haven't ever done them before. But that's what made it easy to go into the decathlon.

I just wanted to go someplace where I'd get a scholarship, but that was the main attraction of Drake—they ran a good track team and a good track meet, because I was interested in track. In fact, the truth is—I don't think it was any secret—that was my favorite sport of the two.

It was a big issue. Our coach, Maury John, always kind of knew even though I didn't come out and say it. One day after practice when I was lifting weights—this was back when coaches didn't see the point in lifting weights—he said, "Why are you working out for track? It's basketball season." [Laughs.] That was the only point of friction we really had.

Coach John said, "It's OK to go out for track, but then at the end of the spring season, don't do it anymore. Go spend all your summer playing basketball." I ended up doing a lot of track meets anyway, but he didn't like it.

I'd say my sophomore year it started looking like maybe I was better at track than basketball. At least that's my opinion. There was a little conversation, even. Maury John, I think, said, "Maybe you ought to go out and have a track scholarship instead." But we just kept doing two sports and it turned out OK.

I was probably pretty good but I didn't get to play as much I would have liked because we had such a good team. But I started a few games, or some games, but most of the time I was a reserve on that team, the sixth or seventh or eighth guy on the team, depending on how you look at it.

I started the season as a starter in 1970, but I lost my starting job to another player who was a junior college recruit, Tom Bush. It was OK, you know. I got plenty of playing time those years anyway.

* * *

I had the option of going pro, but it wasn't a very good option. Back then, they actually had like, 15 rounds of draft. And I think I was picked, like, 12th round [Editor's note: 15th round, 217th overall]. But there were so many rounds that some teams just quit picking after a while, you know? How many players do we need to draft? I did tell them I was going to come to their tryout but then that was the day after the NCAA championships that I was supposed to leave to go to the Cleveland Cavaliers tryout camp. I called after I won the decathlon. Bill Fitch, the coach—I called him and said, "I'd rather just keep doing track the rest of the summer, so count me out." [Laughs.] So I didn't even go. I hadn't really done anything for basketball anyway. I hadn't kept up.

I wasn't that interested in basketball. I was just going to go out to try it, just to do it, just for the experience. I didn't have any expectation of making the team, and I didn't care if I did or didn't. I just didn't, you know—my heart wasn't in it at all.

* * *

Now they call it the U.S. Track and Field Championships. I won those in 1971 as the best decathlete in the country. And then Track and Field News ranked me as a possible gold medal threat and a definite chance to get a medal. In fact, I beat the '72 Olympic champion in '71. And, of course, I beat Bruce Jenner a few times, too. He went to college at Graceland in Iowa. He was a year younger than me, but he was kind of a late bloomer, truthfully. You know, he wasn't that great of an athlete. That's hard to believe, but he wasn't that talented. He sort of made himself into what he became.

So I decided that's what I was going to do. Unfortunately I got hurt. Four days before the Olympic trials, on my last pole-vault competition, jumping into a bad pole-vault pit, a very hard pit. It was back in Iowa, and I sprained my ankle real badly. Could hardly walk. So I went out to the trials and ended up not making any heights in the pole vault, jumping 6 feet in the high jump, because I was jumping off my sprained ankle. And I had a sub-par performance. I ended up getting more or less last place, you know.

It's hard to describe, but it would certainly be the most disappointing thing that ever happened to me, that's for sure. It changed my personality. But it was preparing me for the inevitable, which was: You're going to have more disappointments ahead. Especially if you're going to go into sales. Truth is, I've had a career full of disappointments.

I went from a total optimist to having more of a realistic outlook on life. Back then I just figured, my whole life is going to fall into place. Now, I wasn't part of an NCAA championship basketball team, but in track and field I pretty much won most everything that mattered and, you know, I was on a fast track to going to the Olympics and maybe winning it. But it didn't happen. It didn't turn out that way.

It's not a good time to learn. I'd rather have had it happen later. And not in such a big way. But for every Olympic champion there's a dozen or more people who didn't win it that could have if everything would have worked, or if their training had been better, or if they didn't get injured, or even if they'd been from a different country where they'd had more training opportunities.

I would have rather been like the Olympic high-jump champion than the NCAA basketball champion [laughs].

When I was a senior in high school: That's when I thought I'd maybe be a good high jumper. But, you know, this shows how high school coaches are: I wasn't even a high jumper until my senior year. I was doing three events when I could have done four in track, and someone, either I did or my track coach did, said, "Hey, you ought to do the high jump. You need another event." [Laughs.] And so I started doing the high jump. And I turned out to be the first person in Iowa to high jump 7 feet, and I wasn't even a high jumper for most of high school because nobody thought I'd be a good high jumper [laughs].

You know, I didn't high-jump like Fosbury. I high-jumped the roll. That's what everybody did back in the '60s.

But yeah, I was a good jumper. I just was born that way. You know, my body was mostly made up of fast-twitch muscle fibers. It's just the way you're born. You know, you're either a sprinter or a jumper or you're a distance person or somewhere in between. I was just made for jumping and running.

* * *

I got into real estate and decided I'd really had enough. I was 26 years old. But back then that was considered pretty old for amateur sports, because there wasn't any money to be made. You had your one shot, and you quit if you didn't make it.

I don't think I quit too early. I had lost the interest in the decathlon. Decathlon training is so time consuming that I just didn't think I would do it anymore. I could do it, but I couldn't do it well enough. I just didn't have the desire to do it.

It's not like you're making money. You just do it and that's good enough. And I had a good career in track and field. It was pretty short, but I'd had my shot, and four more years of training to get back and take another chance and then maybe not make the team anyway just wasn't worth it. And I don't honestly think I would have made it. Not because I didn't have ability anymore, I just didn't have the desire. And you better have a lot of desire if you're going to try to do the decathlon. You can't just dabble in it.

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 trucks@deadspin.com or follow him on Twitter at @tusktusktusk.

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