Christian Ansgar Welp, the 7-foot senior star of the University of Washington basketball team, sat in his small apartment just off campus recently, playing with his pet boa constrictor and reflecting on life in America. "Even without basketball," said the Osnabrück, West Germany, native, "I feel my future would be here rather than in Germany."
As the four-foot reptile slid over and around Welp's arm, its tongue rapidly flicking in and out and its beady little eyes trained on the tiger oscars serenely swimming in the aquarium across the room, Welp (pronounced Velp) spoke of his immediate future. "My first goal is winning the Pac-10 championship," he said. "Then it would help if we made it to the Final Four." Well, so far, sehr gut. In Washington's conference opener on Dec. 21, Welp played eine kleine Nachtmusik on UCLA, scoring a career-high 40 points, with 9 rebounds, as the Huskies savaged the Bruins 90-80.
Welp contemplated the boa for a moment. He doesn't know if it's a he or a she, but he does know it could grow to be as tall as its master, or taller, if its current ration of one live rat per fortnight was upped to, say, a rodent a week. Welp says this will not happen, because one 7-footer in the apartment is enough.
Welp is a little sensitive on the subject of size. And it's not just the rude remarks from some Seattle-area wits that make him come across as a bit reserved and aloof. After all, it was his size that brought Welp here in the first place. "Basketball was the instrument that got me here," says Welp, who first came to the U.S. as a high school exchange student. "I only wanted to come here for one year to learn English."
February 9, 1987
That was four years ago. Welp's English is now wunderbar, and his game is getting hotter by the day. He has helped lead the Huskies to three straight NCAA tournaments and two Pac-10 titles. But that's Husky history. This season, in Washington's first 17 games, Welp averaged 21.4 points and 9.1 rebounds per game while leading the Huskies to a 10-7 record. He should become the school's No. 1 alltime scorer by the end of the season.
After the UCLA game, Bruin coach Walt Hazzard said, "He's head and shoulders above every other center in the country. He's the best center in college basketball right now. He's tough to deal with inside."
Second-year Husky coach Andy Russo, whose opinion is informed but understandably biased, says, "I think David Robinson [who appears to owe two years of service to the U.S. Navy] is a great player, but since his pro career is still questionable at this time, Chris undoubtedly would have to be considered the top center in the country. I worked with all the good American players at the trials for the world championships last summer," he says, "and there are a lot of big players that play center that would be better suited as forwards. But as far as true centers go, Chris is the best." Of course, Welp wasn't at those trials; he showed up at the worlds in Spain as a member of the West German national team.
Which is another one of the things that make Welp different from most U.S. college players. He has been playing international ball since he was 17. At the 1984 Olympics he twice wheeled past a surprised Patrick Ewing, only to miss a pair of layups (West Germany finished eighth; the U.S. first). The next year Welp went up against the Soviet Union's 7'2" Arvidas Sabonis at the European championships. This past summer he faced Navy's Robinson at the worlds, where the West German team failed to advance beyond the opening round-robin.
Every spring Welp flies home to Deutschland, although as far as he's concerned it's Seattle that ranks über alles. "I really like this country, but playing for the [West German] national team gives me practice and keeps me in shape," he says. "Last summer we played eight games in the world championships and 10 or 12 games to get ready for that. People say I'm so lucky—I've got a scholarship to play at Washington and every summer go back to Europe. But it's hard work."
Welp took up basketball at age 12, when he was already six feet tall, joining a club in Osnabrück to learn the game. He paid three marks (about $1.50) a month to play with the club team, which practiced only once a week, for 90 minutes. The surface of the court on which the team worked out was linoleum, and the coaching, by volunteers, was at best hit-and-miss. Welp had to supply his own jersey, shorts, socks and shoes. But he proved adept at the game and three years later moved up in class, joining the B.C. Giants, a club that practiced twice a week. That was a big step. The Giants actually got to play on a hardwood court occasionally. "We even had a sponsor who paid for the shorts and jerseys," says Welp. "But not the socks."
