There are only so many chances for a player to catch the eyes of the right program in an attempt to turn pro. Sometimes, it comes down to the very last chance to make a dream into a reality.
For former Bulldog Joe Wolfinger, that could not be more true. Wolfinger was on the University of Washington’s basketball squad for four years, playing two, and made the most of his last chance opportunity with a post-graduate year at The Citadel to springboard him into what has been a nine-year professional career.
A native of Portland, Ore., Wolfinger came to The Citadel after four seasons at the University of Washington. In his collegiate career, Wolfinger played in 73 games, including making 18 starts, and was a career 44.6-percent shooter from the field. He scored 355 career points, including 211 at The Citadel in his final year of eligibility, and brought down 181 rebounds, 125 for the Bulldogs.
Wolfinger started his professional career with the Astrum Levice in Slovakia for the 2010-11 season. He then went on to play for teams in Germany and the United State and has been playing in Japan for the last six years. He led the Tokyo Excellence to the National Basketball Development League (NBDL) Championship crown in 2013-14 and was named the NBDL Player of the Year in 2014-15.
After playing the 2016-17 season and the first part of the 2017-18 season with the Otsuka Corporation Koshigaya Alphas in the Japan B League, Wolfinger joined the Tokio Marine Nichido Big Blue at the end of the 2017-18 campaign and played for the Tokyo Cinq Reves last season. The Japan B League is the third-highest league in Japan with the top level featuring a slew of former NBA players.
Over his first nine seasons in the professional ranks, he has had some fun and memorable moments.
“My rookie year in Slovakia, we had a huge win at home and I had one of the best games of my life,” Wolfinger remembers. “The crowd was going crazy, throwing confetti on to the court and chanting my last name. I took my headband off and threw it into the crowd. It was my first-ever rock star moment.
“My first year In Japan I was selected to play in the All-Star game, and that was a great atmosphere and a lot of fun. Later that year, my team won the championship,” Wolfinger said. “The following year, I was chosen as the league MVP and I was awarded a trophy before the first playoff game. However, that day soon turned into one of the worst days of my career as we were upset by a team that had no business beating us. It was a bitter sweet ending as we were favored to win the championship.”
During the summer months, Wolfinger usually returns home to Portland to train and work out, but more importantly catch up with family and friends. He plans on playing professionally again next season, most likely in Japan once again. Due to that, he knows it is important to eat healthy and stay in shape.
One of his favorite parts of playing professionally overseas has been the ability to travel all over and experience new cultures.
“I have been to many parts of Europe and Asia, and I encourage everyone to travel abroad. Experiencing different cultures and customs has been a real life changer,” Wolfinger said. “Tokyo is a magical place. It is the cleanest and safest city in the world. I really enjoy their traditions, such as taking off your shoes before going into houses and many public venues. It’s a very disciplined society. The youth respect their elders and punctuality is extremely important. I once attended a traditional tea ceremony and wasn’t able to sit in the Seiza style (knees bent sitting back on ankles). My teammates had no problem at all but I found it pretty much impossible.
“Adjusting to a new country can be challenging,” Wolfinger continued. “My first year in Tokyo, I felt like I had landed on another planet. Everything seemed different. For example, cars are much smaller and drive on the opposite side of the road. Walking down the street, I'm about two or three feet taller than the majority of the crowd. I get so many comments and stares it can make me feel uncomfortable, but stepping out of my comfort zone on a daily basis has actually benefited me. I'm definitely more outgoing and mentally tougher thanks to my time spent in Japan.”
Even with some of the uncomfortable situations that come his way with sticking out, playing professional basketball has been a dream come true.
“I can’t complain because I am living out my dream. I always wanted to play professionally,” Wolfinger said. “Even though I didn’t make it to the NBA, I'm incredibly grateful for the opportunity to keep hooping internationally. Like many jobs, there is pressure and stress, plenty of highs and lows throughout the season, but getting to play the game I love and compete every day is a blessing. Having a good game and winning in front of the sold out home crowd is the best feeling. I have had plenty of experiences throughout my nine-year career and just when I think I’ve seen it all, something wild happens. For example, last season, my team had four different head coaches.”
Like his fellow former Bulldogs now playing professionally, Wolfinger credits his experiences playing for the Bulldogs and Huskies for preparing him for his career overseas.
“My college coaches taught me the fundamentals, how to play defense, rebound, and how to be a good teammate,” Wolfinger said. “The challenging practices instilled a toughness to my playing style. I learned a lot from my experience at The Citadel. Under coach Ed Conroy, who ran a very controlled offense, I was finally taught how to play with my back to the basket. Assistant coach Doug Novak was a master at teaching post moves and giving each of them a name like ‘Barkley into a running hook.’ Coach Novak definitely had the highest basketball IQ I have ever experienced from a coach. I also learned how to weak-side pin my opponents for offensive rebounds. I still frequently use the tactics I learned at The Citadel in my professional career and it helps give me an advantage. “
Even though he only played one season at The Citadel, Wolfinger remembers plenty about that season.
“One of my favorite memories was meeting Pat Conroy. Unfortunately, I hadn’t read any of his books prior to meeting him, but since then I've read four,” Wolfinger said. “He was an amazing author and I’m happy I had a chance to meet him. The first book I read was, ‘My Losing Season’ and I was hooked after that.
“Some other great memories are playing against Michigan State at a sold out McAlister Field House and living in the beautiful and historic city of Charleston was such a great experience,” Wolfinger continued. “We didn’t get the win (against MSU), but it was a close game. It was an outstanding atmosphere and the Cadets were going crazy.”
But what stands out most to Wolfinger was how welcoming the rest of his team was during his final year of collegiate ball.
“The camaraderie I had with my teammates was really special. They were a really great group of guys,” Wolfinger stated. “It was really like a family environment. Even though I had not done a knob year, participated in parade days, wore the uniforms, or retreated back to the barracks every night, they still treated me like I was one of them. They were an elite group of men pursuing their dreams of playing Division I basketball. I really respect them and am truly honored I had the chance to experience a post-grad year at The Citadel."
The Citadel men’s basketball program has had 12 players go on to play professional basketball over the years, including Rick Swing (Class of 1979) and Gary Daniels (Class of 1962), both of whom were drafted into the NBA.
Currently, four players are playing professionally overseas with three recent Bulldogs – Matt Frierson, Zane Najdawi and Lew Stallworth – set to join their ranks later this year. Tom Koopman, Ashton Moore, Cameron Wells and Joe Wolfinger all recently wrapped up their 2018-19 seasons and took time to sit down with CitadelSports.com to catch up on where they are currently.
Every two weeks over the next two months, a new portion of the four-part series will be released. On Monday, July 22, CitadelSports.com will feature Cameron Wells.
Fans who wish to follow Wolfinger as he continues his professional career can follow him on Twitter and Instgram (@wolfingerjoe).
For more information on The Citadel basketball team, please visit CitadelSports.com.