Kalamazoo Gazette Article

Graham Couch / Kalamazoo Gazette

Article from mlive.com .....

Relevance through persistence: Western Michigan's Alex Wolf bears little resemblance to unlikely basketball walk-on he once was
by Graham Couch / Kalamazoo Gazette
November 19, 2010

KALAMAZOO — The irony is difficult for Alex Wolf and Steve Hawkins to ignore. Not all that long ago, Western Michigan University’s men’s basketball team, its head coach included, forgot to tell its pudgy walk-on freshman point guard that it scheduled a practice on an expected day off. So Wolf didn’t show. “They came back from a road trip and they hadn’t played too well,” Wolf said. “This was my very first year, my walk-on/practice-player year. They didn’t call me and tell me that I actually had practice the next day.”

These days — four years, a few pounds shed and a ton of respect later — the Broncos are building their entire practice schedule around him. Wolf’s course load as a senior mechanical engineering major doesn’t fit with WMU’s morning practice routine. So, many days, like Wednesday, the team comes back at night for a second workout, more focused on game planning and strategy.

2006 - Alex gets the call from Coach Bates that he would be a walkon.

“To give you an idea of what we do, today is about Alex,” said Hawkins, who admits there was a time he thought he’d never utter such a sentence. “When the pudgy kid shows up and says ‘I want to major in engineering’ and he’s from Parchment, you’re thinking, ‘This might help the team GPA.’ “He is, in terms of vocal, the volume of practice, the chatter, he’s it. It’s not just that we want to put in team stuff, but we have better practices when Alex is here. His personality is contagious. The other part of things is the confidence this kid now has.” Wolf’s natural forthright personality and leadership skills honed through watching Joe Reitz and David Kool have made him an irreplaceable mouthpiece.

2006 - Alex was #43 his redshirt season.

His shooting and four-plus seasons of figuring out how to face players athletically out of his league have made Wolf, for the first time, a significant factor in the Broncos’ hopes heading into a season. “It’s always been my dream to play here,” said Wolf, who grew up attending WMU basketball games with his father. “It’s kind of a little bit surreal about how much of an effect I’ve actually had this year. ... I was already happy with what I did last year.” In 29 games last season, the 6-foot, 195-pound former Parchment High School star averaged a respectable 11 minutes and 3.5 points per game, mostly backing up point guard Mikey Douglas, with an assist-to-turnover ratio of better than 2-to-1.

2006 - Alex wore street clothes on the bench his redshirt season.

But it’s what happened in Hawaii around Christmas against Northeastern (15 points, 4-for-4 3-pointers) and later at Ball State (18 points) that shaped his role for his fifth and final year.

2009 - Alex hits his 4th triple against Northeastern on ESPNU in Hawaii.

Wolf had become a dangerous and confident Division I shooter — something he wasn’t his first two years in the program. And so WMU plans to use him almost exclusively as such. After four years of earning the respect of quicker point guards, both teammates and foes, Wolf is a shooting guard only this season, barring an emergency.

Alex specific Diamond Head Classic highlights vs Northeastern University (09-10 1 minute version)

He played 24 minutes at the off guard in the Broncos’ 68-65 season-opening loss last Friday at Xavier, scoring seven points and hitting 2 of 3 3-point attempts, while dishing three assists without turning the ball over. It’s a statistical line, at Xavier no less, that no one, Wolf included, saw coming during his days as a towel-waving, cheerleading, end-of-bench “ultimate walk-on,” as Hawkins put it. Wolf’s current teammates don’t even know that person — they’re all at least two years behind him in school.

They only know the person whom they voted as one of two team captains (along with junior Flenard Whitfield) and the player they know they need on the court. What’s become of Wolf’s career began long before Whitfield and Co. — and even most of the staff — stepped on campus. “It’s just an incredible process,” Wolf said. “I came in here and I talked to Dre (Ricks) and Silver (Laku) back in the day and they honestly said they didn’t think I was going to make it. I had a few practices where I was just almost humiliated. And I just stuck with it, basically. They all helped me along the way. Dre chasing me up and down the court for three years probably kept me at the end of the bench, to be honest, because he was just tearing me up in practice.” Hawkins didn’t think much of Wolf’s chances either — right from the first time they met, after Wolf “wore out” Hawkins’ inbox with e-mails about how much he wanted to play at Western Michigan.

“I remember him walking out and looking at (former assistants) Cornell (Mann) and Clayton (Bates), saying, ‘What do you mean by perfect candidate for a walk-on? He looks more like an outside linebacker.’ “I was 228, 230, I was a big fella,” said Wolf, who first contemplated walking on to the WMU football team — even though he hadn’t played football since eighth grade — simply so he could “have that camaraderie and just be around a sport.” By fall workouts, Wolf was 205 pounds and Hawkins literally didn’t recognize him. Wolf spent his first winter as a practice-only player, traveling to road games on his own or with his father, missing only a couple.

