LOUISVILLE – The University of Louisville’s men’s basketball program retired with only five jersey numbers in its gilded history. Of these five famous players, three are still alive. Saturday night, the three were in the same place and at the same time – watching an AAU game, of all things.
They were observing a possibility that could be the bridge between the Cardinals’ past and their future.
Daryl Griffiths, the 1980 National Championship Team Champion and the 81st NBA Rookie of the Year, sat on an aluminum bleacher near center court. Pervis Ellison, star of the 1986 tag team title and No. 1 NBA Championship in 1989, stood behind one of the benches. Ross Smith, the scoring dynamo who led the 2013 champions*, continued from baseline.
The subject of their attention flashed up and down the field at Nike’s EYBL event at the Kentucky Fair and Convention Center, playing at a speed no one else could match. DJ Wagner was blasting former defenders into the basket, displaying junior group Ja Morant’s prowess. Befitting a third-generation star, Wagner’s basketball IQ complemented his skill and sportsmanship in a way that made him think and take a step forward in the competition.
Wagner, the latest in the Camden, NJ, Royal Hoops series, is the No. 1 player in the 2023 class, according to 247Sports and ESPN. This is despite being on the younger side of his class; He turned 17 in early May. The 6’2″ guard’s choice could boil down to Kentucky’s biggest recruiting showdown against Louisville since the ’80s—when Rex Chapman chose blue over red in 1985, and his Camden teammate Billy Thompson chose red over blue in 1982.
Wagner has family considerations either way. His father, Daguan, the nation’s top candidate in 2000, was the brilliant recruit of John Calipari in Memphis. His grandfather Milt was one of Louisville’s former greats who played on the title team in 1986 – and he was just hired Last week as Cardinals’ new Director of Player Development and Alumni Relations. And another thread connecting DJ to both programs: William Wesley. King-maker, fixer, mover and shaker of fame and mystery, “Worldwide Wiss” has long-standing relationships with the Wagner family, Calipari and new Louisville coach Kenny Payne.
There is no shortage of people who think DJ Wagner is destined for Kentucky. But Louisville is in fierce pursuit, as the crowd watching Wagner on Saturday made clear. The bat signal came out strong – both fans and, most importantly, ex-players. This became an unofficial reunion.
In addition to the guys with their jerseys hanging from the rafters, there were at least 15 well-known basketball players in Louisville. These teams ranged from the 1960s (Wade Houston, who became a senior assistant to Denny Crumb and then head coach in Tennessee) to the 1980s (at least 10 were members of the ’80s or ’80s teams) to the 2000s (plus Smith, the start of 2013 Chani Behanan at home). There were also four current Cardinals in attendance.
Kentucky fans were surprisingly rare. Yes, this was a real Louisville home game, but there are tens of thousands of Kentucky fans living in the city. The Big Blue Nation takes the recruitment process very seriously.
Perhaps the most interesting person in the building was Daddy Wags himself, Milt Wagner. This is a draft off period, which means college coaches were unable to attend the three-day tournament, but the newest member of the Louisville basketball team was there. Milt Wagner’s pre-existing relationship with this EYBL station star goes back to the crib.
Milt was dressed as neutrally as possible: a black shirt with white stripes, an Under Armor jacket, and jeans. Perhaps the only hint was to hire him afloat: He was wearing black Adidas shoes, the brand’s go-to for the Cardinals. His role on Saturday was ostensibly that of a proud grandfather.
The Wagner family en masse declined to comment—nothing from Milt, none from Dajuan, none from DJ. Perhaps because Milt’s all-new job creates an ambiguous NCAA compliance status.
This is straight from the Federation Rulebook: “In men’s basketball, during the two-year period prior to the anticipated enrollment of a prospective student-athlete and the two-year period after the prospective student-athlete’s actual enrollment, the Corporation shall not employ (either on a salary or on a voluntary basis) or enter into a contract for employment. prospective with an individual associated with the prospective student-athlete in any of the non-trained personnel positions in the athletics department or in a strength and conditioning position.”
Louisville officials said there is still nothing definitive about Milt Wagner’s standing and its potential impact on DJ employment. But the school can make two arguments for employing Milt as something more than a ploy to land his grandson.
First, Wagner has prior college basketball coaching experience, it’s just old. He was an assistant at UTEP and Auburn under Tony Barbie (former assistant at Calipari) from 2006 to 2014. Prior to that he was the basketball operations coordinator for Cal in Memphis from ’00 to ’06. (More on that in a moment.)
