A ch du lieber! What in the name of tradition and protective tariffs has happened to good old American basketball? Say Pauley Pavilion nowadays, and people think you're talking about a set on the Today show. Say Detlef Schrempf—just pronounce it slowly, as it looks—and you're naming the runner-up for Pac-10 Player of the Year.
Schrempf is the 6'9½" towheaded Teuton who plays basketball anywhere Washington coach Marv Harshman asks him to—and occasionally, as we'll see, in places Harshman asks him not to. This season, playing forward, he has driven the Huskies to where UCLA alone once stood.
At the end of last week, Washington was ranked No. 16 in SI's Top 20, 21-6 overall and 14-3, a half game ahead of Oregon State, at the top of the Pac-10. With another West German—7-foot Pac-10 Freshman of the Year Christian Welp (pronounced velp)—and a little domestic help, Schrempf, a junior, is threatening to turn Harshman's motivational slogan, Final Four in '84, into more than just a promo for the NCAA championships, which Washington will host beginning March 31. The Huskies in something other than a receiving line at the Kingdome? Think twice before you say "Mush."
Until a couple of years ago, American coaches would have written off Schrempf or Welp sight unseen. That they're held in such high regard today only goes to show how far basketball has come in the Federal Republic. "When I was 13, I had to join a club to play," Schrempf says. "You couldn't find a pickup game. Now you can. Now there are hoops all over."
March 12, 1984
That's not to say the sport's appeal among West Germans comes anywhere near soccer's. "Basketball still ranks down there with badminton," says Buzz Harnett, a former U. of San Diego forward, who's now playing in the Bundesliga, the country's top league. But more and more tall young Germans whose height made it difficult for them to excel at soccer are taking hoops sabbaticals in the States, and American colleges as well as the West German national team are sharing in the benefits. For the first time ever, West Germany has a legitimate shot at making the Olympics on merit (in 1936 and 1972 the Germans, as host country, automatically made the Games). It must break out of a pack of about five or six middle-echelon European teams to claim one of the three spots still available to them for L.A. '84 at the regional qualifying tournament in Paris in May.
In addition to Schrempf and Welp, other West Germans currently playing in the U.S. include Indiana's 7'2" Uwe Blab; Uwe's little (7-foot) brother Olaf and 7-foot Jens Kujawa (yens ku-YA-va), who are exchange students and rival centers for Charleston and Taylorville high schools in central Illinois; 6'9" Thomas Deuster of two-year Centralia (Wash.) College; and 6'7" Lutz Wadehn, a freshman at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash. "Uwe Blab and Detlef Schrempf were talented in Germany, but they didn't dominate until they had played in the U.S.," says J√∂rg Trapp, coach of a club team in Hagen. "They're realizing their potential there."
Now about this Detlef Schrempf: His surname is an odd one even in his hometown of Leverkusen, an industrial city of 180,000 in the Rhineland. It has the highest consonant-to-vowel ratio of any name in the U.S. college game since Terrell Schlundt finished his career last season at Marquette. Schrempf is Harshman's first German since the immortal Uli Sledz, a 7-foot, 220-pound, 27-year-old monument to immobility, played 20 minutes for Washington in 1977-78. (The Huskies unhitched themselves from Sledz after that one adventurous season.)
That puts Schrempf in some perspective. But it ignores the fundamental question: Can he play?
Can he, for instance, handle the ball? "He's the white Magic," says Oregon coach Don Monson, who helped recruit and coach Earvin (Zauber) Johnson at Michigan State.
Handle the pressure? At last summer's junior World Championship tournament in Majorca, Schrempf hit a baseline jumper to send West Germany's game with the U.S. into overtime. Then, with the Germans down by five in the final minute of OT, he buried another J, fed Welp for two and nailed still another shot—with :02 left—to give Germany an 88-87 win over Kenny Walker, Pearl Washington, et al., the team that went on to win the gold medal. That's known as being a Basketballwunder.
