LOUISVILLE — The University of Louisville men’s basketball program has retired just five jersey numbers in its gilded history. Of those five renowned players, three remain alive. Saturday night, all three of them were in the same place at the same time—watching an AAU game, of all things.
They were observing a prospect who potentially could be the bridge between the Cardinals’ past and future.
Darrell Griffith, hero of the 1980 national championship team and the ’81 NBA Rookie of the Year, sat on an aluminum bleacher near center court. Pervis Ellison, star of the ’86 title team and the No. 1 NBA draft pick in ’89, stood behind one of the benches. Russ Smith, the scoring dynamo who led the 2013 national champs*, watched from the baseline.
The object of their attention was flashing up and down the court at Nike’s EYBL event in the Kentucky Fair & Exposition Center, playing at a speed nobody else could match. D.J. Wagner was exploding past defenders to the basket, showcasing a Ja Morant ambidexterity starter set. Befitting a third-generation star, Wagner’s basketball IQ complemented his skill and athleticism in a way that had him thinking and moving a step ahead of the competition.
Wagner, latest in a line of Camden, N.J., hoops royalty, is the No. 1 player in the class of 2023, according to 247Sports and ESPN. That’s despite being on the younger side of his class; he just turned 17 in early May. The 6’2″ guard’s college choice could boil down to the biggest Kentucky vs. Louisville recruiting showdown since the 1980s—when Rex Chapman chose blue over red in ’85, and fellow Camden product Billy Thompson chose red over blue in ’82.
Wagner has family considerations either way. His father, Dajuan, the nation’s No. 1 prospect in 2000, was John Calipari’s breakthrough recruit at Memphis. His grandfather Milt was a former Louisville great who played on the 1986 title team—and was just hired last week as the Cardinals’ new director of player development and alumni relations. And there is one other thread connecting D.J. to both programs: William Wesley. “Worldwide Wes,” a kingmaker, fixer, mover and shaker of renown and mystery, has decades-long ties to the Wagner family, Calipari and new Louisville coach Kenny Payne.
There is no shortage of people who believe D.J. Wagner is destined for Kentucky. But Louisville is in fierce pursuit, as the throng watching Wagner on Saturday made vividly clear. The Bat Signal went out to show up in force—both fans and, more notably, former players. This became an informal reunion.
In addition to the guys who have their jerseys hanging in the rafters, at least 15 other recognizable Louisville basketball alums were in attendance. They ranged from the 1960s (Wade Houston, who went on to become Denny Crum’s top assistant and then the head coach at Tennessee) to the ’80s (at least 10 who were members of either the ’80 or ’86 teams) to the 2010s (in addition to Smith, ’13 starter Chane Behanan was in the house). There also were four current Cardinals in attendance.
Kentucky fans were surprisingly scarce. Yes, this was a de facto Louisville home game, but there are tens of thousands of Kentucky fans that live in the city. And Big Blue Nation takes its recruiting very seriously.
The most intriguing person in the building might have been Daddy Wags himself, Milt Wagner. This is a recruiting dead period, which means college coaches could not attend the three-day tournament, but the newest member of the Louisville basketball staff was there. Milt Wagner’s preexisting relationship with the star of this EYBL stop dates back to the crib.
Milt was dressed as neutrally as possible: a black shirt with white stripes, an Under Armour jacket, jeans. The only hint of his employment might have been on his feet: He was wearing black Adidas shoes, the brand that outfits the Cardinals. His role Saturday was ostensibly that of a proud grandfather.
The Wagner family collectively declined comment—nothing from Milt, nothing from Dajuan, nothing from D.J. That’s perhaps because Milt’s brand-new job creates a murky NCAA compliance situation.
This is directly from the association’s rules manual: “In men’s basketball, during a two-year period before a prospective student-athlete’s anticipated enrollment and a two-year period after the prospective student-athlete’s actual enrollment, an institution shall not employ (either on a salaried or a volunteer basis) or enter into a contract for future employment with an individual associated with the prospective student-athlete in any athletics department noncoaching staff position or in a strength and conditioning staff position.”
Louisville officials have said there is not yet anything definitive about Milt Wagner’s status and its potential effect on D.J.’s recruitment. But the school could make a couple of arguments for hiring Milt as something more than a ploy to land his grandson.
First, Wagner does have previous college basketball coaching experience, it’s just dated. He was an assistant at UTEP and Auburn under Tony Barbee (a former Calipari assistant) from 2006 to ’14. And before that he was coordinator of basketball operations for Cal at Memphis from ’00 to ’06. (More on that in a moment.)