When Welp turned 16, two important things happened. The Giants won the league championship, and he grew five inches. By then, the 6'11" Welp was stuck with basketball; he was far too tall for Germany's No. 1 sport, soccer. "Basketball in Germany is about as popular as soccer is here," he says. When a junior national team assistant coach asked the players if any of them would like to spend a year in America as exchange students, Welp did not leap at the idea. He waited a year and then thought, Why not?
So in 1982 Chris said auf Wiedersehen to his mother, Ingrid; father, Conrad; brother, Joachim; and his sister, Barbara, and traveled some 6,600 miles to enroll as a senior at Olympic High and live in Jim and Jean Hansel's log house in Central Kitsap, Wash., an hour's ferry ride from Seattle. The Hansels had hosted several exchange students before, but they were surprised at young Welp's maturity. "Chris had had more life experiences than the average 18-year-old," says Jim. "He'd traveled all over Europe, so he wasn't overwhelmed by coming to another country like I or my son [Ken, 21] would have been."
"Chris fit right into this family," says Jean. "I mean, it was like he'd been here all his life."
Welp adores his adopted family, and refers to them as "my stepfather, stepmother, stepsister [Barbara, 23] and stepbrother," and it's not hard to see why. Jim is an orthodontist who describes himself as a "solar baby." To keep from going crazy on rainy days, he carves prizewinning duck decoys, loons and other birds. Jean helps keep his appointments straight, does the billing on their home computer, and gardens. And they are rabid basketball fans.
"I get really up at a game," says Jean. "Jim doesn't like to sit next to me."
"It hurts my ears," he says. "Jean can get meaner than a junkyard dog if she thinks somebody's doing her kids wrong. We feel Chris gets homered a lot."
"I'd like to kill some of those referees," she says.
With support like that, how could Welp lose? But there were, naturally, a few moments of culture shock as Chris adjusted to the American way of life.
•Peanut butter. Says Jean, "In Europe they don't eat peanut butter much, and Chris was convinced it would taste awful." But he tried it and liked it. With one slightly un-American difference: Welp eats it with bologna and cheese.
•The language. Having studied formal Oxford English for four years in Osnabrück, Welp had a spot of trouble with the American version spoken by some of his acquaintances. After a coach at Washington chewed out the players one day for not talking to each other on defense, one teammate shouted, "I don't hear nobody saying nothing!" Welp pondered the triple negative for a moment, then offered, "Well, that's one way of saying it."
•Cruising. "I asked somebody what was going on, I thought a movie had let out or something," says Welp. "The first couple of times I went cruising I felt kind of uncomfortable. But I enjoyed it. There's nothing like it in all of Europe because you don't have the same kind of street structure. There are no blocks. You could drive for miles in Germany and not come back to the same spot."
•American beer. "You can get used to it."
Has he adjusted? Well, how German can a guy be who drives a 1979 Ford Bronco, likes Gary Larson cartoons and enjoys hitting fungoes to the Hansel dogs in the backyard?
In his very first game at Olympic he scored 28 points and grabbed 28 rebounds in a 75-56 walloping of Bremerton. Olympic lost just one game that season, and Welp led the Trojans to the state AA title, their first ever.
Even before Welp's American high school debut, Marv Harshman, then the coach at Washington, knew about him from Husky forward Detlef Schrempf. Schrempf had met Welp two years earlier at a German national junior team competition in Bulgaria. (See how these Germans get around?) And though Harshman had not yet seen Welp play, he invited him to a Washington football game soon after the young German arrived. "I was only here about a week and a half," says Welp, "when I got my recruiting trip to the University of Washington." Two months later, before Chris had played a game at Olympic—and before any other college had heard of him—he signed a letter of intent with Washington. "They got me for the price of the ferry ticket from Bremerton," he says. That would be $3.20.
Welp joined the 6'9" Schrempf in the fall of '83 and together they formed the so-called Berlin Wall that led the Huskies to the Pac-10 title in both '83-84 and '84-85. Welp won the conference's Rookie of the Year award but languished in the shadow of Schrempf, a fierce competitor who would play an intramural game in the morning, a Pac-10 game in the afternoon and more pickup ball at night. That wasn't Welp's idea of fun.
