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LIFE'S A SLAM DUNK WHEN YOU DO THE RIGHT THING ALUMNI PROFILE: Mike Wilhelm '85

Mike Wilhelm ‘85 looks at life in terms of absolutes and commands. He expects those around him to do the same. As a lifer in the NBA, and now the assistant coach for the Chicago Bulls, Wilhelm inspires others by “finding the magic is in the work” and “making work deposits”—convictions learned as a child, practiced at Saint Ignatius High School, and communicated daily on the court.

Wilhelm credits his family for providing a solid foundation. “My mom and dad were Depression-era children, and their work ethic was unparalleled,” he explains. “Their tough, common-sense approach of teaching my siblings and me using “absolutes” and “commands” has naturally surfaced in my parenting and coaching styles. It has taken me to places, through the game of basketball, I never would have imagined as a kid.”

Wilhelm recalls, “My mom always reminded us that ‘the magic is in the work’ when we would leave for school in the mornings. Another one of her favorites was to ‘keep making your deposits.’ These ‘absolutes’ referred to putting in the necessary work to be good at something. My father’s words of wisdom were ‘you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse,’ ‘you’re going to have a bad day once in a while, just don’t make it two bad days in a row,’ and ‘do what you’re supposed to do when you’re supposed to do it.’ If we were feeling sorry for ourselves, he’d tell us ‘you get what deserve in this life.’ These commands might seem harsh by today’s standards, but they have guided my outlook on life and helped me create success for the athletes with whom I work.”

As it turns out, Saint Ignatius offered a natural extension of these values. Wilhelm’s brothers, Bob ’75, and Tom ’81, wanted Mike to attend Saint Ignatius because “…the teachers and coaches won’t hand you anything … They are going to work you hard and make you earn everything through diligence and sacrifice… You won’t receive this from any other high school around.” They were right.

Saint Ignatius teachers Larry Arthur and Chuck Kyle ‘69 had a profound influence on Wilhelm’s development as a student and eventual coach.

“Coach Kyle’s ability to make English literature understandable for students who found Shakespeare difficult made me appreciate him immensely,” says Wilhelm. “He taught and coached from the heart. Coach Arthur was a presence on the sidelines. His high expectations, enthusiasm about teaching the game correctly, positive attitude, and experience playing at the collegiate level made every player on the team better. He also created an environment that made us a ‘together team’ in that we didn’t want to let each other, or him, down. Both Coach Kyle and Coach Arthur had a huge influence on me getting into coaching when I graduated from college. They were life changers for me.”

Arthur, a physical education teacher, feels that Wilhelm was integral to his early success. “Michael was an important part of my team in my first season as the head basketball coach at Saint Ignatius,” he says. “He was part of a group of players who knew the value of hard work and dedication to a common goal.”

Arthur influenced more than just Wilhelm that season. Of the 15 players on the 1984-85 varsity basketball team, 13 had a father or older brother who attended Saint Ignatius and the two who did not sent their boys to the school.

Life for Wilhelm hasn’t been without its ups and downs. When he was 27, he was fired as the coach of the Sundsvall Dragons. What might have been a devastating blow to his career ended up being a life lesson taught by his father. Wilhelm pays it forward to his players to this day.

“I was really down about losing my job. The day my father, Vince, picked me up from the airport he handed me the Ace of Spades playing card that he and his buddies from the 83rd Anti-Aircraft Infantry used as a talisman during WWII. They would place the cards inside their helmets while shooting down the Luftwaffe as they held the bridge at Remagen. My dad explained that in the theater of war, the card signifies both good luck and death. In my dad’s context, it afforded good luck to him and his band of brothers. He told me to keep the card for good luck in my next coaching job. I still have that card and have used it in every one of my preps over the last 15 years in the NBA.”

“Most of the time, the symbol of the ‘Ace of Spades’ is on the grease board for my preps. There are occasions, however, when I have to be more dramatic in waking up the players. I throw down the card down in the middle of the locker room, walk over and step on it before I start talking. I tell everyone in the room that today’s a good day for the team we happened to be playing to ‘die’ on the court. You can sense the loss of fear and negativity in the players, while also sensing the urgent need to fight and make inspiring plays for each other. My players love it and understand the meaning/symbolism behind it. I have my father to thank for this inspirational tactic, as well as many others.”

Wilhelm also leans on the very aspects of leadership and Jesuit spiritualty that were instilled in him during high school. In fact, he has players write A.M.D.G. (Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam) on their sneakers when he feels they need it. “Coach Mike had a very positive influence on my seven and a half year career in Chicago,” says Taj Gibson (now with the Minnesota Timberwolves). “He coached from his heart. His direct approach and toughness was great for me and the team. A.M.D.G. Coach Mike.”

According to Bulls Senior Advisor and four-time All Star, Doug Collins, “Mike is one of the finest men I’ve been around. He is as good a coach as he is a human being—a product of the great people who molded him and taught him to do the right thing.”

Today, Wilhelm uses a combination of experiences to motivate his players. Whether it’s the Ace of Spades playing card, reminding his players to make the work deposits in practice that add up to successes on the court, or passing on the spirit of the Jesuits, Wilhelm encourages everyone with whom he works to live up to high standards and to see through a lens that illuminates the good and the possible in every impossible situation.

by Laura Hammel, featured in the Winter 2018 issue of Saint Ignatius Magazine

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