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Gene Wojciechowski

Fighting Words Are His Way of Showing How Much He Cares

February 07, 1988|Gene Wojciechowski

You are Wayne Engelstad, which means you are 6-feet 7 1/2-inches, 250 pounds and play center for UC Irvine. Which means Bill Mulligan is your coach. Which means you get yelled at almost all the time.

Just about every practice, you do something wrong. You miss a shot. You botch a play. You forget to box out.

The other day, you didn't get a rebound. Sure enough, the little Irishman saw the whole thing. You knew this because his face had a reddish, lava-lamp glow to it. And then you heard the voice--his voice, crackly and penetrating, descended upon you. Soon, an angry stream of expletives washed over you like sewer water.

"AW, GEEZUS $!%&, WAYNE! YOU KNOW WHAT YOUR %$! PROBLEM IS? YOU'RE TOO %$& FAT! YOU'RE TOO $!&%$ SLOW! YOU'RE &!%$ OUT OF SHAPE! YOU WON'T $!%&! GO GET IT!"

Sometimes you want to scream back at the little Irishman and then walk out. But you don't. Instead, you try harder. Say what you will about Mulligan, he knows what buttons to push.

During a break in practice, one of the freshmen leans over and whispers, "How can you stand that?"

You pause for a moment and then answer, "I'm used to it."

You are Bill Mulligan, which means you are struggling to keep a team in contention for postseason play. Which means Wayne Engelstad is your meal ticket. Which means you yell almost all the time.

You don't want to. You like the chunkster. In the past month or so, you tell others that for the first time since Engelstad arrived at Irvine four years ago, you're friends. Not like you and former Irvine star Kevin Magee--that was really special--but friends, nonetheless.

Strange how this has worked out. Before the season started, you told your assistant coaches that no one player, mainly Engelstad, would rule the offense. That was before your outside shooters couldn't hit the side of the Bren Center. That was before Fat Tub of Goo Jr. began playing the way you knew he could. Before long, you are designing the entire game plan around Engelstad.

"It's reached that point because he's become so good," you say.

You are happy for Engelstad. After all, the chunkster grew up in a tough neighborhood; Rockwellian, it wasn't. You didn't make things much easier. You were on his case from Day One, stretching and straining your vocabulary to make a point. You brow-beat him, harangued him, berated him. You called him every conceivable name. It was a love-despise relationship.

Now look at you two: Dueling Backslappers.

You call him one of the five best players Irvine has ever had.

He says he understands and, in a way, appreciates the verbal abuse.

In a poignant locker room scene after last week's loss to Nevada Las Vegas, you tell Engelstad, who made only 10 of 26 field goal attempts: "Hey, there's going to be other nights."

He turns to you, his eyes red from crying, and says: "Tonight's the night I really wanted the good night."

You say he has "a chance" to play in the National Basketball Assn.

He says he has you to thank.

You say he has earned your respect. "If we're going to lose, I want it to be because Wayne missed the shots."

He says he'll miss you. "I will, a lot. I've spent four years of my life with him."

This is some odd couple.

Watch Engelstad during a game. While everyone else wears these state-of-the-art, $100 high-top fashion statements that slip on like ski boots, Engelstad wears boring, nondescript low-tops. The laces from his uniform shorts flop on the outside. He sweats buckets.

Engelstad is not a pretty basketball player. He has thighs the size of the latest Japanese import. You could serve coffee on his chest--vertically. He doesn't run as much as he lumbers.

If an opponent sees Engelstad for the first time? "I don't think he can think I'm a player," says Engelstad. "I mean, I see tapes of games. Just to look at myself, you'd think, 'This guy is a football player. He's out here just to bang. He's a role player, probably not a threat in their offensive plans.' "

And then Engelstad gets you on his hip, makes that move on the baseline and scores. Or he wanders out to the three-point line and lets loose with an attractive jumper and scores.

Against New Mexico State, he scored 40; against Bradley, 41; against Utah State, 35; against San Jose State, 29. So on and so forth. At last look, Engelstad was the 21st leading scorer in Division I-A.

"Hopefully, by the end of the game, I've changed every preconceived notion of me," he says. "At first, people say I'm a football player. Then they think about it and say, 'Wait, Irvine doesn't have a football team.' By the end, I want them to say, 'Hey, the big guy can play.' "

The big guy can play, all right. Arizona wanted him. So did Pepperdine. But after a successful stay at Don Bosco Tech, he chose Irvine and Mulligan.

"We had hoped he'd start right off as a freshman and do (well)," Mulligan says. "Maybe we expected too much."

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