Full Court Press

Was it a harmless HBU jock initiation -- or hard-core hazing -- that shattered a freshman's hoop dreams?

One by one, they trudged into a conference room on the campus of Houston Baptist University, all of them at least slightly nervous, whether they'd admit it or not.

Four young men -- three current or former HBU basketball players and an assistant coach -- took a turn entering and facing various lawyers and a stenographer. The lawyers were there to take sworn depositions about just what happened during the first half of the 1997-98 HBU season.

Matt Wohlfahrt, another former player, claims those months four years ago were "probably the worst time in my life." A freshman who saw scant playing time, he says he was pressured to attend a team party, forced to drink ten or so shots of liquor, had his head shaved against his will, and then injured himself when he fell near a pool. There were other incidents, he says: a wrestling match where an upperclassman jumped him unexpectedly in the team bus, to the delight of an onlooking coach; being tossed into a freezing pool on a road trip; being forced to run late one night in his underwear through the women's dorms; and, most oddly, being subjected to teammates regularly flicking their fingers at his genitals, perhaps necessitating future surgery.

Freshman basketball players got their heads shaved at a team party.
Hadley Hooper
Freshman basketball players got their heads shaved at a team party.

"I went through a hazing experience. I suffered multiple injuries," Wohlfahrt said in his own deposition. "Every day I dreaded going to practice. It just mounted up. I was seeing my friends at other schools talk about how much their college life was like the best time of their life, and I was just dreading it. I never experienced anything like that -- it was like I was alone."

He complained to university officials, who conducted an investigation. That just made him "the guy who turned all the basketball team in," he said. None of the players was suspended, and as far as Matt or his mother could tell none did the recommended punishment of ten hours of community service.

"The school treated the whole thing like a joke," Lynn Wohlfahrt says.

It was something close to a joke to the players, judging by what they had to say to the lawyers. Matt Wohlfahrt, they said, was a benchwarmer who wasn't really good enough to play for the HBU Huskies, a team that regularly made it to the postseason tournament of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, the small-college version of the NCAA's March Madness.

Sure, he got teased like all freshmen, they said, but he was a willing participant in the drinking and other pranks. And what's so bad about flicking someone in the balls, anyway?

"It's a game. It's like guy bonding. It's fun," said Shane Wells, another HBU freshman and Wohlfahrt's former roommate, who went through some of the same things.

Wohlfahrt -- and his pushy mother -- had been constantly bitching about his lack of playing time. His mother had even told the coaches that her freshman son was better than the team's starting point guard, Yadorian Perham, and Perham had led the nation in assists, for crying out loud.

So sure, there were some high jinks. It's been going on in team sports since the first freshman had to carry a senior's bags.

Most players just accept it.

But Matt Wohlfahrt didn't. Instead he got a lawyer.

HBU's attorney, Walter "Trey" Williams III, is confident the school will win the lawsuit that is scheduled to be tried in November. "…I think it's pretty clear that Mr. Wohlfahrt's characterization of events is not accurate," he says. "We're comfortable with the facts, and the facts can't support the allegations."

The head-shaving incident occurred at a private off-campus party, not a "team meeting," he says. He also disputes that Wohlfahrt suffered any lasting injury while he was on the team.

Even if they win, however, HBU's name will be associated with tales of prodigious underage drinking and claims that the university wanted the whole thing whitewashed. The 2,200-student school in southwest Houston prides itself on its Christian philosophy, but at a time when the harmful effects of hazing are becoming more and more clear, it stands accused of turning a blind eye to some very un-Christian-like behavior.

Matt Wohlfahrt came to play basketball at HBU in the summer of 1997. He'd grown up as the third of four sons of Lynn and Douglas Wohlfahrt, an OB/GYN. His mother worked at his father's office, and the family lived in far west Houston and in Fort Bend County.

The boys were athletes. Matt, his mother says, was somewhat quieter than his brothers and spent a lot of time working out, playing basketball and running track in high school.

He didn't have a highlight-reel career at Stephen F. Austin High in Sugar Land, but played steadily. On his 18th birthday, he sank two late free throws to seal a win against The Woodlands in the Conroe Christmas Classic tournament.

He thought about attending St. Edwards University in Austin but was also interested in nearby HBU. According to HBU coaches, his mother was a dedicated lobbyist on his behalf.

"Matt's mom called me on several occasions asking if I would be willing to have a tryout for Matt," longtime HBU head coach and athletic director Ron Cottrell testified in his deposition. Lynn Wohlfahrt even came to the "open gym" sessions where HBU staffers informally judged potential players, "which I would consider to be an unusual situation," Cottrell said. "Matter of fact, that may have been the only time it's ever happened in my history here."

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