He is a much more cosmopolitan guy, interested in wildlife photography, hunting, camping, scuba diving, auto racing, studying for his major in graphic design or just spending time with his live-in girlfriend, Marni Getchell, a Washington junior. What would seem to be perfectly normal behavior for an undergraduate is quite out of the ordinary for a 7-foot basketball player with hopes of an NBA career. His diverse interests and reserved ways earned Welp a bad rep. "He's talented," said Ralph Klein, the coach of the West German team, in 1984, "but lazy."
Welp's reputation for being uninvolved, unemotional and uncommitted has followed him across the basketball courts of America. Two years ago, when both Harshman and Schrempf left the Huskies—Harshman for retirement, Schrempf for the Dallas Mavericks—Russo, the new coach, was forced to restructure the team around Welp. Russo came on like a Prussian general; he put the team through a punishing conditioning program and established strict rules, for example, requiring jackets and ties on planes. Even today, Russo will walk by the training table and knock the hat off any player wearing one, with the admonition: "Now, your mom wouldn't let you wear a hat at the table, would she?"
He was equally brusque and sometimes sarcastic in practice. "I don't have time to sit down and hug 'em up and explain things to them," Russo says. "I'm sure they all walk around wondering why I'm doing this, but years from now they'll be doing the same thing to someone else. If you can make them understand that you're doing it to make them better and not because you're picking on them, well, that's a very hard thing for kids to understand." It was something of a shock to Welp and the other veteran Huskies, after the low-key Harshman. "He was like a father to us," says Clay Damon, a senior guard and Welp's good friend. "He was one of the main reasons Chris came to Washington."
Harshman still keeps an eye on Welp. He was there when Welp scored his 40 points against UCLA. "I think he's capable of quite a few nights like that," says Harshman. "He's become a little more aggressive, though probably most people can't tell. He's more of a finesse player, which is rare these days. He's the best-equipped center I've ever had."
Welp has worked hard on his conditioning this season and, with an eye on the NBA, will be lifting weights through the spring and summer. "I'm going to be his weight coach and get him up in the morning," says Damon. "He realizes that this is his last year in college, and if he's going to be a force in the pros he's got to hit the weight room, put on 25, 30 pounds of upper-body muscle, and come out and knock some guys around. In college he hasn't needed to get physical. He's been able to rebound over a guy and take the shortcuts."
But Welp has a history of foul trouble. In his 3½ seasons at Washington he has committed 402 fouls and fouled out 25 times; the former is a Husky record and the latter is close. Despite his uneven playing, Russo sees improvement. "He's a much better defensive player than when I first got here," says Russo. "He didn't understand defensive positioning when his man didn't have the ball. He played behind, let his man catch the ball and then tried to block it. His foul trouble is magnified because when he fouls out, we lose a lot. So we have to take him out with two fouls."
Even when Welp is in the game, Russo would like to get more out of him. The coach was upset this fall when Welp let it be known he didn't want to be team captain. "I couldn't believe that a guy who was going to get so much out of playing basketball didn't have the courage to give something back," Russo said.
"When things aren't going right," Welp says, "the captain is supposed to really get on the players. I felt I couldn't do a good job of that. I feel I can lead by example."
One of Welp's examples was set last season when he strolled back to the bench during an on-court brawl in a game against Montana. Welp saw the fight as a chance for him to rest while the players duked it out on the floor. Says the loyal Damon, "I think if I had been Chris, I would have played it safe, too. I mean, he might have broken a hand or a leg or something. He's got a lot more on the line than most of the other guys out there on the floor."
When the NBA lays it on the line, Welp hopes to play for a West Coast team. As Welp talked in his apartment about the future, the door opened and in walked Marni. She is wearing the diamond ring Chris gave her last June, although he says they're not engaged. "It's unofficially official," says Marni. Still, she is planning to leave school (she's a German major, of course) a year early, when Welp does, and follow him to whichever NBA city he ends up in. "We're both still young, and we don't want to jump into anything. But we're a step closer than most people."
All told, it hasn't been a bad sojourn in the U.S. for a guy who had planned to stay just one year. Which is only as it should be in the land of the free and the home of the NBA.