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Oh, but for 20 Minutes . . . : It's Enough Time, Perhaps, for Engelstad to Rewrite UCI History

HOW THEY'RE DOING: One in a series

July 16, 1993|MICHAEL ITAGAKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IRVINE — Looking back at his four-year basketball career at UC Irvine, Wayne Engelstad found only one thing that haunts him to this day.

It wasn't his former coach, Bill Mulligan, who sometimes labeled the hefty center as an over-eating, underachieving player.

It wasn't the disappointment that after signing with Irvine while shunning Arizona, UCLA, and USC among others, no NBA franchise selected Engelstad during the 1988 draft.

Shaking his head, Engelstad said: "If I could have any 20 minutes over in my career, with a fresh set of legs . . . "

Flash back to his senior season and the three-day Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. tournament at the Forum in 1988.

Engelstad scored 61 points to lead Irvine to consecutive upsets over Cal State Long Beach and seventh-ranked Nevada Las Vegas, sending the Anteaters to the finals and leaving them a victory over Utah State away from the NCAA tournament.

In the finals, Engelstad scored 19 points to lead UCI to a seven-point halftime lead over the Aggies. UCI was only one half--20 minutes--away from its first appearance in the NCAA tournament.

But it all slipped away. Engelstad made only four of 16 shots in the second half. While UCI point guard Mike Hess finished with 15 points, Utah State outscored Irvine, 50-36, in the second half to post an 86-79 victory.

It clinched the 10th trip to the NCAAs for the Aggies. Irvine hasn't threatened to crack the 64-team tournament field since.

"Engelstad and Hess carried us through the tournament," Mulligan said. "I think they just wore out in that game."

Said Engelstad: "We fell one step short--one step short."

*

Fast forward 5 1/2 years . . . Engelstad returned to Crawford Hall for a workout recently and he is playing with the Irvine Pros squad in the ASICS Southern California Summer Pro Basketball league currently running every day at the Bren Center.

Engelstad, third on UCI's career scoring list and fourth on the rebounding list, still has his blond flat-top. He still has his feathery shooting touch, quick first step, and muscle to spare under the boards.

And he still has the same 250-pound, 6-foot-8 frame he had in college.

While he hasn't changed the physique which brought him verbal abuse from coaches and opposing fans during his college career, four years of professional basketball and marriage have all helped Engelstad achieve a new sense of peace.

Engelstad endured broken bones in both feet and has played in Australia and Spain in the past five years before he moved to Portugal last season. He averaged 28 points to lead the league and finished fifth in rebounding and second in assists to help his team, Futbol Club Porto, reach the playoffs.

He will return to Portugal next season with a one-year guaranteed contract, "equivalent to a six-figure contract in the U.S.," Engelstad said.

Engelstad got a taste of the NBA, spending a brief time with the Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors before being cut, and he still has dreams of playing in the same league with former UCI teammates Scott Brooks and Tod Murphy of the Houston Rockets.

But he is also realistic.

"Right now, I wouldn't go to a rookie camp or a tryout unless I could get a guaranteed contract," Engelstad said.

Brooks and Murphy took the route to the NBA by way of the Continental Basketball Assn. Both played for the Albany Patroons, helping the team win the 1987-88 CBA championship.

Engelstad joined the La Crosse Catbirds midway through the 1991-'92 season, and watched former Laker and Clipper guard David Rivers lead the team to the CBA championship.

"It was unreal to see the caliber of players in the CBA and wonder why they aren't in the NBA," Engelstad said. "I saw Rivers (who averaged 13 assists) go for 40 points and 15 assists in back-to-back games. There's no way he shouldn't be in the NBA, I mean, wasn't anyone watching?

"It's been hard seeing players in the NBA hanging their heads after they start losing or if they make a mistake. They don't realize how lucky they are to be in the NBA. There are so many guys out there who would kill to have their jobs.

"It's just so hard to make an NBA team," Engelstad said. "Guys in the CBA are making $30,000 a year, so when you can make six figures overseas, it's hard to turn down that kind of money."

*

Without Bob Thate, Engelstad might not be making any money playing basketball.

"I always tell him that he saved my career," Engelstad said of Thate, the boys' basketball coach at Foothill.

Thate, an assistant coach at UCI when Engelstad was a sophomore, talked Engelstad out of transferring.

"Coach Mulligan never understood me," he said.

Engelstad arrived at UCI as a two-time prep All-American out of Rosemead Bosco Tech High. He was the most highly recruited player who ever signed at Irvine.

"He was the first big-time prospect out of high school we got," Mulligan said. "We even beat (Arizona Coach) Lute Olsen out."

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