“Retro Joe”

Assistant coach Wolf sported throwback Bucks uniform following storied Wisconsin prep career

Did you check out the 1990s jerseys the Milwaukee Bucks broke out Feb. 1 to tip off the National Basketball Association's annual Hardwood Classics initiative?

The Bucks will wear the green, purple, silver and white threads, which were worn as alternate uniforms during the 1995-96 season, in 10 games this season as the league celebrates the unique uniform stylings of the 1990s.

You won't see Joe Wolf sporting the retro gear, but the fifth-year Bucks assistant coach ought to get a personalized edition. He is, after all, a part of the franchise's 1990s heritage.

Wolf played 11 NBA seasons, totaling 2,485 points and 1,933 rebounds. He spent one of those seasons – the 1996-97 campaign -- with Milwaukee, scored 95 points and grabbed 112 rebounds while averaging 9.2 minutes in 56 appearances in jersey No. 23.

As far as anyone has documented, Wolf became only the second Wisconsin native to play for the Bucks, joining Jeff Webb, a former West Milwaukee High School standout who was a member of Milwaukee's 1971 NBA championship team. Since Wolf's stint, Tony Smith and Reece Gaines have earned that distinction.

To fully fathom Joe Wolf's greatest distinction, though, one would have to travel north from Milwaukee up I-43 to the little village of Kohler, nestled between Sheboygan and Sheboygan Falls, and delve into the rich basketball history of the Kohler High School Blue Bombers.

Enter the Kohler gym and you'll see championship banners from a variety of sports that are impressive for any school – let alone one with about 150 students.

Kohler's "wall of fame" salutes the school's WIAA Class C State Boys Basketball Tournament champions of 1980, '82 and '83. Just one player can lay claim to having a hand in all three, and on Dec. 20, 1996, Joe Wolf's jersey No. 42 was retired and placed in a display case, never to be worn by a Kohler Blue Bomber again.

Many longtime observers of the Wisconsin prep basketball scene still consider Joe Wolf the state's all-time greatest player.

Turning back the clock to the year 1979, the youngest of Leo and Patricia Wolf's seven children made  the Kohler High varsity as a 6-foot-5-inch, 164-pound freshman, joining their second-youngest son, 6-4 junior Jim. Stringbean Joe took his share of hard knocks, but they were nothing new to him.

"I remember playing against Joe and Jim two-on-one when they were younger and blocking all their shots," said Jeff Wolf, who led Kohler to the WIAA Class C title game in 1976 before going on to play at the University of North Carolina. "They'd get mad and discouraged, but they'd always come back for more."

There was little room for any big heads on the cement court that stood alongside the Wolfs' driveway.

"Our parents instilled in all of us that we should to our best," Jeff recalled. "They wanted us to have confidence in ourselves, but if anybody every got a little cocky, well, that was easy to take care of outside on the court."

Jeff can't remember his youngest brother ever having an attitude, though.

"That was never a problem with him," Jeff said. "He was always just plain Joe – a very down-to-earth person, very accessible and very friendly."

Joe remembers not only battling older brothers John, Jeff and Jim on the family court, but trying to emulate them.

"I just tried to be like my brothers," Joe said. "If they were playing basketball, I was playing basketball. If they were studying, I was studying. They were my idols growing up."

Joe scored 182 points (7 per game) during his freshman year, and along with brother Jim helped Kohler earn a share of the Central Lakeshore Conference title with Howards Grove. The Blue Bombers then strung together six playoff victories, including a 23-13 slowdown win over the Flying Dutchmen of Oostburg in their regional semifinal, to reach the state tourney in Madison.

Unshaken by playing before nearly 11,000 fans in the venerable University of Wisconsin Field House, coach Dan Buhr's crew defeated Edgar 68-58 in the Class C championship game. Jim Wolf was the leading scorer in the Class C field with 42 points, and Joe ranked third with 28.

Joe Wolf would go on to achieve fame and later fortune in his basketball career, but his first state championship experience is a memory he'll always treasure, and he considers Kohler's 1979-80 team the best he played on in high school.

"I think the biggest thing I take from high school is that I won a state championship with my brother,": Joe said. "That all goes back to family competition and togetherness."

Jeff Wolf wasn't around to witness much of Joe's freshman year, but what he did see told him that his youngest brother possessed enormous potential.

