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'Wheels' keeps on rollin'


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POSTED: Friday, November 13, 2009

Jackson Wheeler never imagined he'd find himself in Hawaii.

In the literal sense, the notion of crossing the Pacific Ocean for a job wasn't particularly likely. He was a rising star among college basketball recruiters, having quickly built an amicable reputation in the JUCO ranks. He'd been to visit once when he was little, to the Big Island, and much later as an assistant with St. Louis University to play in a hoops tournament. But permanently? Twenty years (and counting) of his life?

No, that didn't seem probable.

Figuratively, he couldn't have guessed that the isolated island chain would supply him a much-needed balance point, personal redemption and an everlasting sense of peace.

HE'LL TALK about it.

Actually, there isn't much Wheeler won't talk about. The Hawaii associate head coach will saunter over to the sidelines during practices, offer up his hellos and chat up friends and strangers alike who take in a Rainbow Warriors practice.

               

     

 

RAINBOW CLASSIC

        Day 1
       

When: Today—McNeese State vs. Northern Colorado, 5 p.m.; Southern Utah at Hawaii, 7:35 p.m.

       

Where: Stan Sheriff Center

       

TV: KFVE, Ch. 5

       

Radio: KKEA, 1420-AM

       

 

       

Wheeler, or “;Wheels,”; as he's affectionately known around UH lower campus, mixes these serene conversations with jolting, top-of-the-lungs tirades at unsuspecting players at a moment's notice. And little, if anything, is too politically correct to be broached.

So he'll talk about that dark day in June 1987, when his first wife, Cindy, was killed in a car accident in Denver. Cindy was driving her grandmother to bingo, less than 2 miles from her parents' house, when a drunken driver sideswiped their car, forcing it into oncoming traffic. Cindy and her grandma were killed instantly, while the guilty driver was unharmed.

She was just 26.

“;She was a good girl, good heart,”; Wheeler said softly. He was 27. “;It's hard to believe sometimes.”;

After another year, he couldn't bear to keep coaching at Highland Community College in Kansas, where Cindy had been a director of the speech and drama department. Too many memories. He went to Division I St. Louis as an assistant for two successful years, helping take the Billikens to the NIT final four twice.

But, the former star point guard at NAIA Marymount (Kan.) was “;still emotionally not all there,”; and contemplated a break from his job. He hadn't gotten far enough away.

RILEY WALLACE knew of Wheeler through the coaching grapevine and agreed to take him on as a volunteer in 1990 when he was recommended by a mutual coaching acquaintance.

“;He just wanted to get away,”; said Wallace, who had Wheeler on staff all but three of his 20 years as UH coach. “;It took a while (for a return to normalcy), there's no question about that. I didn't see his real personality until maybe a year or two there.”;

Within a year, Wallace had promoted him to a full-time assistant, and Wheeler again hit his stride as a top-notch recruiter.

Best of all, he met his current wife, Lael. They have a daughter and are still happy together after 18 years.

“;I remember I told him (the job) was temporary, because it was mid-year, and about 15 years later I reminded him he was still on temporary.”; Wallace laughed. “;I forgot to tell him he was permanent. That was always a joke we had. But once he got going, he loved Hawaii, and he met Lael ... it was a perfect marriage for him.”;

Wheels rolled straight once again, and Wallace knows he was vital in every winning season from '90 to 2007 (UH's last). When a fellow longtime assistant, Bob Nash, took over for Wallace in 2007 he kept Wheeler on board.

HE BECAME popular among the UH players, current and former, for his loyal and outgoing personality. Even if time—and the accident—mellowed him a bit.

“;Shep (Tim Shepherd), Johnny (White), all them say I'm not as volatile as I used to be,”; said Wheeler, now 50. “;I'm the same way in a lot of ways. Like to have fun, prankster type, joke around. I think I've changed some, but the person I am is who I am.”;

Wheeler has an innate ability to relate to players using his rough background (his parents divorced when he was a youngster in California, and he landed with a foster family) and motivational speaking ability.

Forward Ahmet Gueye, who played at UH from 2005 to '07, said Wheeler's personality and influence on him are directly responsible for Gueye's new job as a Snow College (Utah) JC assistant.

“;His knowledge, the way he recruits, the relationship he develops with the players, makes everything easy for us,”; Gueye said. “;I'd be excited to go to practice and get pumped by Jackson. Sometimes he's trash-talking, but off the court he cares for you so much as a person.

“;He believed in me (as a JC recruit), that I could peak as a player and as a human being. He believed in that, because he saw that at the beginning. I didn't see that, but he saw it. He's got an amazing heart, and he'll do anything for you.”;

He got guard Michael Kuebler, another unassuming star from the JC ranks, to come to UH without a guaranteed scholarship in 2002. Kuebler then blossomed into an all-conference, national all-academic player as a senior, and is in his sixth year of European pro ball—third with AZS Koszalin in Poland.

“;He's a loud and out-there kind of guy, but deep down he's one of the nicest, most genuine guys there is,”; Kuebler said from Poland. He recently stayed at Wheeler's house in Hawaii on his honeymoon. “;He's always looking to take care of you. You could tell that he was always going to be a guy who was always in your corner.”;

UH's current star forward, Roderick Flemings, also gives him high marks.

“;Coach Wheeler was always just there for me. Good guy. I can say I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have come for my visit (from Weatherford College in Texas). I'd be at Kentucky or something.”;

Some of Wheeler's other notable recruits are Trevor Ruffin, AC Carter, Mindaugas Burneika, Nerijus Puida and Matt Lojeski.

WHEELER SEES a lot of himself in the Rainbows' youngest assistant, Eran Ganot.

“;He said that again? I gotta get off this path,”; quipped Ganot, 28, who aids Wheeler in recruiting. Ganot is usually stoic by nature like Nash at practices, but made several Wheels-like outbursts at slacking players in recent sessions.

Ganot, in his third year, will often get into hoops arguments with Wheeler, then the two friends will forget it and grab lunch soon afterward.

“;He gets intense at times because of how much he wants us to be good, and we're going to be, but the biggest thing is there's no phonyness about that,”; Ganot said. “;Coach Wheeler is real. He absolutely is, and he's one-of-a-kind, but that's the great thing about people, is when they're themselves.”;

Wheeler thinks he's found balance.

“;Before the accident it was hoops 24/7,”; he said. “;It let me know the importance of other things. I became more accepting of a lot of other things. It changed me in a positive way, my whole outlook.”;

Wheeler knows he has accomplished much in his 20 years at UH—including helping the 'Bows to three NCAA Tournaments—but he, Nash, Larry Farmer and Ganot won't accept a third straight losing year.