Still, no one took him seriously enough to make sure he knew he was supposed to be at impromptu practice. “They had a really, really hard practice that day,” Wolf said. “So then I come the following day and we started doing this defensive drill where you’re sliding back and forth from the block to the 3-point line, and you have to knock the ball away and get two of them to get out of the drill. “And I remember (Mann) was yelling, ‘So, you think you can miss practice? You think you’re a walk-on so you can miss practice?’ Just throwing it so hard that I couldn’t get it. I was literally crawling back and forth trying to get these two balls and I finally got them. “They’ll tell you, they thought I wasn’t going to come back, just from that drill. That was probably the turning point. I ended up sticking with it.”

2009 - Alex is the only walkon to ever receive this award

Respect from his peers followed and grew as he became a full-fledged traveling member of the team, even if his playing time barely reflected it. “We used to come back from road trips and Al didn’t play at all ... he knew he wasn’t playing,” said former WMU guard Andre Ricks, who graduated in 2009 after spending three seasons with Wolf. “But sometimes at night when we’d get back to town, he’d say ‘Hey Dre, let’s work out, let’s get some shots in.’ In like five or six games he hadn’t even looked at the court, and he still was motivated to keep working out, keep working out. “When he first came in, I used to tear him up at practice. He had a little weight on him and he was slow. But he kept trying and he wasn’t afraid to ask for help. At practice, I used to steal the ball from him and he’d say, ‘Can you help me after practice, can you work with me?’ He always wanted to get better. He didn’t care about getting embarrassed. “By my junior year, Al was battling. ... There were days Al would come in and he’d kill me and Mike Redell and sometimes David (Kool).”

2010 - Alex went 4-4 from 3 range in the first game of the season

Wolf understood the ticket to getting players from Pershing to accept one from Parchment had to begin with him. “I think it started with that overall respect I had for them, and once they saw how much I loved the game and how hard I worked, they started really giving me the respect back. It was a process. I definitely was on the outside looking in from the beginning. Now, like Joe (Reitz) and ’Berger (Andre Hershberger) and Dre, I talk to them regularly, all the time. ... It’s kind of neat.” Catching Hawkins’ eye was made easier by another player from that era, former walk-on Derek Fracalossi. It took the urging from teammates for Hawkins to seriously consider Fracalossi for playing time.

2009 - This award covers all sports, not just basketball

“I had like a walk-on wall in my own head,” Hawkins said. “‘Well, he’s a walk-on, I don’t know if he’s ready to contribute against other scholarship players.’ So that wall came down and then I started looking at Alex in a similar manner.” Like Fracalossi, Wolf’s ability to swim at the Division I level stems from a belief that this is where he belongs, even if many of the Division III schools that recruited him told him he was making a mistake. “I remember going into last year, when we were talking about point guards,” Hawkins said, “and we were having problems with Mikey and Al, and I was just going ballistic one day early in practice about the fact that we don’t have a point guard — their decision-making is miserable, they’re not shooting, they’re not directing traffic, ‘We don’t have a point guard.’ Al kept going, ‘Yeah we do, Yeah we do.’ And I’m screaming at the kids, ‘We don’t have a point guard,’ and Alex just kept saying, not loud but, ‘Yeah we do, yeah we do. We’ll be fine, Coach, we’ve got it.’ “The confidence he has, he wasn’t just saying it. He steps in, in Hawaii, and he’s ready to go. ‘Yeah, I’ll just start knocking down shots.’”

This year, making shots isn’t enough. “I’ve asked Dave, Joe, I’ve asked them all for advice,” Wolf said. “‘How can I attack the younger fellas here and there?’ Because I really didn’t know. I was always just a follower here. I was always just happy to be here, happy to do whatever I could for the team. Now I’m out there expected to do what I’m supposed to do and on top of that make sure other people are doing what they’re supposed to do. And I haven’t been in that position.” This time, his coaches and teammate actually believe in him. “I just thinking learning along the way, who the integral people are, like Dave and like my family who made me stay at it,” said Wolf, who said he’ll play for eight-grand in Pakistan if he can play professionally. “You don’t understand how big somebody like that can be in your life. It’s not only basketball I’m learning. I’m becoming such a better person off the court from the experiences I’ve had through Western. It’s just been a great ride and I’m going to cherish it as much as I can this last year.”

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Alex Wolf, left, talks with teammate Brandon Pokley during a recent practice.
Erik Holladay / Special to the Gazette

Western Michigan junior Alex Wolf is surrounded by Eastern Michigan senior Carlos Medlock, left and junior Brandon Bowdry as he looks to find an open teammate during a game last February.

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Thomas R. Wolf, Jr. <wmuwolf@gmail.com>

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