This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of MemphiSport.
Perhaps no player in the recent history of University of Memphis basketball has been more enigmatic than Wesley Arington Witherspoon. Coming out of high school, the 6’9” Georgia phenom was rated by Rivals.com as the number 34 overall player in the nation as well as the number 5 small forward. His freshman year saw him show flashes of brilliance and versatility, as John Calipari even installed him as the team’s point guard during one stretch of the season. And the reason Cal asked Witherspoon to be his floor general? Because at the time he thought ‘Spoon was a better option than future NBA rookie of the year Tyreke Evans. The ability to play so many positions had Tiger fans excited and created tremendous expectations. A guard with a power forward’s height, surely this kid was destined for greatness. But the road ahead would be a bumpy one for the Atlanta native, to put it mildly.
John Calipari left after Wesley’s first year, taking the number one recruiting class in the country with him, and many assumed that Witherspoon would follow. But then came an interesting scene. Soon after Josh Pastner was selected to be the new head man at Memphis, the young coach found himself in a room surrounded by a few media members and a handful of players he would have to re-recruit to keep them on his team. The mood was solemn indeed; there was a stillness to the air that hadn’t been present in a long time where Tiger basketball had been concerned. He would have to start over from scratch; Memphis was bereft of talent and Cal had left him very little time to garner new recruits.
But a magical moment then ensued. As Pastner was talking about trying to keep at least some players around, there was Witherspoon, yelling from the back, “We ain’t going nowhere, coach!” The somber atmosphere suddenly seemed to take a turn. There was ubiquitous chatter among the media, and it seemed that things might not be as bad as they seemed.
His follow-up season didn’t quite get off to the start many expected, however, as the sophomore made only one start early on. And his 10.3 points per game average was not what fans had expected. The team was struggling, and they had been counting on Witherspoon to be a star. Instead it was transfer Elliott Williams, a Memphis native, who became the team’s best player. Witherspoon seemed to lack the desire and intensity many thought he needed to bring, and the expectations began to lessen as he took a back seat to Williams. Many Tiger supporters then found it easier to simply forget about the player they had been so high on just a few months before.
The season might have not have begun the way Witherspoon wanted, the end was a lot better. His form improved, and he wound up starting 19 out of the last 20 games while increasing his scoring average to 12.5 points per game, including four 20-point performances. Though the team just missed out on the NCAA tournament, Witherspoon got to play in all three NIT games, where he averaged 13 points and 5 rebounds, shooting over 52 percent from the field. His game winning basket at the buzzer highlighted a 73-71 Tiger victory over St. John’s in the second round.
At that point, things seemed to be looking up again for the Atlanta prodigy, but if his sophomore year was a bit disappointing, his junior year was laden with turmoil. Witherspoon missed 12 games in total due to a knee injury, although after having surgery to repair a tear in his Meniscus, he returned after only a 2 game absence. The bigger issue, though, was the 2 game suspension he received for disciplinary reasons, where it was rumored that he had been making fun of an assistant coach. Once again however, Witherspoon managed to come back in a big way, playing 28 minutes (the most of any Tiger) in an NCAA tournament game against Arizona. Though the U of M ultimately lost the game, he was a key reason the Tigers almost pulled off the upset.
The anticipation of Witherspoon’s senior season once again effected glorious expectations, upon both he and his team. Memphis began the season ranked in almost everyone’s top 15 and were ranked in the top ten in several publications. ‘Spoon started out the season with a bang, going 8 of 8 from the field in the opener against Belmont, including a perfect 3 of 3 from 3-point range, but since then he has tended to once again be up and down for the most part. His 3.5 points per game average to this point is the lowest of his career. After missing time again due to injury, he has often disappeared on occasion, though at of the time of this article, he is once again on the upswing after having had brilliant games against SMU and Rice, snagging big rebounds, getting key steals, hustling and making free throws. Which Witherspoon Memphis gets during the latter part of his final year here may well determine how the Tigers season winds up.
So who is Wesley Witherspoon? The player who so highly rated out of high school, or the one who fans are constantly riding because of their view that he is an underachiever? Is he the player who stuck around to help out his coach when everyone else was leaving or the kid who complains toward that same coach when he is taking too long in postgame interviews?
Everyone has their own opinion on just who Witherspoon is, but MemphiSport got a chance to speak with the man himself and get his take on things.
MEMPHISPORT: What do you think is a common misconception people have about you?
WITHERSPOON: I really don’t listen to what people say about me. I really couldn’t tell you what people say about me.
MEMPHISPORT: What would you want people to know about you that they don’t know?
WITHERSPOON: People that wanna know me know everything about me. I’m just a down to earth outgoing guy, don’t like to be sad, don’t like to frown. That’s just who I am and everybody knows that.
MEMPHISPORT: So you like to keep things positive…
WITHERSPOON: Yeah, no question.
MEMPHISPORT: You are the only guy now who’s been here and had the opportunity to play under two different coaches, Cal and Josh. Obviously they are two different guys…
WITHERSPOON: And my roommate…Preston
MEMHISPORT: Preston, I didn’t realize that.
