Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in The Eagle on Dec. 25, 2005.
He once blocked 15 shots in a game, the most not only in Wichita State basketball history, but in the 99 years of the Missouri Valley Conference.
He had four triple-doubles during his Shocker career, tying Warren Armstrong for the most in WSU history. He played one of the greatest games a WSU player has ever played against Tulsa in 1962, scoring 22 points, grabbing 23 rebounds and blocking 10 shots.
He blocked 10 or more shots in a game five times. In 1960-61, he averaged 12.5 points and 12.1 rebounds.
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He had 26 rebounds during a 1962 game against Bradley and 32 points against North Texas State in 1961.
He played four NBA seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers as a defensive specialist, rebounder and shot blocker on teams led by Hall of Famers Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.
Yet I’m guessing, even with all of these hints, the average WSU basketball fan has no idea who I am talking about.
As underrated players go – and the Shockers have had a bunch of them over the years – nobody ranks with Gene Wiley.
Now 68, Wiley, who has devoted his life to art, lives a quiet life in northeast Wichita. He was in the oil industry in Los Angeles for 16 years after his playing career ended, but he returned to Wichita in 1991. He worked most recently at Hobby Lobby before retiring in 2003. He has two sisters and two brothers also living in Wichita.
“I’ve never been recognized very much,” Wiley said. “Sporadically, maybe. My height (6-foot-10) led to some questions about how tall I was and did I play basketball.”
Wiley was a standout on WSU teams from 1959-60 through 1961-62, though he didn’t start playing basketball until his junior year in high school. He lacked direction as a kid and always thought he would join the military.
But word got around quickly that a 6-10 shot-blocker and rebounder was wreaking havoc in the Texas Panhandle. WSU coach Ralph Miller drove to Amarillo to watch Wiley.
He took former WSU football standout Linwood Sexton with him; and they were able to get Wiley to forget about his military plans and come with them to Wichita, where he attended East High during his senior year.
He didn’t play basketball at East, but Miller knew he had a potential difference-maker waiting in the wings.
Wiley was that.
He could score, but what he did best was make the lane his.
He altered dozens of the shots he didn’t block and rebounded nearly every miss.
“I don’t think I would have gotten out of high school if basketball hadn’t come along,” Wiley said. “I was too tall to join the military, I later found out. But I was never a guy who would take his lunch to the playground and play all day. I didn’t love the game as much at that time in my life as I wish I would have.”
Wiley only recently returned to the Wichita State campus for the first time since he returned to town. One of his friends, Leonard Clark, an assistant athletic director, convinced Wiley to take a tour of Koch Arena.
“That place is excellent,” Wiley said. “The Roundhouse seemed like a dungeon when I was there. Leonard’s been trying to get me to some games, but I have real knee problems. I can’t handle many stairs or be in a real crowded position.”
Clark should keep working on Wiley. He needs to be embraced by the Shockers for his many contributions to their heritage.
“I don’t necessarily choose to stay out of the limelight,” Wiley said. “It’s just my nature. I do what comes naturally. And as you get old, you kind of get concerned with your looks. Who wants to see me grinning in their face, anyway?”