"You could tell that, as a freshman when they were down at the state tournament, Joe had something that set him apart," Jeff said. "It was how he reacted to playing in a state championship game – he came in and played very calmly, and he never let all the things that people get caught up in off the court affect him.

"At that point, I could tell that, besides the talent, he had the demeanor and mental toughness to be a very good player."

Freshman Joe made an impression on his coach as well.

"His brother Jeff had gone on to North Carolina, and people were saying that Joe was better than Jeff at the same stage," Dan Buhr said. "He was just so fundamentally sound. Later in his career, he could have scored many more points than he did, but he was such a team player. That's what was so remarkable about him."

After finishing its championship 1979-80 campaign at 24-2, Kohler put together another successful year in 1980-81, but didn't make it back to Madison. The Blue Bombers were bushwhacked in the Cedar Grove Regional by Oostburg (a team they'd beaten twice by double figures during the regular season) and finished 19-2.

Joe averaged 14.2 points and 11.8 rebounds as a sophomore, and by the time he returned for basketball practice the next fall, he'd grown in both height and basketball stature. He received the Most Promising Player Award at Howard Garfinkel's prestigious Five-Star Camp in Pittsburgh over the summer, and was on his way.

"Joe really improved from his sophomore to junior year," Buhr remembered. "The different was like night and day. He went from being a pretty good player to a big-time player."

Paul Swanson arrived as Kohler's new head coach in 1981, and he inherited quite a cornerstone.

Now Kohler's "Lone Wolf," with Jim playing for future Bucks assistant coach and general manager Bob Weinhauer at the University of Pennsylvania, Joe nearly tripled his sophomore point total and guided his team to the Central Lakeshore title and back to Madison.

Back in "The Barn," the Blue Bombers held off Thorp 61-56 for their second Class C state championship in three seasons. Along the way, Wolf established a Class C tournament scoring record of 58 points – a record that still stood when the WIAA revamped its class system into divisions in 1991.

Kohler finished 22-4, Wolf wound up with 804 points (a 30.9 average), 383 rebounds (14.7 per game) and was named first-team all-state by both Associated Press and United Press International.

When Joe entered his senior campaign at 6-10 ½, the word on him was out – on a national scale

He was a first-team selection to the PARADE All-American High School Boys Basketball Team. He was billed as one of the top 25 prep players in the country by the Street & Smith College and Prep Basketball Yearbook. And according to Van Coleman, who then published the National Recruiters' Cage Letter, he was the best center prospect in the country.

College coaches echoed the rave reviews.

Marquette's Hank Raymonds said, "He could be the best basketball player ever to come out of this state."

Rick Majerus, Raymonds' successor as Marquette's coach, said, "I think he's the greatest high school basketball player in the history of Wisconsin. Wolf is in a class by himself. And what puts him in that class are not only his great skills, but all these other things – attitude, the type of person he is. Eighteen-year-old kids don't have that kind of composure and maturity and outlook on the whole of it. He's the total package."

An overwhelming recruiting push followed the rave reviews. College recruiters were making phone calls to Kohler non-stop, and as Joe's senior year unfolded, Kohler games featured a number of celebrity guests.

"Dean Smith came to a game at Elkhart Lake, and he and Hank Raymonds sat at the top of the bleachers on one side of the gym," Swanson recalled. "On the other side of the gym was Jim Crews. He was the chief assistant at Indiana at the time. Next to him was Bob Knight, sitting there in a trenchcoat and sunglasses, so nobody would hassle him."

"There were a lot of people who roamed in and out, and there were a lot of distractions. We only went two or three games his senior year without either TV, radio, newspaper or magazine people around us. The Chicago Tribune even did a story. We tried to keep everybody happy and still do what we had to do."

One of Wolf most ardent pursuers was Majerus. Rumor had it that he had even moved into a motel somewhere in the vicinity of Kohler.

"Rick put in a lot of miles from Milwaukee and back," Swanson said. "One night he asked if he could bring someone in to watch practice. I said, ‘Sure.' They walked in the door at the far end of the gym, and as they got closer, I realized that ‘someone' was Al McGuire. That was a pretty big thrill for the team and for me. I got to go out with Rick and Al afterwards to have a sandwich in Sheboygan Falls. That was an experience in itself."

Joe narrowed his college choices to Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana, DePaul, Arizona State, Marquette, Notre Dame, Texas and Wisconsin. He eventually whittled down that list to six, then down to Marquette and North Carolina.

