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