He Pitched a Basketball Career Away

I got lost driving around Mark Wulfemeyer's neighborhood, made a couple of wrong turns, but finally found his place.

Wulfemeyer graciously took the rap, saying, "I never was any good at giving directions--or taking them."

That was a little joke, the crack about taking directions, but Wulfemeyer is hefting produce crates in a supermarket warehouse these nights, instead of jacking up three-point jump shots for some NBA team, and it's also as good an explanation as any for that development.

There are other reasons, certainly. Injuries, bad timing, bad luck, bad decisions . . .

Really, though, there's nothing you can put your finger on. For Mark Wulfemeyer and big-time sports, things just didn't work out.

This is a short story about a legend. Let's start at the end.

In baseball, he was a pitcher who spent six years in the minors, searching for the plate. He wound up in 1979, playing for a single-A team, a horrible team that once lost 23 straight games.

In basketball, Wulfemeyer's real sport, he wound up his career in 1981, shining pine at something called Marymount College, in Kansas.

That was it for one of the most spectacular basketball players in Southern California prep history.

Now he loads the produce by night and plays basketball by day at such places as the seaside courts at Laguna Beach.

"The guy can still play," says Leon Wood, a star on the U.S. gold medal basketball team and now a reserve for the Philadelphia 76ers. Wood is the Wulf's regular partner in three-on-three summer tournaments.

"He can still flat-out play the game," Wood says. "He can shoot as good as anybody. He can shoot from 20, 25 feet, and that's at the beach, where the wind blows."

When John Wooden was trying to recruit Wulfemeyer for UCLA, the Wizard took the Wulf to dinner and left the kid with this advice: "Once you've made your decision, never look back."

Wulfemeyer hasn't. Not a lot, anyway. But with a little prompting, he'll take you back to those glory days.

The game he remembers best was his first high school game. He was a 14-year-old freshman at Troy High in Fullerton. He was a scared, skinny 6-footer with a big rep and a big head.

"My teammates hadn't accepted me yet," Wulfemeyer says. "We were playing Pius X. I hit 10 of 13 shots, something like that (it was 10 of 13), and they finally said, 'This kid can play.' "

He scored 27 points that night. In four seasons, Wulfemeyer averaged 27.5, and broke the state prep scoring record by nearly 500 points, with 2,608. The record still stands.

As a senior, he averaged 36.5 points and shot 53%.

He was a pure gunner. His coach gave him a green light and the Wulf bombed away.

He was cocky, quick-tempered, fast, and at 6-1 was such a leaper that he jumped center. He was almost stocky, with shoulders and legs like a linebacker's. His jump shot came out of a textbook, into your face.

Some purists criticized Troy's one-man offense, but the fans dug it and Wulf packed every gym he played.

Since Wulfemeyer couldn't play defense, or just didn't bother to, the only college coaches who tried to recruit him were those whose gyms or arenas had scoreboards.

"Frank Arnold was the assistant coach at UCLA then, and he didn't think I could play against the quick, black players," Wulfemeyer said. "Then he saw us play Long Beach Poly, and I got 39 or 40. UCLA started coming around then, heavy."

That was where the bad decisions started. Wulfemeyer chose USC. Then, because he had a nice, live pitching arm in high school, the Angels offered him $42,500. He signed.

He reported to the Idaho Falls team and tore his elbow apart on his second warm-up toss. The rest of his six-year baseball career was pretty much downhill.

The irony here is that Wulfemeyer, who became a legend in basketball because of his amazing accuracy, became a bust in baseball because of his amazing inaccuracy.

"It's funny, but I just couldn't feel a release point," he said. "I couldn't feel it. You can't practice pitching by yourself for hours, the way I had always practiced shooting a basketball.

"I'd pitch one good game, then three bad ones. I always had good stuff, I had all the tools, but the plate would move. It would jump around on me."

After a couple of years in the minors, Wulfemeyer decided to try playing college basketball in the offseason. He enrolled at USC, where Bob Boyd, who had recruited him, was the coach. Wulfemeyer played a season and a half, and never broke into the starting lineup.

He admits now that part of the problem might have been his attitude.

"I was used to doing what I damn well pleased (on the court)," Wulfemeyer says. "I was difficult to get along with in those days, but shoot, I shoulda been playing.

"We just didn't get along. For instance, I kept telling Boyd I could shoot better from 25 feet than from 20, but he always wanted me to get closer. One day I showed him, in practice. I made something like 6 out of 10 from 20 feet, and 8 of 10 from 25 feet. He got mad, said I did it on purpose.

"Maybe I shoulda just kept my mouth shut, but we were losing, and the guards weren't shooting. I was playing decent for him, not taking bad shots, and playing defense. He just wanted me to wait to take my turn, I guess."

Wulfemeyer didn't wait. He jumped the team halfway through the 1976-77 season and went back to baseball.

He tried picking up his hoops career again in '80-81 in Kansas, but once again--who can explain?--it didn't work out.

"He (the coach) ran the right type of offense for me," Wulfemeyer said. "He just played way too much defense."

Wulfemeyer thought about playing pro basketball in Europe. But he was 25 years old, by then, married, father of a young son.

"It was time to get down to business," he said. "She (Leslie, his wife) put up with a lot of stuff, she was tired of moving around, and I can't blame her. It was time for me to settle the life."

The Wulfemeyers returned to Orange County. Mark worked construction for a while, then got a job at the warehouse, where they like to hire ex-athletes with strong backs.

"It's good money, but you work for it," Wulfemeyer said.

He works the night shift, 8 p.m. till 4:30 a.m. Leslie, a former competitive skier, works for an Orange County magazine.

During the day, while Leslie is at work and his son is at preschool, Mark plays ball at the beach, shoots a round of golf--low 80s--or sits around the pool and Jacuzzi at his condo complex.

Next to the pool there is a concrete basketball court.

"I shoot every day, at least an hour," he says. "It helps take off my tensions."

He's 28 now, still in good shape at 6-2 and a solid 195. He talks about organizing a summer basketball camp for kids, a specialty camp that would provide intensive instruction in only one aspect of the game. Guess which aspect.

Wulfemeyer swears he never kicks himself for having taken all those wrong turns in his athletic life. That's behind him, and he tries to heed the advice John Wooden gave him over that dinner years ago.

"But I'd jump at the chance to play," Wulfemeyer said. "If someone called tomorrow, I'd be there."

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