Jon Teitel's Interview Series: Drake Legend Willie Wise
In the latest installment in his "Best Pro Players in School History" interview series, CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with Drake legend Willie Wise, who was also a member of the Bulldogs' lone Final Four team back in 1969. "Wonderous Willie" went on to have a successful career in the ABA with the Utah Stars, then moving on to play in Denver and Seattle after the ABA/NBA merger.
Jon Teitel: You attended San Francisco CC (the same JC that your friend OJ Simpson attended), but decided to go to Drake despite OJ's desire for you to follow him to USC. What was OJ like back in the day, and how do you feel about him knowing all that he has gone through in recent decades?
Willie Wise: Back then he was quite a good friend: we were not soulmates, but he came to all of my games and I went to all of his games. Today, I am disappointed and hurt, but people change. Now we are both in our 60s; I have not seen him in person since the late 1970s when he made his final Pro Bowl in Seattle. I was playing against the Sonics in Seattle, and someone was calling my name from the sideline, and when I looked up it was OJ. He probably is not the same person that I knew back in the day.
JT: Drake finished last in the MVC in 1967, but was ranked as high as #3 in the country by 1969. How were you able to turn it around so quickly, and what was the reaction like from the fans?
WW: As I was a JUCO transfer, I was kind of looked down on by others. Me and the 4 other JC transfers just wanted to prove ourselves. We improved by 9 wins in our 1st year, but were snubbed by the NIT, so the following year we wanted to show the voters that they had made a mistake. We had a real camaraderie and genuinely cared for each other; we cared about winning, rather than who was scoring. We really knew our roles, and were happy to play them. We had a players-only meeting where we cleared the air about what we were going to do, and then proceeded to go out and win about 15 games in a row. We had a lot of African-American players on the team, but we were accepted by our Caucasian teammates. When one of the African-American players was refused service in a restaurant in Memphis, our Caucasian teammates walked out.
JT: One of your teammates was future NCAA decathlon champion Rick Wanamaker. What was he like as a basketball player, and could you tell that he was a great all-around athlete?
WW: Wanny was a tremendous teammate; he was quiet, but always smiling. I do not recall him ever getting into trouble or anyone not liking him. We did not recognize his athletic ability until my senior year when he went out for the track team. His 6'9" frame was great for the hurdles, but I did not think he would be good at pole vaulting. He had a good shooting touch for a big man and could run the floor very quickly. I think he had a chance to go to the Olympics, but might have gotten hurt.
JT: Later that season you had a career-high 21 rebounds against St. Cloud St. and finished the season with a then-school record 343 rebounds. What are your memories of that record-setting game, and what was your secret for rebounding?
WW: I do not remember that game at all: we were not a very stat-conscious team. When I got to Drake, I realized that I did not have to be a big scorer because we had a guy named Willie McCarter who was our leading scorer. The key to rebounding is desire and good positioning. When I look at someone like Amare Stoudemire, I think that a guy of his size and ability should average 12-13 rebounds per game. I am much smaller than Stoudemire (I am about 6'6"), but I knew that rebounding would be my role. Sometimes I would play center on offense and forward on defense.
JT: What are your memories of the 1969 MVC playoff game (beating Louisville by four points to make the NCAA tourney for the first time in school history)?
WW: It became a bit of a rivalry during our senior year, as we had a huge fight on the court in Louisville, and I thought to myself that I was done, but I escaped. When we got back to Drake our fans were livid but we decided not to lower ourselves to their level and instead played with a lot of class. We blew them out later that season on our court, so the rubber match at Wichita State was going to be big. I just felt that on a neutral court we were a better team.
1969 NCAA Tournament
JT: You beat Texas A&M in the opening round. Did your team feel confident that they were going to make a run deep into the tourney?
WW: Our coach Maury John (who was very important in our development as young men) told us that if we got him to the Final Four we would beat UCLA. Texas A&M had a huge lineup with several guys who were 6'9" or 6'10" so we played a "belly-button defense" where we just overplayed everyone, as we were not a big shot-blocking team. We just ran them right off the court because we were quicker than them.
JT: You scored 16 points in a seven-point win over Colorado State What was your team's mood like heading into the Final Four to face two-time defending champion UCLA?