WITHERSPOON: Yeah, he came in with me.
MEMPHISPORT: So what are some of the differences of playing under them? Though I know you only had one year with Cal.
WITHERSPOON: They got two different approaches to the game. Pastner is a whole lot more laid back. Everybody knows he doesn’t curse, that’s a big difference.
MEMPHISPORT: There are critics out there. And you say you don’t listen to them, but you have to hear something. It’s unavoidable sometimes. What would you say to those guys? The ones who say, “Wes doesn’t do this…Wes should be doing that.”
WITHERSPOON: Just keep on doin’ what you’re doin’. That’s what the critics are there for. Critics are there to critique and that’s what they’re gonna do. You just gotta take it for what’s it worth and keep moving.
MEMPHISPORT: This is your fourth year now, and you’ve been through a lot of ups and downs. You’ve had good moments, great moments even, and bad moments too. You’ve also had some injuries. So at this point, are you satisfied with the way your career has gone?
WITHERSPOON: Not even close but there’s nothing I can do about it.
MEMPHISPORT: What would you change if you could? Or what kind of things would you like to have happened differently?
WITHERSPOON: The things I would have wanted to happen differently? It was just in God’s will for things to go the way they went. Of course I wouldn’t want to get hurt, any of the three times I was hurt here…that’s just about it.
MEMPHISPORT: No one likes to make excuses, but do you feel like these things have really held you back from what you can do?
WITHERSPOON: I mean… to a certain extent, but its basketball… you get over it.
MEMPHISPORT: Who would you say you are closest to on the team?
MEMPHISPORT: What kind of relationship does you and DJ Stephens have? Do you guys hang out?
WITHERSPOON: He’s like my little brother. Like a little brother I never had. Eight times out of ten when you see him you will see me, and vice versa.
MEMPHISPORT: Do you try to have him look up to you or is that something that’s unfair to have put on you?
WITHERSPOON: We have a relationship that’s just like we are brothers. We pretty much like all the same things, similar interests when it comes to music, you know… foods. Or it’s just easy to relate to him.
MEMPHISPORT: So let’s think back a couple of years ago. When Calipari left, pretty much all the recruits left and there were a whole lot of things going on. I personally remember seeing on TV you saying “I ain’t goin’ nowhere, coach!” Do you remember that?
WITHERSPOON: Uh huh.
MEMPHISPORT: Talk a little bit about that – what was going through your head and how you felt – about why you said that.
WITHERSPOON: When I signed my name I said I was here to play for the University of Memphis and that’s what I intended on doing.
MEMPHISPORT: Do you think that the people backed out of their commitments did the wrong thing? I mean everybody’s different but you know what you would have done, right?
WITHERSPOON: Different strokes for different folks. Other people had other things in mind and they approached the situation a whole lot different.
MEMPHISPORT: Last year there were some things that were pretty difficult to deal with. You got the suspension, for instance. Was that something that affected you and changed the way you do things? That’s always something that has to affect someone to a certain extent.
WITHERSPOON: It didn’t look good. I mean, there ain’t nothing I could do about it. I can’t change the past; I can just look forward and move on.
MEMPHISPORT: Is that something you learned from? Going through something like that?
WITHERSPOON: No question. You gotta learn. Trials and tribulations.
MEMPHISPORT: What did you learn?
WITHERSPOON: Every setback is a set up for a comeback. So, it hindered me for a little while and it was a blessing in disguise. My mother always tells me everything always happens for a reason.
MEMPHISPORT: Do you feel like you grew from something like that?
WITHERSPOON: No question…no question.
MEMPHSPORT: I’ve seen you do this thing a couple of times where after you make a three and blow a kiss to the crowd. Is that something that gets you going?
WITHERSPOON: It’s not to the crowd, it’s to my mother. Her and my father have been there since day one through everything I’ve been through and they have stuck right by my side and I can’t ask for a better support system. My mother is the definition of perseverance and strength and you know my father is the same way. And just to have those two at every home game lets me know that I’ll be alright. As long as they’ll be there with me I’ll be alright.
MEMPHISPORT: You are a senior and we have a couple months of basketball left. Who knows what can happen if you end up pretty successful at the end. But have you started thinking about what happens in your life after this year? Basketball you only have only so much control over. I assume at some point you want to try to further your career however that winds up. Are you making plans for things like that now?
WITHERSPOON: I don’t know the future and neither does anybody else so I look forward to tomorrow. And if I make it to tomorrow, it’s a blessing in itself.
MEMPHISPORT: This is your moment. Is there anything you want to talk about? Here is your opportunity.
WITHERSPOON: Like I said before, everybody who wants to know me knows me. People on the outside looking in will think what they wanna think and that’s perfectly fine with me
Michael Jones is the Tiger basketball beat writer for MemphiSport. You can follow him via Twitter @MemphisMichaelJ.
-Photos by Justin Ford