Handle the crowds? "They seem a little childish," Schrempf says, "but they don't bother me." He's referring to fun-loving American fans who call him things like Nazi. Taunts of such flavor might have been expected from the infamous Antlers jeering section at Missouri and the specialists in Southern inhospitality at LSU, but from the ever-tolerant citizenry of the Pacific Coast? Well, most of the razzing there has been good natured. In a game at Oregon's McArthur Court, for instance, the most tasteless banner read TIGHTEN THE IMMIGRATION LAWS, and the pregame chants were "Dead Shrimp! Dead Shrimp!" Schrempf's 23 points, nine rebounds and four assists proved him to be very much alive.
Handle the language? Just listen to Schrempf, asking one teammate about another: "Yo, A.V., where's Shag at?"
Schrempf has been known to carry around a large portable stereo; he drives a lean, mean silver Cutlass, affects the bouncy walk of an inner-city kid and is more likely to leave his be's unconjugated than refer to his school as "Vashington." Says Harshman, "Socially and in the music he listens to, he's like a white black kid." At Centralia (Wash.) High, where he spent a year as an exchange student, his best friend was the only black player on the basketball team. Says Schrempfs current main man, Husky guard Alvin Vaughn, "Every time he buys an album, he shows it to me."
"Basketball fits the music," says Schrempf with a shrug. He shrugs a lot. "The rhythm gets me going."
And once he gets going, he simply can't be chased from the gym. He spent half of last summer in Seattle, "just hanging out, playing hoop." He played three times a day—sometimes outdoors at Green Lake Park, sometimes at a racquetball club with members of the NBA SuperSonics, sometimes at night in the campus intramural gym and anytime he could at Montlake Gym, about a half mile from campus. Montlake is also known as The Criminal Court, because of the police records of some of the participants or for the assaults perpetrated underneath the basket, or both—in short, no place for tourists. Yet Schrempf was granted a wide berth there. Says former Husky guard Steve Burks, a Seattle pickup regular, "We call him Det the Threat."
Schrempf is such a gym rat that efforts by the Washington coaches to excise the double pumps and finger rolls from his game have gone for naught. In season, he'll slip into the Huskies' Edmundson Pavilion at nine most mornings to shoot alone. When he was hobbling around on crutches because of ankle ligament exhaustion he-fore fall practice this season, Harshman banned him from the intramural gym. But, says Welp, "Detlef's there anyway."
Harshman forgives him those trespasses mainly because pickup ball—Schrempf calls it "rat ball"—has so sped up his development. "As a freshman, he didn't have confidence that he could really play against American kids," says Husky assistant Bob Johnson. Nor did he really have the bulk. In fact, when Harshman first saw the 6'7", 175-pound Schrempf play as an exchange student at Centralia, the coach was unimpressed. "He wasn't a prospect. He was a suspect," says Harshman.
By interspersing weight work with rat ball, Schrempf has built himself up to 215 pounds. Still, Washington's opponents ought to find it easy enough to defense a team whose leading scorer (15.7), rebounder (7.4), playmaker (3.1 assists), thief (1.1 steals) and foul shooter (74.6%) all come packed in such a lean and angular body. But Schrempf's thinness makes him that much more elusive. He gives the ball up and moves maddeningly well without it. "Both Detlef and Chris do," Harshman says. "In the international game there's a lot less posting up because of the wide lane and 30-second clock."
Wags in the Seattle press, playing off their nickname for the Sonics' front line of a season ago—the Winnebago Wall—have called Schrempf and Welp the Berlin Wall. That's not just a geographic misnomer (Welp, like Schrempf, is from Germany's northwest, some 250 miles from Berlin); it misleadingly suggests the two are of a piece. In fact, except for their poise ("They're the least awestruck of any players I've had," Harshman says) and their academic excellence (both have B averages), Schrempf and Welp are as dissimilar as they could be.
Welp's 7-foot, 240-pound physique isn't soft, though his eyes, voice and jump shot are. He has the patient temperament of a wildlife photographer, which he is. Early in the season he would just smile whenever Harshman hollered at him. "Chris has very good physical tools," says Schrempf. "But he's just not aggressive." Ralph Klein, the new coach of the West German National Team, is more blunt: "He's talented, but lazy."