WW: Dolph Pulliam took CSU's big man right out of the game, but the Kerr twins (Floyd and Lloyd) were hurting us. After we won Coach John unveiled his innovative plan to press UCLA, who were famous for pressing themselves.
JT: You scored 13 points and had 16 rebounds in a three-point loss to UCLA (three-time national POY Lew Alcindor had 25 points and 18 rebounds). How close did you come to winning the game, and what was it like to face a legend like Alcindor?
WW: The one who really beat us was guard John Vallely: he just killed us. We thought we could win if we could steal one pass at the end but just could not get the steal. Initially it was intimidating to face Alcindor, but once we began to sweat it was fine, although we definitely had to be more selective with our shots. Looking back, our guards McCarter and Don Draper shot a combined 15-for-40, and if they had just made their normal average we would have won going away.
JT: After the game UCLA coach John Wooden said that Drake gave his team as much trouble as any team that UCLA ever faced in the tourney. Are you proud of the fact that your team almost pulled off the historic upset, or were you just disappointed that you lost the game?
WW: Both; we were extremely disappointed that we lost, but extremely thankful to receive such accolades from a coach like Wooden. Sports Illustrated asked Alcindor in the 1990s to rate his three NCAA titles, and he said that the toughest team he faced during his senior year was Drake. The pain is still there 40 years later, as I can recall most of the game. I think that Pulliam and I were a collective 9-for-13 from the floor, so I think that the two of us should have shot more.
JT: You scored 16 points and had a game-high 16 rebounds in a win over North Carolina in the third place game. Did you consider your tourney run a success (due to making it so far) or a failure (due to not winning it all)?
WW: To our fan base/community, it was a success because Drake had never gone that far before or since. For the players, because we did not win it all when it was right in our grasp, it was a real letdown. I recall that none of us took off our uniforms in the locker room after the game. We felt that our defense would carry us and that we should have won. We felt UNC had no chance against us. I tip my hat to the UCLA fans; when we went into the stands after our game to watch the UCLA-Purdue title game, the UCLA fans chanted "We're #1...Drake's #2!"
JT: Coach John was named National Coach of the Year. What was it like to play for him and what made him such a great coach?
WW: It was great to play for him, as he was one of the best coaches I ever played for (along with Bill Sharman). In the North Carolina game I was too pumped up and just made mistake after mistake, so he pulled me out and sat me down next to him to see what was going on. He put me back in a few minutes later, and did not take me out the rest of the game, which was great for my confidence. He never yelled at our shot selection unless it was totally absurd, and he was very passionate about playing defense. He was a defensive guru who wrote a book about the belly-button defense, and a lot of other coaches began to use it. He had a lot of respect for his players, and there was not a racist bone in his entire body, as he had five to six African-American players in conservative Iowa in the 1960s. His wife cooked for us and had us over to her home, which you just did not see a lot of back then.
JT: In the summer of 1969 you were drafted in the fifth round by San Francisco, but spent the summer working for the grounds crew of the Oakland Athletics' minor league baseball affiliate in Des Moines, and then had a successful tryout with the ABA's LA Stars. Were you disappointed that you did not make the SF team, and what was your reaction after LA called you to tryout?
WW: I was very pro-God at the time and would read the Bible. I was talking to a reporter at the Final Four and told him that if I were to get drafted, I would probably not go to the team and just become a Jehovah's Witness minister. I thought we were talking off the record, but he wrote it in his paper, and a lot of teams stayed away from me because of that. Coach John made some calls and said he could get me a tryout with Kentucky/New Orleans/Los Angeles and since I was from California it was a no-brainer for me. I was in summer school to get the final credits I needed, and got a job with the grounds crew. Since I had not been working out that summer, when I finally got to LA for a tryout I played terribly. I was eating dinner in a restaurant later that night, and there was a commotion, when who should walk in the door but my old friend OJ! It was a real pick-me-up, and I went out and played very well in a scrimmage the following day, and Sharman offered me a job.
JT: In 1970 you made it to the Finals before losing to the Pacers (playoff MVP Roger Brown scored 137 points in the final three games, including a playoff-record 53 points in Game 4). Where does Brown's performance in that series rank among the best you have ever seen and did you gain a lot of confidence after making it to the Finals in your rookie season?