Meanwhile, Joe had to take care of some unfinished business. He went about maintaining a 3.4 grade-point average in college prep courses. He still had some high school basketball to play, too, and he did it with domination never before seen in eastern Wisconsin.

"We were playing at Oostburg and Joe came out of the game with 47 points," Swanson said. "The school record was 48, which was held by his brother Jeff. Somebody came down out of the crowd and gave me a message of what the school record was. I told Joe, and he said, ‘So what?' He had no desire to go back in a game that we were winning by some 30 points. That said a lot to me, that Joe wasn't interested in getting everything Joe could out of that."

Kohler faced plenty of stiff competition in its conference and through the playoffs. Swanson scheduled some big schools, such as Madison LaFollette and Sheboygan North, to prepare his team for another championship drive.

One game that both Joe and his coach remember vividly came in 1983 against Sheboygan North, played before some 3,000 fans in the Sheboygan Armory.
North won the game 65-64, but not before Wolf sank 17 of 24 shots and two free throws for 36 points. His last shot, a half-court, desperation heave, nicked the bottom of a huge American flag overhanging the court and fell short by inches.

"Another game I remember well was against Deerfield in our sectional final," Swanson said. "It was one of those few games in which Joe got into foul trouble.

This was a big team, we were up just two at halftime, and in the third quarter, Joe had 24 points, six rebounds and two blocked shots. We were up 22 at the end of the quarter."

Kohler swamped Deerfield 76-57 and headed for Madison with a 21-3 record. The Blue Bombers torpedoed a 23-1 Marathon team in the Class C semifinals 69-46, then shot down 23-2 Fall Creek 70-57 in the title game to claim their third state championship in four years.

Joe will never forget his state tournament thrills, and watching his hometown close down and set up camp in Madison.

"That's what happened – that's the thrill of Wisconsin high school basketball," Joe said. "There's a lot of pressure. You put a lot of pressure on yourself. You go out there and do the best you can, and everybody in the stands knows you're giving 110 percent. The team that comes out ahead is the winner, but really, everybody wins if they go out there and give 110 percent."

Joe averaged 31.5 points, 17.5 rebounds and 4.5 blocked shots during his senior year, and finished his Kohler career with 2,086 points and 1,255 rebounds. He set six state tournament records. He was named AP and UPI State Player of the Year.

Later in the spring of 1983, Joe became the first Wisconsin player to participate in the McDonald's All-American High School Basketball Game. He also competed in the Capital Classic All-Star Game in Washington, D.C.

Even those accomplishments don't lend full perspective to what a dominant force Wolf truly was during his storied prep career.

"When I see the list of Wisconsin's top all-time scorers in the Wisconsin Basketball Yearbook, Joe's not in the top 10," Swanson said. "What people should understand is that Joe played without the 3-point shot, and he was an excellent shooter at that distance. And he was never in a game in which we were up by 35 points, still taking shots. We didn't play him at all in a lot of fourth quarters."

Wolf broke the hearts of many Marquette fans by electing to attend North Carolina, but Joe values the life lessons he learned at Chapel Hill while playing four seasons for Smith, the Hall-of-Fame coach.

The Los Angeles Clippers selected Joe with the 12th overall pick in the 1987 NBA Draft, and he played nine NBA seasons -- for the Clippers, the Denver Nuggets, the Boston Celtics, the Portland Trail Blazers, the Charlotte Hornets and the Orlando Magic – and one season in Spain before Milwaukee became his seventh NBA stop.

He was glad to be back home.

"The friendliness, the family feeling, the values … Wisconsin society is very pleasant, and something I really appreciated growing up when I got to be of age and see what the world's about," Joe said.

Joe's jersey retirement ceremony at Kohler was an emotional experience for his family.

"I think I'm allowed to toot my brother's horn," Jeff Wolf said. "He deserved it, not only because he's a good basketball player, but because he's a good person and role model. And Joe's not afraid to be a role model. In fact, I think he kind of relishes it, because when he talks to groups, especially the young kids, he'll say, ‘Yeah, I had talent, but I had to work hard, and I'm still a kid from tiny Kohler, Wisconsin. But I've fulfilled my dreams, and you can, too."

Joe was visibly touched by the ceremony, too.

"It was emotional for me because my brothers and sister had worn No. 42," he said. "Obviously my sister didn't wear the same jersey, but we all wore the number. They were all there. It wasn't just retiring my number; it was a tribute to my family, and that had a lot of special meaning."