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30 Years After March Madness Win, Tarence Wheeler Still Earning Victories

May 10, 2021
Sun Devil Tarence Wheeler looks to NBA friends like Gary Payton and Derrick Coleman to help in his numerous community projects.

Where are they now: '91 hoops star Tarence Wheeler comes full-circle in hometown
 
By Griffin Fabits, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism Class of 2021.
 
Tarence Wheeler had a list of schools mapped out in front of him in the 1980s. As a high school senior in Detroit, Wheeler was planning for a competitive recruitment amongst a number of colleges. He was scheduling meetings, phone calls, official visits with each of them.
 
Arizona State and then head coach Steve Patterson were not on Wheeler's list, though they had shown interest in the 6-foot-2 guard. The Sun Devils were hardly a thought in Wheeler's mind, until childhood friend BJ Armstrong offered him this piece of advice: take as many official visits as you can.
 
Wheeler shrugged. What's the harm in taking as many visits as possible and learning more about the programs that sought his talents? He boarded a flight and headed for Tempe.
 
What then transpired over the course of the next few months involved a newfound adoration for Tempe, for the Sun Devil basketball program, for Coach Patterson, for the rest of his staff. Suddenly, the Sun Devils were in play for Wheeler's services.
 
The deal was sealed when Patterson, visiting Wheeler's family home in Detroit and sitting at their kitchen table, made a key promise to Wheeler's grandmother.
 
"'I'm going to take him in as a boy and return him to you as a man.'"
 
"It became, at that moment," Wheeler said, "bigger than basketball."
 
How the Sun Devils and Wheeler committed to each other is a decision that Wheeler still gains from today, 30 years after he last led the Sun Devils to a Round One tournament victory in the 1991 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament.

 

"I felt it was a great fit for me," Wheeler said. "I felt I could grow as a person in Tempe, Arizona. It was one of the best decisions of my life."
 
 

 
 
Wheeler grew up impoverished in the heart of Detroit. There were many hours spent in food lines beside his mother. There were harsh winters where coats and adequate clothing were hard to come by. While waiting for the bus on the way to school one morning, one man noticed Wheeler, noticeably freezing, and gifted him with a winter coat.
 
Basketball was an escape. But it also became his avenue toward change, toward the betterment of his family, friends and neighbors.
 
"As a child of poverty, you understand you're not successful by yourself. Someone has to nurture and support your greatness," he said. "And I said, 'God, if I'm ever in a position, I want to use that position to enrich the lives of others. This is bigger than me.'"
 
That position Wheeler dreamed about -- the opportunity to take care of others -- presented itself at Arizona State, when the kid from Detroit soon emerged as a mainstay for the Sun Devils. As a freshman in the 1987-88 season, he appeared in 29 games and averaged 10.8 points.
 
In three years in Tempe, Wheeler averaged 12.1 points per game, 3.7 assists, and shot 41 percent from beyond-the-arc. He shouldered much of the scoring, alongside Isaac Austin and Jamal Faulkner, including the first round victory over Rutgers in the 1991 tourney. He dropped 25 points and shot 62 percent from the field.
 
It was ASU's first appearance in the tournament in 11 years. And it parlayed into a professional career for Wheeler. There was the opportunity he longed for.
 
"I know what ASU did for me," he said. "It gave me access and exposure. I am forever grateful for the opportunity to wear that Sun Devil jersey."
 
 

Wheeler turned a fine college career into a professional career, where he bounced around overseas for nine seasons. There, he had a penchant for providing for the impoverished youth, regardless of the country he'd find himself in. After games he'd leave behind shoes, warm-ups, t-shirts. 
 
"I would always find myself gravitating toward those impoverished kids, even though I'm in another country. That's when it started. I didn't even know I was doing global humanitarian work. I just saw a need and wanted to fulfill that need."
 
For the last 14 years, Wheeler has fulfilled that need for so many families in the Detroit area. His Tarence Wheeler Foundation -- inspired by the motto "powerless kids need powerful friends" -- has impacted more than 105,000 lives.
 
His organization has provided just shy of 25,000 turkeys to families in Detroit. He mentors 50 children, helping them work closely with community leaders to build a better future for themselves. According to his website, he's also partnered with DTE Energy to "facilitate over $7.8  million in utility payments for low-income families."
 
"When I moved back to Detroit, I was driving around my community and I said, 'We all can't get a degree and move away. Somebody has to stick and stay so young people can see examples of what they can be.' 
 
"We just started doing small things in the community. It was a result of me being an impoverished kid."
 
Not much escapes the mind of Wheeler. It never has. He remembers specific plays, sequences as a Sun Devil, especially from those final few minutes against Rutgers in 1991 when he hit a trio of consecutive threes that sealed the win.
 
He remembers the conversations with Patterson, a man who was "everything he said he was going to be and more." He remembers that first Palm Walk on the Tempe campus, the moment he fell in love with the desert and the sunshine and Sun Devil basketball.
 
And of course, he remembers his youth. A trying adolescence that paved the way for Wheeler to give back to children and families who live under similar circumstances as he once did.
 
It has all led to this, to the gifting of turkey dinners, the coat drives, the youth mentorship. Growing up in poverty, playing ball at Arizona State, doing it overseas, it has all led to a return home to Detroit.
 
"ASU prepared me for life after basketball. The study halls, the summer jobs, learning how to be accountable, responsible, the work ethic. It was one of the most important decisions of my life.
 
"I stand on the shoulders of giants who have helped me. I have to leave this earth on empty, helping as many as I can for as much as I can. I have to help people. I would not be standing here, having accomplished all I've accomplished in my life, had it not been for somebody else seeing something in me, seeing greatness in me, believing in me, before I even believed in myself."