WW: Everyone asks me who was the toughest guy I ever guarded, and I always say Roger Brown. He was smooth as silk, could shoot the 3, passed like a guard, etc. I had a bone spur in my ankle so I was only about 60% healthy at the time. It was quite exhilarating to make it to the Finals because we thought there was no way we would beat Denver (led by Spencer Haywood), so we were a little awestruck to be facing Indiana, who was the class of the ABA.
1971 ABA Finals
JT: Your team moved from Los Angeles to Utah at the start of the season. Was it weird to be on a team that changed cities, and how did the fans/city treat you?
WW: The fans were great. There was an adjustment with the daily living, as it was not a very diverse state. It was disappointing for me because I had gone to LA specifically to be in California, rather than in the snow (which I hated).
JT: In Game 1 against Kentucky, your team set a playoff record by scoring 50 points in the second quarter. How on earth did you team score so many points and did you think that the rest of the series would be a cakewalk?
WW: We had a kid named Ron Boone (who is currently the color commentator for the Jazz), and a kid named Glen Combs who could shoot from well behind the three-point line. Dan Issel was 6'9", but we could still hit the boards and get some offensive rebounds. We also got a lot of rebounds from Zelmo Beaty, who had to sit out a year after coming over from the NBA. We thought that we would easily win the series, and did not even think about losing.
JT: You led your team in scoring in Games Three, Four and Six but your team lost all three of those games. Was it frustrating to play so well without winning those games and how did you like your chances going back to Utah for Game 7?
WW: It was frustrating; Zelmo usually led us in scoring but I just tried to step up from my supportive role. It is important to maintain the pecking order for a positive outcome.
JT: You had 22 points and 20 rebounds and won the title at home by beating Kentucky in Game 7, after which your fans mobbed the court for twenty minutes and carried you and playoff MVP Beaty off on their shoulders. What did it mean to you to win the title, and what was it like getting carried off the floor?
WW: It meant everything to us because we came up short the previous year and had learned a lot. We did what we knew we were supposed to do. I had never experienced anything like that when the fans carried us off the court. It was great that they recognized what we had accomplished. Zelmo still has the picture of us being carried off in his house.
JT: In 1972 you scored a career-high 50 points against Kentucky. Was it just one of those scenarios where every shot you put up seemed to go in because you were "in the zone"?
WW: I remember that game very well. We played Pittsburgh two days before that and Zelmo had a great first half against them, and ended up scoring a league-record 63 points. We sacrificed our own offense and got him the ball as much as we could. My first shot against Kentucky was an airball but then I made a couple of shots and then Jimmie Jones just kept feeding me and Zelmo kept teling me to shoot, and I made 21-of-29 from the field and 8-of-10 from the line. Issel was guarding me, and was not known for his defense. Once I got hot Coach Joe Mullaney pulled Issel off me, but everyone else he tried was no match for me because my confidence was sky high. I had a pretty consistent year, as I scored over 20 points at least forty times that year.
JT: In 1972 you again led your team in scoring in three games during a playoff series but the Pacers beat you by four points in Game 7 of the Western Division Finals in Utah (as Roger Brown also led his team in scoring in three of the other games). Did Brown just have your team's number in the playoffs, and were you getting sick of playing the Pacers?
WW: We added Jimmie Jones who was a great rebounder and had the greatest basketball mind of any teammate I ever had. We were not sick of the Pacers: it was a great rivalry with mutual respect, and we matched up with them very well. Coach LaDell Andersen took me off of Brown on the defensive end so that I could focus on my offense. Brown, Doug Moe, Larry Brown, and Connie Hawkins were all banned from the NBA in the 1960s due to their role in a point-shaving scandal. If Brown played in the NBA, he would have been great there too.
JT: In the 1973 ABA All-Star Game in Utah you had a game-high 26 points for the victorious Western Conference but your Western teammate Warren Jabali received some boos from the crowd after being named MVP with 16 points and seven assists. How on earth did you not win MVP and how did it feel to play so well in such a game?
WW: Jabali deserved it because he kept penetrating and laying it off to me; I did not have to generate a lot of offense on my own. It was quite an honor to be selected as a starter among all the other great ABA players. It was even more special to be selected to the All-Star team the previous two years because we got to play against the NBA All-Stars.
