Standout from Villa Julie takes a shot at basketball overseas

Professional league in England allows athlete to fulfill a dream

October 19, 2005|By JOE BURRIS | JOE BURRIS,SUN REPORTER

Wade Henninger is living a hoop dream, though one not many starry-eyed basketball players might fantasize about. Anyone can grow up wanting to be like Mike or Magic or Shaq. But how many players are willing to take their pro dreams to the land where kids want to be like Beckham?

That's right, there's professional basketball in the United Kingdom, a country known for the world's most famous soccer franchise, Manchester United, and the game's most popular player, David Beckham.

Turns out, though, that the country is the perfect place for a basketball player like Henninger, a standout player from Villa Julie College who is living the unlikeliest of dreams in many ways: He is, for example, from a college far off the beaten track of any pro scout. A Middle River native, he had never been farther from home than a road-game trip within the Eastern time zone - let alone an ocean away.

But since last month, Henninger has been suiting up for the Manchester Magic of the English Basketball League, which means he's playing pro ball in a place where he also has to drive on the left side of the road (and in a manual-transmission car, another first).

"It's a great chance to travel and just meet different people from a totally different country," said Henninger, who graduated last spring with a 3.6 grade point average and a degree in business communication but resisted job lures so he could continue playing ball. "I know I'm only going to be young once, and I've got a small window to do this," he said. "I just thought, `England's a great starting point.'"

Henninger, who signed a one-year contract with the Manchester Magic, doesn't expect Baltimore-area youngsters to flock to follow in his footsteps. He isn't living the NBA lifestyle; he's making about $800 a month and sharing a team-owned apartment - or flat, as he's learned to call it - with four other players.

But he's not complaining, particularly because he's believed to be the first former Villa Julie athlete paid to play a sport professionally - even if he is taking a beating on the exchange rate.

"We have use of an automobile, and they give us meal money," the 23-year-old said. "It's comfortable. I've never been a person who's needed money, as long as I got my family, my health and good shoes."

Being so far from his family is the most difficult part of Henninger's otherwise excellent adventure. He's from a close-knit, waterfront neighborhood, Ocean Beach. His stay-at-home mom, Sharon, recently discovered some neighbors have been quietly keeping track of her son's career since high school.

The oldest of three children, Henninger developed his work ethic from his father, Wayne, a 25-year steel mill employee who now works as a landscaper. While other players chow down at fast-food restaurants, Henninger takes care of his body, following his mother's nutritional regimen - granola for breakfast, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for lunch. His desire to excel came from his grandmother, Juanita Beatty, who paid his way through college.

Then there's his fiancee, Nicole, a Towson University graduate and nurse who helped him focus in the classroom when he was a star player at Eastern Tech High.

Without them, his success in England - including a team-high 17 points in his first game - has been bittersweet.

"Manchester has been a learning experience so far. I have been forced out of my comfort zone, but it has helped me grow as an individual," said Henninger. "My teammates are all easygoing. We all joke around just like we've known each other [a while]. It's crazy how basketball can bring total strangers together like that."

His teammates come from all over the world, each with different stories to tell about how they ended up in the EBL, England's second-tier pro league. Teams consist of full-time and part-time players, and each can have only two Americans on its roster.

Henninger hails from a college that began its men's basketball program in 1994. Making a name for himself wasn't that difficult: The 6-foot-7-inch forward played all four years and led Villa Julie in scoring as a senior, once scoring 44 points in a game.

Area coaches with contacts to teams overseas began attending his games and put him in touch with some EBL teams. The Manchester Magic showed the most interest, and he signed about the same time as former Carnegie Mellon University guard Eliot Goren of Silver Spring, giving the team two Marylanders. (Goren is the second Carnegie Mellon basketball player to go pro.)

Of Henninger, Magic assistant coach Brian Dobson gives this assessment: "He needs to adjust to a different type of game than he's been used to, but he practices hard and gives everything and does what we've asked of him."

Unlike other players, Henninger didn't put all his spheres in one basket. He isn't one of those who never mastered any other skill beyond the court, and then one day woke up old, slow and unemployable.

In high school, he let go of many of his basketball fantasies when he realized he wasn't one of those players who gets mentioned as a future pro prospect.

"I've always had realistic goals, and the NBA is one in a thousand, one in a million," said Henninger, who adds that he tells young players: "Don't rely on basketball. Your education, no one can ever take from you."

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

Wade Henninger

Age: 23

Hometown: Middle River

Parents: Wayne and Sharon Henninger

College: Villa Julie College (All-North Eastern Athletic Conference honors as a senior; first athlete from school to sign a professional sports contract)

Pro team: Manchester Magic of the English Basketball League, currently 6-2

Future plans: Working in professional sports communications

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