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Second, Wagner has a preexisting relationship with Payne that predates D.J.’s birth by 20 years. Payne enrolled at Louisville as a freshman in 1985, which was Milt’s last season as a Cardinal. One of Payne’s first experiences at U of L was eating a meal at Milt’s apartment, and a lifetime friendship was quickly established.
If you’re looking for recent precedent in terms of Milt’s employment, think Oklahoma State hiring Cade Cunningham’s brother and Missouri hiring Michael Porter Sr. Cannen Cunningham was brought aboard in Stillwater after serving as an assistant director of video operations at Tulane; Porter Sr., father of touted prospects Michael Jr. and Jontay, had been an assistant for a year at Washington and before that a women’s assistant at Mizzou.
Neither Cannen Cunningham nor Michael Porter Sr. coached at those schools after their relatives were finished playing there. The scam was pretty clear, but it was green-lighted by the NCAA. Hiring Milt probably wouldn’t be an impediment to signing D.J., either.
The funny part is that this is Act II of the Hire Milt Recruiting Stratagem. To borrow a favorite line from former Louisville legend Crum: What goes around comes around.
In 2000, when it was widely expected that Crum would land Dajuan Wagner and revive his flagging recruiting efforts, Calipari instead swooped in and got him. One of the big reasons why: Cal hired Milt Wagner for the position mentioned above and then went the extra mile by signing Dajuan’s marginally talented high school teammate and best friend, Arthur Barclay. Crum resisted pressure to make Dajuan a package deal.
“This was a Louisville kid from the beginning, and they lost him.” That’s a quote from May 2000 at another AAU event in Louisville. The subject was Dajuan Wagner, then tearing up the circuit. The speaker was Worldwide Wes, who had a heavy influence on Dajuan from a young age. Wes’s involvement with an array of young players began in Camden in the 1980s with Milt Wagner and Billy Thompson.
Not getting Wagner was one of the final blows to Crum’s Hall of Fame career—the 2000–01 team went 12–19, and Crum was forced out at the end of it. Meanwhile, with Wagner as his one-and-done, breakthrough recruit a year later, Calipari went 27–9 and won a share of a conference championship.
Fast forward one generation, and Louisville is trying to do unto the Cardinals what Calipari did unto them. And where Worldwide Wes lands in this tussle could matter.
I called Wes on Thursday. He answered and immediately asked what he always asked when we’ve talked in the past, “Is this off the record?” My answer: “It’s whatever you want it to be.” His answer to my answer: “We’re off the record.” And so we were.
Wes is now an executive with the New York Knicks, an American success story by way of the gritty basketball subculture. Even if he wanted to speak on the record about D.J. Wagner or anything happening at the college level, he’s prohibited by NBA rules. So he wasn’t going to go there, and wasn’t even going to offer his thoughts for publication on longtime friend and short-time Knicks colleague Payne finally getting a head coaching job.
But it would be naive to think Wes hasn’t offered his endorsement of Payne getting the Louisville job after being passed over in 2018 for Chris Mack, and it would stand to reason that he championed the hiring of Milt for a second time. Now comes the question: Does Wes have the behind-the-scenes juice to impact D.J.’s college choice the way he did Dajuan’s? And if so, would he champion his old Louisville friends or once again come down on Calipari’s side?
This much we know: After years of some old heroes feeling disconnected from the program, Louisville is trading heavily on nostalgia at this point. It’s bringing the 1980s band back together in a show of support for Payne and trying to help him get off to a fast start. “You can see the atmosphere has changed,” says Ellison, who is the program director of the New Jersey Scholars AAU team D.J. Wagner plays for. “You can understand the excitement building—the fan base is excited, the former players are excited. It’s going to be an exciting time under coach Payne. His message is a tremendous message. That young man has been successful at every level, and I think the university made a great choice.”
How much the heroes of yesteryear can impact a 2023 recruit remains to be seen—but they liked what they saw of D.J. Wagner last week.
Griffith’s jaw dropped after one Wagner play—a steal, a fluid behind-the-back dribble to his right, and a crossover back to blow past a defender and finish with his left hand. I asked Dr. Dunkenstein—Louisville’s all-time men’s leading scorer—if he had that move at age 17. He shook his head no.
Russ Smith, who scored more than 1,900 points as a Cardinal, raves about D.J.’s game. “He’s amazing going downhill,” Smith says. “He’s got range, but he’s got to get a little more consistent. I think he’ll fit well with any guard combination you put with him. I love his frame and his size—that will get him to the next level. He can see the floor and think the game. But if he wants to, he can get you 30 or 40.”
Smith pauses for a second, then adds, “I hope we get him.”
The biggest Kentucky vs. Louisville recruiting battle in decades could rage for a few more months before decisions are made. Regardless of how it ends, D.J. Wagner’s generational story line and family ties to both schools make it one of the most fascinating recruitments ever.
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