This is a story about coming a long way, and it begins with garlic. Lots of garlic. That’s what Axel Wagner, Moe’s father, used on the lamb he cooked the night Michigan basketball coach John Beilein traveled 4,200 miles from Ann Arbor to Berlin to meet his son.
Only one problem.
“I hope you like garlic!” Axel said, welcoming the coach.
Beilein hates garlic.
Apparently, he hates it almost as much as Axel used it. But, according to Moe, the coach smiled through the aroma.
“He ate a little bit, but it took him a while,” he says now, laughing. “Later he told me, ‘I really don’t like garlic.’ ”
You come. You see. You adjust. It’s not every coach who would travel that far to recruit a player. It’s not every player who would travel that far to play a sport — especially one few people in his country follow.
“In Germany, we don’t have an imagination for what it’s like to play college basketball, especially not on this stage,” Wagner says, with his team in the Final Four this weekend in San Antonio. “It doesn’t happen in any other country, really, but America.”
Which is true. College sports — and their attendant hysteria — are a red, white and blue phenomenon. Oxford and Cambridge may row boats against each other, but the idea of 68 college teams in March Madness, attended by millions, watched by tens of millions, talked about by hundreds of millions, well, that’s just alien in Europe.
Just as Wagner was once alien in Ann Arbor.
You come. You see. You adjust.
Then you conquer.
From an iPad to Ann Arbor
Moe Wagner, 20, is now one of the stars of the Michigan team, a large (6-foot-11) cog in the stunningly effective machine that is Wolverine basketball in the spring of 2018.
But before arriving three years ago, most of what he knew of U-M hoops was what he’d seen on his iPad. That’s how Wagner watched the 2013 national championship game, in which the Wolverines lost by six points to Louisville.
“I couldn’t find it on TV. I had to download it and watch it the next day. But that was where I first saw coach Beilein — and saw Spike (Albrecht) hit all those shots (17 points in 11 minutes in the first half). It’s crazy because now Spike and I are like best friends.
“The next year, my Dad and I watched Michigan again, in the Elite Eight against Kentucky. My Dad was watching on the couch and he said, ‘You have to be a part of this. The bands. The crowds. This stuff is crazy. You gotta go there.’ ”
Understand, this was not a common thing. It’s not like there’s a huge pipeline of German high school grads zipping over to big-time American basketball programs. But Wagner had been thinking about it ever since that iPad day.
Meanwhile, word of his talent found its way to Beilein. He saw some tape. He was intrigued. He decided to make a fast visit to Berlin.
“I flew in one day, out the next,” Beilein recalls. “I just felt I had to meet him if we were going to recruit him. When I got to the apartment building, I got in an elevator with Moe, we start going up to his flat, and by the time we (reached the top), I had made my mind up. If this kid could play at all, he’s the type of kid I want on my team.”
So what did Wagner say in that elevator that got Beilein so excited?
“He kept saying, ‘Oh, Coach, I’m so happy you are here. This is such an honor.’ He said ‘My dad is waiting for you. He’s got a great meal.”
He could have added, “Watch out for the garlic.”
But that, apparently, was Wagner’s only faux pas. Next thing you knew, the young man was in Ann Arbor for a tryout (permitted because Wagner had finished high school in Germany). And shortly thereafter, Beilein offered him a scholarship.
“He accepted right there,” Beilein says. “He didn’t visit any other schools. He wanted to go to Michigan. How rare is that?”
The player teams ‘love to hate’
Well, rare is not really a problem for Wagner. Although he looks like something out of central casting for a German pop star — blonde hair, high cheekbones, full lips and a broad toothy smile — Wagner is his own category. No shrinking violet here. He likes the stage. He likes the attention He even likes the recent reputation of being the player other fans “love to hate.”
“I think it turned that way a little last year,” he says. “It just kind of happened. I don’t know why. They don’t like me for some reason.”
Hmm. It could be the physical play. It could be the jawing. It could the muscle flex he pulled out in a game against Ohio State. Or the tongue sticking out, or the finger wagging. It could be the emotion he shows when disappointed, which can range from pout to rage.
It could be the fact that he himself told the media this year, “I’ve got to be honest. I would hate myself, too.”
“I’m a very expressive guy,” he admits. “But nothing I do is meant to be negative or hateful. If I ever say something bad, it’s just having fun. Even in German, I’m not saying anything bad.”
Meanwhile, his play has gotten better. That could be a reason opposing fans hate him as well. Last spring, he flirted with the idea of going pro. It was an instructive time. “I was very torn. There’s a lot of people talking to you all of a sudden. Especially if you don’t have an agent. It’s kind of hard to stay balanced.
“But what I heard basketball-wise was rebounding. Embrace being consistent. Be someone your coach can trust. And rebounding. The rebounding kept coming up. That was my biggest flaw, as a player, and at any level, that’s something you need to do better.”
So he did. Wagner doubled his defensive rebounding output this season and improved his overall rebounding to 6.9 per game, versus 4.2 last season. He’s also upped his point average to 14.3 a game.
But those are just numbers. Meaningless without wins. And Wagner has been enjoying the 32 wins that have come this year, more than any Michigan men’s team ever.
And now, all that’s left to experience is a championship.
The kid you want on your team
Wagner’s parents will be in San Antonio. It’s the first time both of them will watch him in person at the same time. He knows he may have to explain why it feels like the entire world is watching that court in San Antonio.
“The whole media attention here, the national television, ESPN, the whole hype around the game, you kind of realize really quick this is a big deal,” he says. “So many people here care about sports, college sports, college basketball. It’s just not the case in Germany. The only ones watching basketball are people interested in basketball.”
Because of that, Wagner sort of enjoys his summers back home. “It’s kind of cool when to be home and around the things you loved growing up.”
It’s likely Wagner will declare for the NBA draft this year, once this journey is complete. But he’s hoping to push that as far off as possible
“I’m playing to keep myself distracted,” he says.
That’s a line you don’t hear every day. But then, this is a story you don’t hear every day. A story about coming a long way, both in air miles and human development miles. Not every foreign recruitment story is as mutually beneficial as the Moe Wagner one. But from the beginning, he wanted to be in Ann Arbor, Beilein wanted him in Ann Arbor, and Ann Arbor has loved having him and vice versa.
“He’s the kind of kid who helps recruit other kids to the program,” Beilein raves. “That’s the kind of kid you want on your team.”
All that’s left now is Saturday’s game, maybe Monday’s game, and maybe, just maybe, a national championship, which the team could celebrate with a meal cooked by Wagner’s father, who will, after all, be in town.
Minus the garlic, of course.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.