Three people occupy an otherwise empty Seattle Central Area gym. The only sounds are those of a bouncing and swishing basketball. It is 1997 and Doug Wrenn is auditioning his considerable talents.
Shooting around the perimeter, the smooth 6-foot-6 forward from O’Dea High School has been singled out as one of the nation’s foremost collegiate recruits.
Everybody wants him.
His audience consists of Dereck Whittenburg and me. Whittenburg, if you remember, is responsible for the most famous missed shot in the history of the NCAA tournament. I merely misfired a bunch of unimportant field-goal attempts at Roosevelt High School across town.
In 1983 while playing for North Carolina State, Whittenburg let fly with an urgent jumper from the top of the key in the Final Four championship game in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It came up well short of the basket with everything on the line.
However, teammate Lorenzo Charles instinctively grabbed the ball and dunked it through in one motion, beating both the buzzer and Houston and sending the late coach Jimmy Valvano and everyone else into a mad-dash celebration.
On this day, Whittenburg is a Georgia Tech assistant coach and I’m a sports writer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. We sit together, chat and watch. This talent scout wants to know what I know. We exchange business cards.
Whittenburg can’t talk to Wrenn in this gym because of NCAA recruiting limitations. He flew all the way from Atlanta just to watch the kid work out. They can nod at each other, nothing more. As for me, I can say anything I want to the talented player who has invited me to this private training session.
Now fast forward nearly a quarter of a century later, and Doug Wrenn never made it to the NBA. In fact, he wasn’t even permitted to finish his college eligibility. He earned some money playing the game overseas, but never got rich off it. The game only teased him and moved on without him. For the longest time, so did his education.
Last week, Wrenn, 41, received a sociology degree from the University of Washington. He graduated with honors, often making the dean’s list with his quarterly grades. He next intends to pursue a Master’s degree in the same subject and then enter a PhD program with an emphasis on sociology, international law and comparative religion.
“My goal is to build my own school,” he said wistfully. “But my real goal is to be a professor at the University of Washington. They need me.”
How does Dr. Wrenn sound?
It’s not Dr. J, but it will do.
He’s Muslim now, wearing the traditional robes and turning introspective, and he’s changed his name to Doug Wrenn-El.
It has been a long, hard journey for this likable but often mercurial basketball standout.
In going from a can’t-miss player to an educated man and potential educator, Wrenn-El served a prison sentence for a road-rage incident that may or may not have happened involving a gun, had domestic affairs turn into law-enforcement issues and become headlines, and had his basketball career snuffed out by a car accident that left him with a badly broken leg.
He’s turned reflective after spending so much time in courtrooms and jail or prison cells, and even quotes a judge who once told him, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse and excuses no one.”
Adversity was nothing new for Wrenn. He was homeless throughout his high school days, often staying with the Burleson family, which included eventual NFL wide receiver and TV personality Nate Burleson and NBA basketball guard Kevin Burleson, who both attended O’Dea.
As a potential basketball superstar, he never could settle in and enjoy it. After fielding offers from nearly every top basketball school, Wrenn signed with the University of Connecticut, played one complicated season for those East Coast Huskies, started at times as a freshman, but left the big time over some minor infractions such as showing up late and trading game tickets for new sneakers.
He transferred to a rebuilding UW program. As a sophomore in Seattle, he became a first-team All-Pac-10 selection for coach Bob Bender and led the hometown Huskies in scoring at 19 points per game. A year later, he was informed by Lorenzo Romar, who replaced Bender, he would not be allowed to play his senior season alongside Nate Robinson, Brandon Roy and Will Conroy because he was a perceived trouble-maker.
Romar had made him a substitute player and grown weary of trying to get him to conform to his system.
Just like that, Wrenn was gone.
While playing pro basketball in Serbia, Wrenn was exposed to the Muslim religion. For a decade he’s been all in, wearing the traditional robes and studying its principles. He actually equates basketball to being Muslim, noting the similarities in the two disciplines that bring everyone together.
No longer playing the game, he went up to the UW pre-pandemic to watch others in action and he encountered Cameron Dollar, once his assistant coach and part of Mike Hopkins’ current staff until resigning this past spring. They went outside. They had a heated discussion. the now Wrenn felt those coaches had summarily discarded him and damaged his athletic career.
In the end, Dollar implored him to return to school and complete his degree, which the UW would fund as part of his past scholarship arrangement. In 2019, Wrenn re-enrolled at the school, took online courses throughout the pandemic and finished with a grade point average well over 3.0.
“This was something I wanted to do years ago,” Wrenn said. “I didn’t have the opportunity.”
He’s come a long way since that teenaged gym audition so many years ago, with basketball royalty watching him shoot baskets and trying to get his attention. He’s paid a hefty price for his misdeeds and he’s overcome his college basketball banishment.
Doug Wrenn-El is an educated, enlightened and grown-up man now.
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