Milt Wagner Takes a Look Back

Scooter McCray, Wiley Brown, Gary MacPhearson, Milt Wagner and Robbie Valentine at the ESPN 680 Louisville VIP party earlier this year. Photo by TIM VALENTINO | Contributing Photographer

Scooter McCray, Wiley Brown, Gary MacPhearson, Milt Wagner and Robbie Valentine at the ESPN 680 Louisville VIP party earlier this year. Photo by TIM VALENTINO | Contributing Photographer

Milt Wagner was a star guard for the University of Louisville from 1981 to 1986. He was a starter on the 1986 National Championship team, on the 1983 Final Four team and was also on the 1982 Final Four team. Wagner scored 1,836 points in his UofL career, good for sixth on the all-time list. He also won an NBA Championship with the LA Lakers in 1988. The original member of the Camden Connection, Wagner starred at Camden High School in Camden, New Jersey. In 1984, Wagner suffered a broken foot in UofL’s second game. His son, Dajuan, starred at Memphis and was the sixth pick in the 2002 NBA draft by Cleveland.

Was your injury in 1984 the exact same injury that Mangok Mathiang suffered?
Yes, for me it was the fifth metatarsal that I broke in my foot. It’s unfortunate to happen at this time, but he should have time to come back. The way technology is now you can get him back.

Your injury happened in the second game of the season and you ended up redshirting. Could you have returned that season?
We were pretty much going to play it by ear. I was going to try to come back, and hopefully we were going to make the tournament that year and I was going to try to come back tournament time, but that didn’t happen. My decision was to try to put myself in the draft and take a chance on people not knowing if I was back healthy or not, or take another year to come back to prove to people that I’m able to go and 100 percent. I think it was the best decision of my life. I was able to show them that I was 100 percent and then, again, I was able to win a National Championship by coming back. It was the best decision of my life.

How long of a recovery process was it for you? Did it take some time to get over it mentally?
Yes, it was more mental than anything. I felt like I was 100 percent. I had no pain in it or anything. It’s just that my timing was off as far as my game. The shots I normally make I wasn’t making. I just had to pretty much get my timing back. At the beginning of the year, I struggled. I think I started out shooting 32 percent from the field and you know, we were still winning, but I was struggling as a player. As the season went on, I started getting my rhythm back, and by the middle of season, I was back to my old form. And we made that run to win the National Championship that year.

Can you believe it’s been 30 years?
Wow, I know, that’s something. It seems like it was yesterday.

When you think back to that season, what memories come to the forefront?
I just look at our journey. We had some young guys. We had a freshman center in Pervis Ellison, and me and Billy and Jeff Hall and Robbie Valentine were the seniors so we had a lot of experience coming back. I came back knowing that we had a special group of guys. That was one of the reasons I came back. I knew I had a chance to win a National Championship with the guys we had coming back and the freshmen we had coming in with Pervis Ellison, Kenny Payne, Kevin Walls and Tony Kimbro. Just the growing with each other through that season. I think that was the most special thing. I think me being out the previous year helped our team also because guys had played more than they normally would have played. Guys got a lot of experience for that next year.

You had heard all the talk, the back and forth from UofL and UK fans about which team is better. What are your memories about the “Dream Game” and that Saturday afternoon in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1983?
Well, when I first got here, I always heard about the rivals, and I knew we never played each other. The only way we would play would be to meet each other in the tournament. I never really felt how strong that rivalry really was until that Dream Game when we knew we had a chance to play them if we kept winning and they kept winning. We beat Arkansas and they beat Indiana, and once we met for that game, then you got to really feel how strong that rivalry was. It was unbelievable, and the way that it was played, it was just perfect. It went to overtime, and after that we just took over. I think Jim Master should have just missed that shot in regulation because after that, we just kind of hit the afterburners and it was a great game.

Was that even a different level of intensity than you experienced in any other game?
I never felt any pressure like that, as far as playing any game in my life. The intensity and then it was to get to the Final Four also. It wasn’t just playing against UK – also you were able to get to the Final Four if you won. There was a lot on the table. The way the game was played was perfect. It was a great game – both teams fought – but we were able to pull it off.

That next season, you opened with UK, a 65-44 loss, but came back in the NCAA tournament and gave them a game, a 72-67 in the Sweet 16 in Rupp Arena. What do you remember about those?
They got us early in the year because we normally peaked later in the year. On those Denny Crum teams, we would start off slow at the beginning of the year, but by tournament time, we were playing some of the best ball in the country. They got us pretty good the first game and we met them in the tournament and they just had a few more plays at the end to beat us.

You are back in Louisville now, what are you doing?
I am working with a nonprofit community dental program, and I am the community outreach director for them. I go out to the Jefferson County Public Schools, daycares and community centers and we provide free dental screenings for the kids. And we also educate them about dental health.

Is there another Wagner who might be the best of the family?
Yes, I have a grandson who’s 10 and his name is DJ, Dajuan, Junior, and he has a chance to be better than both of us actually. He is doing some things at 10-years-old that you don’t really see in a 10-year-old. He already has that desire and that intensity level. He just wants to go out there compete, and he’s already a Louisville fan so you better watch out. VT