Full Court Press

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

The team had a quarter-scholarship left, worth a couple of thousand dollars. It was designed to be used for the post of student manager, but they gave it to Matt and let him be on the roster.

Matt Wohlfahrt's understanding was that there were no full scholarships available until the following year, so the quarter-scholarship was an interim measure. The jobs he did in connection with it -- team laundry, wiping the floor -- were "freshman duties," he said. "They weren't training duties, because all the freshmen did it."

Wohlfahrt thought that with some hard work he could play pro ball in Europe or the NBA's minor league. In his deposition, he rated himself highly -- on a scale of one to ten, he gave himself a ten for his defense and eights for "quickness and speed" and as a rebounder and all-around point guard. He noted that he regularly played pickup games against current and former NBA stars, including one who plays for the Seattle SuperSonics.

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

"One of my friends, Rashard Lewis, who came out of high school to the NBA, I played against him and I did well," Wohlfahrt said.

HBU's coaches disagreed with Wohlfahrt's assessment of his skills. "His talent level was extremely low," assistant coach Greg Grissom testified.

Wohlfahrt was a stubborn kid, and even the coaches who denigrated his talent praised his work ethic. ("Matt tried hard," said Grissom. "I have never said that Matt didn't try hard. He just didn't have the physical talent.") He spent much of his time in the gym or the weight room.

It was perhaps a perfect recipe for how to invite grief: an end-of-the-bench freshman with a touch of straight-arrow goody-goodiness, someone who thinks he might play professionally one day and therefore is better than the guys ahead of him.

According to Wohlfahrt, the grief began in earnest on September 18, 1997. That night he went to what he was told was a "team meeting" at the off-campus apartment of two players.

Wohlfahrt swore under oath that he never drank in high school or up to that brief point in college; another player, Blane Vincent, swore under oath that on the way to the "team meeting" Wohlfahrt gave him 20 bucks to buy beer.

(Lawyers for both sides wouldn't allow interviews with their clients -- and Wohlfahrt's parents would speak only in general terms -- so this article is based primarily on court documents and depositions.)

At the apartment gathering, Wohlfahrt said, he was immediately led to the bar area, stocked with Jack Daniel's, Drambuie, Sambuca and beer. Two teammates poured him something that tasted like licorice.

"Dan and Jeremy were behind me with their hand on my shoulder telling me to drink these shots," Wohlfahrt said. "I am not a drinker so they were -- they were pretty much forcing me to do it. I didn't want to."

While it wasn't physically forced down his throat, Wohlfahrt said, he felt pressured. "I am not stupid. I am a freshman. I know there is going to be consequences if I don't drink," he said.

And within ten minutes, he said, he had done a half-dozen shots. He had to drink more as the night went on, he said.

His teammates don't recall Wohlfahrt resisting. And according to a report on the allegations prepared by HBU, "evidence surfaced that throughout the course of the party Matt kept asking for beers." Vincent, the report said, told officials that Wohlfahrt was "acting a fool" and fondling some of the women at the party.

Vincent, a sophomore, decided that the freshmen would have their heads shaved. Wohlfahrt said he didn't want to submit but saw no choice. Shane Wells, his more easygoing roommate, didn't hesitate.

"And they sat both of us down. And as for me, they asked me, 'Can we shave your head?' And I returned, 'Hair grows back. Go for it.'…And I believe Matt said 'Yes.' " (HBU's internal report paraphrases Vincent as saying "at first freshmen didn't want their heads to be shaved, but after a few drinks agreed to have it done." In his deposition Vincent denied ever making that statement.)

Wohlfahrt passed out at the party, according to the HBU report, and then both he and Wells ended up in the complex's pool. "All I can remember," Wohlfahrt said, "is somebody said to jump and I was so intoxicated I think I jumped in. All I remember is trying to get out and how scared I was and how frantic I was to get out and somehow I got out."

One of the players who hosted the party, Dan Wilson, said he saw Wohlfahrt throw patio furniture into the pool and then he "went in after it to sit on the chair on the bottom of the pool."

Wohlfahrt said he incurred a head injury at the party but doesn't remember how or when. He had a small knot on the back of his head the next day, he says, although his teammates say he never mentioned it then or in the weeks after.

While this was going on, Wohlfahrt's mother -- who is excitable, by all accounts -- was calling her son's dorm room every 20 minutes. She knew he was at a meeting, but as midnight passed she grew worried. She finally drove over to his room at seven the next morning to see her son. "He smelled of alcohol, was all gray and had no hair," she testified.

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