Welp was a 6-foot, 12-year-old student about to enter the Ratsgymnasium—that was his secondary school; a German gym rat would be called a Turnhallenratte—in his hometown of Osnabr√ºck when he saw a circular for boys interested in playing basketball. The gangly Welp gave it a try. Six years and 11 inches later, he had become the starting center for the local club team, the BC Giants Osnabr√ºck. The Giants are run by a self-styled George Steinbrenner who spent hundreds of thousands of deutsche marks bankrolling the club's rapid ascent from the bush leagues to the Bundesliga. During Welp's five years with the BC Giants, they never lost a league game.
Still, when German junior national team coach Bernd R√∂der placed him in an exchange program at Olympic High in Silverdale, Wash. last year, Welp hadn't gone up against much stiff competition, and his German team hadn't spent nearly as much time practicing as American teams do. Even at Olympic, he just languished back in a zone, swatting away a shot here and there. "The coaches [in the U.S.] tell me to be more physical," says Welp confusedly, his English slightly more accented than Schrempf's. "But I'm in foul trouble anyway." But Welp has improved steadily since January. "Chris isn't a gazelle," says Harshman, "but he's running more fluidly."
Schrempf, for his part, filled in at center for much of last season. But like a certain multi-talented L.A. Laker, he can play guard, too. "Magic Johnson's style gets me every time he plays," Schrempf says. "It's not just his skills, it's his enthusiasm. I like Dr. J because he's so controlled. He's a leader on the court. But if I could choose, I'd like to play more like Magic. I get satisfaction passing the ball—maybe too much, the coaches say."
Indeed, Schrempf averages barely more than 10 shots a game. Yet when the Huskies need leadership, he has proved to be a sort of Herr Professor Doktor J. "If we can get the ball to Detlef," says Harshman, "something good's going to happen." Something like:
•His 27 points in Washington's 89-81 come-from-behind triple-overtime defeat of UCLA on Feb. 4.
•His successful one-and-one in OT against Notre Dame on Jan. 9, which gave Washington a 63-61 win and complemented Welp's 23 points and 12 rebounds. HUSKIES' GERMANS CONQUER THE IRISH roared The Seattle Times.
•His virtuoso performance a few days earlier, with Washington trailing Washington State in the second half. Schrempf found Welp inside for a layup and Lester (Shag) Williams for another, dropped in an alley-oop and, over the next six minutes, nailed three jumpers and a free throw. The Huskies won 58-48.
•His two steals and 10 points in 3½ minutes, after Arizona had Washington down 10 with less than nine minutes left. The Huskies never looked back.
•His career-high 34 points, with nine-of-11 shooting in the second half of last Sunday's 71-66 victory at USC that kept Washington in first place following a 73-59 loss at UCLA.
If Schrempf, at 13, hadn't disliked his soccer coach and injured his right foot, he might never have turned to basketball. He began learning the game just as many American kids do—shooting baskets at home. Only his rim wasn't over the Schrempf family garage. It was next to the front door, and neighbors complained to Berthold and Doris Schrempf about Detlef's dribbles into the night.
As a teen-ager, he raced on his motorbike between practices for two different teams. "I got good coaching," Schrempf says. "My German coach [Otto Reintjes] forced all players to learn all skills, including ball handling. He believed a position shouldn't be yours because of your height." Soon a friend named Thomas R√∂hrich, who had spent a year in America as an exchange student at Centralia High, put Schrempf in touch with Ron Brown, the Tiger coach.
In 1980-81, Schrempf's only season at Centralia, the Tigers won the state AA title, and Schrempf was named the tournament's MVP. Two years later Olympic did the same thing, with another young West German—Welp, this time—winning tourney MVP honors. The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association limits exchange students to one year of eligibility. That's why Kujawa transferred to Taylorville High in Illinois last fall after playing a season at Sehome High in Bellingham, Wash.