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Second, Wagner has a pre-existing relationship with Payne that predates the birth of a DJ by 20 years. Payne enrolled in Louisville as a freshman in 1985, which was Milt’s final season as a cardinal. One of Payne’s first experiences at the U of L was a meal at Milt’s apartment, and a lifelong friendship soon established.
If you’re looking for a recent precedent in regards to hiring Melt, consider Oklahoma State Hiring Brother Cady Cunningham and Missouri Hiring Michael Porter Sr. Father of Michael Jr. and Jontay, Porter Sr. was an assistant for a year in Washington and before that a female assistant at Mizzou.
Neither Kanin Cunningham nor Michael Porter Sr. trained in those schools after their relatives finished playing there. The scam was pretty straightforward, but it got the go-ahead by the NCAA. Perhaps Milt’s hiring wouldn’t be an obstacle to signing a DJ, either.
The funny part is that this is the second chapter of Hire Milt Recruiting Stratagem. To borrow a favorite line from former Louisville legend Crum: What goes on comes.
In 2000, when Crum was widely expected to land Dajuan Wagner and revive faltering recruiting efforts, Calipari pounced instead and got him. One big reason for that: Cal hired Melt Wagner for the aforementioned position and then went the extra mile by hiring his marginally talented Daguan high school classmate and best friend, Arthur Barkley. Karam resisted pressure to make Daguan a package deal.
“This was a Louisville boy from the start, and they lost him.” This is a quote from May 2000 at another Al Ain University event in Louisville. The topic was Daguan Wagner, then the circle was torn. The speaker was Worldwide Wes, who had been a huge influence on Dajuan from a young age. Wes’ involvement with a group of young Camden players began in the 1980s with Milt Wagner and Billy Thompson.
Wagner’s lack of getting was one of the final blows in Crum’s Hall of Fame career—the 2000-01 team went 12-19, and Crum was eventually forced out. Meanwhile, with Wagner as his only feat recruit a year later, Calipari went 27-9 and won a share of the Conference Championship.
Fast forward a generation, and Louisville is trying to do to the Cardinals what the Calipari did to them. And where Wes World lands in this struggle could be important.
I called Wes on Thursday. He answered and immediately asked what he had always asked when we spoke in the past, “Is this unpublishable?” My answer: “Whatever you want it to be.” His answer to my answer: “We’re unofficial.” And so we were.
Wes is now a CEO with the New York Knicks, an American success story by way of brave basketball culture. Even if he wanted to formally talk about DJ Wagner or whatever was going on at the college level, he’s prohibited by NBA rules. So he wasn’t going there, and wouldn’t offer his thoughts to post about an old friend and short-time fellow at Nyx Pine who finally got a job as a master coaching.
But it would be naive to think that Wes didn’t offer his approval for Payne to get a Louisville job after he was overtaken in 2018 by Chris Mac, and it stands to reason that he advocated hiring Melt for a second time. Now comes the question: Does Wes have the juice behind the scenes to influence the choice of a DJ college the way Dajuan did? And if so, will he defend his old friends in Louisville or will he once again go down to the side of Calipari?
Here’s what we often know: After years of some old champs feeling disconnected from the show, Louisville is trading heavily on nostalgia at this point. He’s bringing the ’80s band together once again in a show of support for Payne and trying to help him get off the ground fast. “You can see that the atmosphere has changed,” says Ellison, who is the program director for the University of New Jersey team of Al Ain University Scholars where DJ Wagner plays. “You can understand the excitement building – the fan base is excited, the former players are excited. It’s going to be an exciting period under Coach Payne. His message is tremendous. This young man has been successful on every level, and I think the League has made a great choice.”
It’s still how much of an impact last year’s champions have had on the 2023 recruit – but they loved what they saw from DJ Wagner last week.
Griffith’s jaw dropped after one game for Wagner – stealing, fluid dribbling from behind the back to his right, and crossover backwards to skip the defender and finish with his left hand. I asked Dr. Dunkenstein – Louisville’s all-time top scorer – if he made this move at the age of 17. He shook his head no.
Ross Smith, who has scored more than 1,900 points as a cardinal, cares about the DJ game. “It’s amazing the regression,” Smith says. “He has range, but he has to get a little more consistent. I think he fits in well with any range of rangers you put him in. I love his structure and size – that will take him to the next level. He can see the floor and think about the game. But if he wants to, he can have you. 30 or 40″.
Smith paused for a moment, then added, “I hope we get it.”
Kentucky’s biggest recruiting battle against Louisville in decades may last a few more months before decisions are made. No matter which way it ends, DJ Wagner’s story and family relationships at both schools make it one of the most amazing hirings ever.
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