Michigan likes to fancy itself a national brand, with an alumni and fan base that stretches coast to coast. Wolverines basketball coach John Beilein knows this, and so when he boarded a plane to Berlin a few years ago to follow up on a tip about a prospective recruit, he did so incognito.
The ruse lasted roughly 48 hours. When he landed back in Detroit, a group of UM fans spotted him and soon enough, news was out on Twitter that Beilein had been overseas recruiting.
“You can run, but you can’t hide,” Beilein cracked at the West Regional last weekend in Los Angeles.
It’s understandable that Beilein would be concerned. It’s not every day you find a 6-9 German forward with a mature, engaging personality, the type of kid anxious to travel across the ocean to better his basketball skills.
But as everyone learned last weekend at Staples Center, Moritz Wagner is truly one of a kind.
The junior forward — who pronounces his name “MORE-rhet’z VOG-ner” according to the UM media guide and who has grown to 6-11 in three seasons in Ann Arbor — is more than just the Wolverines’ leading scorer (14.3 ppg) and rebounder (6.9). He is their emotional spark plug, talking trash to opponents (and teammates), sticking his tongue out for effect after big plays.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, speaking to reporters last February, summed it like this: “Wagner can be a pain in the butt. Let’s not kid ourselves.”
That comment, by the way, made Wagner smile. He has made a career out of annoying opponents, and then telling them — and fans — about it. Of his tongue-wagging habit Wagner said, “My dad always says the tongue is nice and my mom is like, I hate that.”
You’ve got to find a balance, Wagner said. Clearly, he has.
His mom, Beate, is the one Michigan fans should be thanking for putting Wagner in basketball. A soccer player growing up, Mo Wagner said his mother got “sick of standing outside in the rain, so she dragged me to a gym.” By high school, basketball was his sport of choice.
That Wagner has helped Michigan to the Final Four this week in San Antonio is somewhat serendipitous. Five years ago, when the Wolverines lost to Louisville in the 2013 NCAA title game, Wagner watched from his home in Berlin with his father, Axel Schulz. Mesmerized by the pomp and circumstance surrounding the NCAA tournament, Schulz told Wagner, “This is crazy, with the music and the band — you’ve gotta go there, you’ve gotta go to college!”
Who knew it would actually happen though?
It surprised Wagner as much as anyone when Beilein showed up in Berlin.
“This dude who was on the TV, all the sudden he’s in your living room,” Wagner said. “It’s weird, because America is another world for you as a kid.”
Beilein first heard about Wagner from Yenal Kahraman, the same guy who helped former Connecticut forward Niels Giffey, who played for the Huskies from 2010-2014 and won two NCAA championships, get to the U.S. Beilein called Wagner after reading an email from Kahraman, and knew he had to meet Wagner immediately.
“The energy on the phone was incredible,” Beilein recalled last week.
“When you talk on the phone with recruits, it’s not always comfortable. They’re not comfortable talking with adults or they just don’t communicate. He was an incredible communicator.”
It was more impressive in person. When Beilein arrived in Berlin, he met Wagner at his family’s home, where he ate “a big German dinner and a beer.” By the end of their elevator ride upstairs, Beilein was sold.
“By the time I got out of the elevator I said, if this kid’s good at all, I’m going to give him a scholarship,” Beilein said. “He was so engaging.”
Reporters in L.A. got a taste of that last week. Wagner has a playful easiness around the media, and a genuine charisma that’s evident the first time you meet him.
When a reporter commented that his English was perfect, Wagner bowed his head and responded, “Bless you.” Wagner said no one has ever described his second language that way and in the process, stumbled over his words a bit. Without skipping a beat, he explained, “I’m nervous now!”
On mentoring hard-headed freshmen, he sighed and said knowingly, “It sucks to admit that coach is right.”
In talking about mixing sports with scholastic activities — normal to Americans but a foreign concept to other countries — Wagner described it as, “the way they do it here, with all the bling-bling.” He went on to say that it’s sort of bizarre, having a gym all to yourself, because in Europe you typically have to share with other sports. “You play in a gym with volleyball stripes on the court,” he said before hurriedly adding, “Not that (volleyball’s) a bad thing!”
On handball, his father’s extracircular of choice, Wagner informed everyone that he did not play “that ugly European sport.”
In talking about his growth as a scorer he quipped, “I wasn’t as good of a shooter then as I am now — and I’m saying that as a confident guy, not a cocky guy.” He added the last part with a smile, lest anyone misjudge him.
Of improving his accuracy: “Even back when I sucked (at shooting), I kept working on it.”
This chatter, coaches and teammates agree, is totally normal for Wagner.
It makes sense, too, when you consider his idol, Kevin Garnett. A longtime Boston Celtics fan, Wagner adores KG because, “He’s crazy. He could miss a million shot and still affect that game in a way no one else on the basketball floor was able to do with his intensity and energy.
“Obviously he’s a little crazy in the head, but I really appreciate that. I’m a little crazy out there, too.”
And in Ann Arbor, there are no complaints about that.