Indiana's Uwe Blab, the best known of the current U.S. Germans, seems to have started the flow in this basketball pipeline. In 1979, Blab's club, DJK Munich, was hosting Effingham (Ill.) High during a tour through Europe when Blab approached the Effingham scorekeeper and inquired whether a Bavarian teenager might spend a year or two in the States, soaking up the culture and polishing his English. The scorekeeper was a man named Chuck Keller, a millionaire oilman and mover and shaker back home. "This kid tapped me on the shoulder," remembers Keller. "I turned, and looked up and up and up."
The following season Effingham had itself a big German center, and Keller, a University of Illinois booster who put Blab up at his house for two seasons, wanted his find to become the toast of Champaign. But Uwe (it's commonly mispronounced OO-vay, instead of the correct OO-vuh) preferred Indiana. Coach Bobby Knight's reputation and hubris—"I don't recruit you," he told Blab, "You recruit me"—ultimately made him a Hoosier. "My decision to go to Indiana was pretty much trouble to a lot of people," says Blab.
It certainly caused trouble for Jim Maxedon, the Effingham coach, whom Keller accused of steering Blab toward Bloomington. Folks in downstate Illinois are calling what has happened since. Chuck Keller's Revenge, for it was the same Keller who was instrumental in arranging for Olaf Blab and Kujawa to come to the state, and they happen to play for Effingham's conference rivals, Charleston and Taylorville, respectively.
The two schools have met three times this season, and Kujawa has outplayed Olaf on each occasion. But that's to be expected. Olaf has been playing basketball for only five years and still looks awkward. Kujawa, by contrast, is strong and confident, having been a player for nine years. While Olaf is unsure whether he'll go on to an American college in the fall, Kujawa, an Elvis Presley memorabilia collector, plans to stay. California and the Fighting Illini are leading in the hunt.
But the most noteworthy German import has yet to pass through customs. He's 7'4" Gunther Behnke, 20, of Pulheim, who'll probably start ahead of Uwe Blab on the West German Olympic Team if he settles some problems with the coach. Kentucky assistant coach Jim Hatfield has already made three trips to the Continent to check him out. Some 30 other schools—including UTEP, Wyoming and Illinois—are also pursuing Behnke, who plays for Schremp's old club, Bayer Leverkusen, and had 29 points and 15 rebounds in that West German win over the U.S. in Majorca. "He's got the height, the jumping ability—all the skills," Kujawa says. Though Bayer Leverkusen will probably offer him inducements to stay, Behnke wants to come to the U.S.—and the word is he's leaning toward the Wildkatzen.
If all this importing suggests a trend in the making, that it just may be. Houston has been a force in the Southwest Conference for three years with 7-foot Akeem Abdul Olajuwon from Nigeria. Now Washington is doing it to the Pac-10 with Germans. Perhaps Kentucky will be next. "There are plenty of good guards and forwards in the U.S.," says the Wildcats' Hatfield. "But you can't learn size. If we have to, to get a good player, we'll go to Mars."
To be sure, a few American earthlings have contributed to the Huskies' best season in almost a decade. You can't get more Yankee than Washington's gold-medal backcourt. Up close and personal, that's Vaughn, the senior point guard out of Debbie Armstrong's Garfield High in Seattle, who slaloms through zone presses; and Williams, Vaughn's sophomore running mate, who's from Steve and Phil Mahre's town of Yakima, Wash.
Meanwhile, at 66, Harshman remains a coach's coach. After Washington beat Oregon 79-58 on Feb. 18, Ducks coach Monson said, "I'm glad it was him. He's a gracious person and a great coach." Perhaps because Harshman has been hidden in the Pacific Northwest all his 39-year career, few know that he'll become Division I's winningest active coach when DePaul's Ray Meyer retires. At week's end he was 617-437. So his most recent recruiting windfall seems particularly just, especially because he'll be retiring, himself, following the 1984-85 season.
Believe it or not, the infusion of help from abroad comes more by way of coincidence than by some German connection. The coach has no Marvharshall Plan to airlift players into Seattle. Harshman had never even visited West Germany until last summer. "I only know one word in German," he says. "That's eins."
At Washington, that's been a foreign word—in any language—for a long time. Eins is the number one.