The Return of the ‘Fro

Earlier this month the men’s basketball program at UC Irvine heralded the return of one of its most successful and popular players as Michael Wilder was appointed the new Director of Administration for the men’s basketball program at UC Irvine.

Nicknamed “Afro Thunder” by the undergraduate student population thanks to his trademark hairstyle, Wilder came to represent the heart and soul of Anteater basketball during his undergraduate career from 2009-2013 as he carved a name for himself in the career record books. Through the 126 games played during his career, Wilder came to hold the third highest record for three point field goals, fourteenth highest in rebounds and assists and was just the twenty-second player in school history to score over 1000 points.

During his time as an Anteater, Wilder didn’t just make an impact on the court but off of it as well.  Aspiring at the time to be a child therapist, Wilder excelled academically as a psychology and social behavior major while also involving himself in a multitude of extracurricular activities such as serving on the Student Athlete Advisory Committee or as an active brother of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity.

Upon graduating in 2013, Wilder headed overseas to Spain to begin playing professionally for UP Basquet Gandia, thanks largely in part to UCI alumnus Johnny Rogers whose professional career spanned a total of 16 years over in Europe. Although Wilder wasn’t always able to understand his coach due to language barriers, playing for the Spanish team nevertheless still proved to be a great experience for the Long Beach native.

“They really made it seem like a family which reminded me of being back here in Irvine. That’s one of the best things that I love about being here, [which] was how much of a family we were.” said Wilder.

Alongside learning the X’s and O’s of the European style of basketball, Wilder also picked up upon the lifestyle of the Spanish locals, whom he described as being “so much more laidback and so much more carefree” than citizens in the US.

“I think I just learned to step back and enjoy what’s in front of me because it’s easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of everyday, with work and [everything else].”

Despite living 6000 miles away and living in a time zone that was nine hours ahead of his alma mater, Wilder still made an effort to keep in contact with friends, family and coaches over instant messaging services such as Skype and WhatsApp. Provided that he didn’t have a game the next day, Wilder would often, Wilder would often stay up late or go to sleep early in order to be able to watch live feeds of UC Irvine games at the early hours of 4 am in the morning.

“The home-opener against Fresno State, my roommates and I were up and we were watching the Fresno State game. From 4 to 6 AM I’m just yelling at the screen, cheering loudly; I probably woke up the whole complex you know?” laughs Wilder.

Fortunately for Wilders (and his neighbors), he no longer needs to stay up late in order to demonstrate the loyalty and support that he holds for his fellow Anteaters. Following the decision of Director of Operations, Michael Lenahan, to accept an assistant coach position at Whitman College, an opportunity for Afro Thunder’s return to UC Irvine was created. Looking to bring former players back to the program, Coach Russell Turner contacted Wilder and extended him the job offer as Director of Administration while he was in Spain.

The call came as a shock to Wilder as he had his mind set on playing basketball professionally for the next five years of his life barring injury. For Wilder, the position marked the opportunity to come back to his alma mater and work under his former coaches and with a team mostly comprised of players that he’s played alongside with in addition to being closer home to his family and loved ones.

Despite how tempting the offer sounded Wilder took a month a half to think things through as accepting the position likely meant the end of his professional playing career. Although Wilder holds a strong passion for the game and for playing, the offer ultimately proved too good of an opportunity to pass up.

“It just kind of hit me that I could play another five to six years and be done. Then it’s like, ‘Okay then what? What now?’ And this opportunity here would be a great one for me if I want to go into the coaching business or the sports administration business which are two avenues that I’ve always seen myself doing as an adult.”

As Director of Administration, Wilder’s roles include coordinating the summer youth basketball camps, monitoring player academics, alumni and donor outreach and supervising video operations. Wilder did not hold any previous experience in video editing, hence he came in as a volunteer a month before being hired to learn the fundamentals under the tutelage of Mike Lenahan. To further prepare himself for his new role, Wilder also attended a two-day conference in Las Vegas hosted by SportsTech where he acquired valuable insight from video coordinators employed by schools all around the country.

Thus far, Wilder’s shift from player to administrator has been a smooth one, although it hasn’t come without some growing pains. Having played with over half of the current roster, both Wilder and his former teammates have had to redefine the boundaries of their relationship as it is no longer that of teammates’ but of player and coach.

“Even when I first got back, we were hanging out just as if we would as players, as teammates. And they’ll always be my teammates, but that’s the most difficult thing I guess, drawing the line between friend and coach. It’s a learning process for me, learning process for them, but I think we know when to draw it and we know what the right balance is and what is appropriate at what times.”

One tangible instance in which this new relationship shift can be found is through Wilder’s duty to oversee player academics. Instead of being a part of study tables as he once was as a player, he is now in charge of leading them and stressing the importance of performing well in class.

“If you want to be on the court, you got to do your homework, you got to pass your tests.” said Wilder. “People talk about being a UCI student athlete. [You’re] not just an athlete, you’re a student first, because at the end of the day you’re not going to play forever but your degree can take you as far as you want it to take you.”

In regards to how long Wilder plans on serving as the Director of Administration, the Anteater faithful can rest assured that Afro Thunder will be here to stay for at least the next two to three years.

“Irvine is where I’d love to work for the rest of my life, but if there are other opportunities that I have the chance to pursue, then I’ll definitely pursue them and I know I’ll have Coach Turner supporting that and the coaches’ support. I’m shocked that I’m here now just because I didn’t think the opportunity would come at this point, but now that I’m here, I’m an Anteater for life and I want to keep it that way.”