JT: In 1973 your team set a playoff record in the opening round by making all twenty-two of its free throws in a series-clinching win over San Diego, but you lost to the Pacers in six games in the Western Division Finals. How on earth did your team make all its free throws against San Diego and how dominant was George McGinnis in that series?
WW: That is news to me, as I was only a 75% shooter myself from the free throw line. We called McGinnis "Superman" ("Supe" for short), and he was a bear to guard; he was so strong that we just did not have an answer for him.
JT: In 1974 you finally beat the Pacers in the Western Division Finals but lost to the Nets in the Finals. How dominant was Dr. J in that series and did you realize at the time that it would be your last game in Utah?
WW: There was no way I thought that was my last game in Utah. Zelmo and Jones were my two best friends and were my mentors. Dr. J was on a whole other level, as he was a great leaper who took the game above the rim. He would come after you and just leap right over you, and his long strides made him even faster than Brown.
JT: You are one of six players to ever average 19-plus points and 9-plus rebounds per game during your ABA career (Artis Gilmore/Dan Issel/George McGinnis/Julius Erving/Zelmo Beaty). Do you consider yourself to be one of the best players in ABA history?
WW: No; I was okay but I had a nice jump shot and the will to succeed because the Warriors did not draft me. Zelmo would talk to me night after night and say "You could be as good as Oscar [Robertson]". I think that Jones was the best guard who ever played in the ABA.
JT: You were the only members of the Stars who did not wear the American flag patch on your uniform due to your Jehovah's Witness faith. How controversial was that at the time, and what was it like being a Jehovah's Witness in the state of Utah?
WW: I did not wear the flag patch because of what I had read in my Bible study group, and one of those beliefs is that you should not have any political allegiances because you are not of this world. Jehovah's Witnesses believe that you should not be involved in the political landscape. I was not in the organization, but I went along with some of their practices, including not being involved in the government. I had no problems living with all the Mormons in Utah; the fans just wanted me to produce on the court. Our coach LaDell Andersen was Mormon, and we got along just great.
JT: Sports Illustrated called you "the best two-way performer in pro basketball" and in 1997 you were named one of the thirty best players in ABA history. How much importance did you place on defense?
WW: I thought that the game starts with defense. I took pride in being able to frustrate my opponent, so I would study their tendencies, especially what they did not like to do. I did not want to let someone beat me with their strength. What bothers me about today's players is that most of them do not think about defense. Once your defense is there, the offense will just flow and you will be full of confidence. I worked at it, and loved to play defense. One of the highest compliments I ever got was from Dr. J, who said I gave him the most problems on the court due to my defense. The best compliment that I treasure the most was from my teammate Gerald Govan, who said to me "My boy, I don't care what anyone says about Doc, McGinnis, or anyone else. I'll take you 1st on my team any day".
JT: After the 1976 ABA-NBA merger you played with Denver and Seattle. What were the biggest differences between the ABA and NBA?
WW: The NBA was more compact whereas the ABA was more wide open with teams running up and down the court. I thought the NBA was more of a "we" league than a "me" league, with the referees protecting the stars. When we came into the league, we were one of the inferior teams and would never get a call from the refs. We had a good squad in Denver, and won our division, but Portland beat us and ended up winning the title. The ABA made the NBA a lot stronger with guys like Maurice Lucas, Moses Malone, etc.
JT: You currently work as a cement truck driver in Seattle. How did you get into the business and how do you like it?
WW: All my life the two things I wanted to do were play professional sports and drive a truck. I now drive a concrete mixer for a local company and I love it. I am still doing it at age 63, but will probably retire in the years ahead.
Best Pro Players in MVC History
Bradley: Chet Walker (1963)
Creighton: Paul Silas (1965)
Drake: Willie Wise (1970)
Evansville: Jerry Sloan (1966)
Illinois State: Doug Collins (1974)
Indiana State: Larry Bird (1980)
Missouri State: Curtis Perry (1971)
Northern Iowa: NO ALUMNI IN ABA/NBA
Southern Illinois: Walt Frazier (1968)
Wichita State: Warren Jabali (1969)