Thursday January 17th, 2008

BOISE, Idaho -- The deep fryer hung 6 feet, 6 inches above the floor. Joe Wolf was 6-11. The fryer had him by five painful inches.

"Which is why my wife says I slouch now,'' says Wolf, who played 11 seasons in the NBA. "My brother is 7 feet, and I don't know how many times we've knocked ourselves loopy. But there's no workmen's comp for the owner.''

He would come home to Wisconsin from the Denver Nuggets or the Orlando Magic or any of the other six professional teams for which he played in the NBA or Spain, and he would go to work in the Dairy Queen. He had been talked into buying it by his older brother Jeff, whose seven knee operations had cut short his playing career. Based on that kind of experience, there was no telling when or how Joe might need to find another line of work. So there he was, standing in the heat of the kitchen, banging his head.

"Summers when I would get done with my playing in the NBA, I'd go in there and work the 80-hour weeks and have my 32 employees underneath me,'' he says. "We seat 84 people, we have drive-thru and we're open 10-10, seven days a week except for four and a half days a year. I'd work back in the kitchen doing everything. You make the burgers, you make the chicken sandwiches, the steak sandwiches, the fries, the hot dogs.''

The odor of the grease would seep into him like a tan. "Yeah, isn't that great?'' he says. "But you don't think about it because you're in it every day, and it's not like you take a day off. You're in there, you're working it, you're learning just like I do now. You learn a business by doing it, and that's what I'm trying to do now.''

Now he is coaching the Colorado 14ers of the NBADL, the minor league whose mission is to replenish the NBA with talent. It's much easier to pick out the future players in the D-League than it is to determine the future NBA coaches. Which coaches will be able to command respect while encouraging millionaires with guaranteed contracts to play for one another? You never really know until he's in the job, and even then, as Scott Skiles can tell you, the dynamic of success remains fragile and unpredictable on a daily basis.

But Wolf has a lot of the requisite qualities. Not only was he influenced heavily by his four years of playing for Dean Smith, but Wolf also is part of the Carolina brotherhood that has produced Larry Brown, Doug Moe, George Karl and so many other excellent coaches. He knows what it's like to be a first-round pick (No. 13 overall in 1987, by the Clippers) and to adjust to a variety of roles to fit into a team, as he did until a dislocated right elbow injury ended his career as a 34-year-old in 1999.

"I played with Michael [Jordan] and Sam Perkins in college, then I also played with Shaq [O'Neal] and Penny [Hardaway] in the heydays of the Orlando Magic, so I understood what their life was to a degree by being around them,'' Wolf says. "I understand what a role player's job is and what he goes through every day. I understand being on a non-guaranteed contract because I was there a couple of times, and how much pressure there is every day on everything that you do -- you don't want to do the wrong thing at that level because you may not get a second chance. So maybe trying to figure it out during my playing career has helped me trying to figure it out during my coaching career.''

That's why so many NBA executives are impressed by Wolf. More than 60 are here for the annual D-League Showcase, an intensive four-day event enabling NBA teams to evaluate the minor-league talent. Several NBA execs told me that the 43-year-old Wolf tops the list of coaches with a chance to become an NBA assistant, which could position him to become a head coach over the next few years.

"For one thing, he's an extremely hard worker,'' one personnel executive says. "When you see Joe at the Vegas summer league, he's bringing his lunch with him to the gym because he's planning to stay there all day watching games, looking for players that he might bring to his team next season.

"Then you watch him coach and he has the right kind of temperament. He rarely gets upset with the referees and you don't see him yelling a lot at the players, which tells you his focus is on the things his team needs to do in order to win.''

Perspective appears to be one of Wolf's main strengths. Not long ago he was named Wisconsin's greatest high school player, and yet as a relatively young pro he was operating his own Dairy Queen because he never believed the hype that the NBA owed him a living. As a player he drove the same Jeep Wrangler for a dozen years; now he has a Ford F-150 truck with 186,000 miles.

"I was fortunate to grow up in a family that was living in the real world,'' he says. "I was in the make-believe world of pro sports as a player, but they kept me grounded. I had good, solid parents: One was a truck driver, one was a nurse. So there was no fluff in our family.''

It takes ingenuity to maintain an 11-year career while averaging 4.2 points and 3.3 rebounds.

"You never get tired of competing,'' he says. "But your mind gets tired of the aches and pains you overcome to compete. So when you're young and you go through the two-a-days and your body's hurting, you want to get out there and do it again -- and that's fun. When you're 34-35 years old and your body's hurting and mentally you can't handle it, that's when it becomes tough. To pick myself up mentally and play against a Kevin Garnett, who was 18 or whatever, was especially tough because he was much more gifted than I was, so I had to be even more jacked up because my body was hurting so much.

"Unfortunately or fortunately for me, I got hurt right when that started to happen.''

As a result of nerve damage to his elbow, Wolf has never regained feeling in the pinky as well as half of the ring finger of his right hand. Upon retirement he imagined going back to work at his DQ in Sheboygan Falls while pursuing other career opportunities nearby in his hometown of Kohler. He was going to reinvent himself. But then he began to assist his brother Jeff, who was coaching a state championship high school team in basketball. Eventually Wolf was on the phone to Smith, asking for help to find full-time work in coaching. For two years he was a volunteer aide to Karl with the Milwaukee Bucks, and with Smith's assistance he then was hired as an assistant coach at William & Mary in 2003. One year later Larry Krystkowiak recommended Wolf to be his replacement as head coach of the CBA's Idaho Stampede. Wolf stayed for two seasons and then last year he became head coach of the 14ers.

Wolf coached them to the D-League championship game last season, where they lost 129-121 in OT to the Dakota Wizards. This season Colorado is 10-9 even though Elton Brown -- the best low-post scorer in the D-League -- is their only player 6-9 or taller.

Near the end of our conversation, I ask Wolf why anyone would want to be a head coach in the NBA. He laughs, but I'm only half-joking: Apart from the money and the opportunity to contend with a few franchises, the job of a head coach in the NBA often appears to be a miserable experience.

"You term it as 'headaches,' " he says. "For us it's just the way of doing business. It's just the way of playing basketball, the way of figuring out how to make your team better. I never looked at basketball as a headache.''

Basketball isn't the problem, I answer. It's everything else that causes the headaches.

"But that is basketball now. You know?'' he says. "All of that extracurricular stuff that happens -- that is basketball. That's the world we live in and the basketball world we live in, and if you want to be a part of it, you have to figure it out.''

If anybody can figure it out, it's a wise, calm fighter like him.

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