His signature drop-step move has become a rarity. But when Frank Wachlarowicz got the ball in the low post, a familiar result ensued.
“Any time I got the defensive guy on my hip, the ball was either in the basket or I was on the free throw line,’’ said Wachlarowicz, who in 1975 led Little Falls to its only high school boys’ basketball state championship.
The 6-6, 215-pound center, nicknamed “Frankie Alphabet’’ by sports reporters at the time, was one of 15 people announced as 2020 inductees to the Minnesota High School Basketball Hall of Fame.
One media person who never messed up his name was Jules Perlt, the legendary Gophers public address announcer, who also handled the high school tournament.
“Wock-la-row-its scoring,’’ Perlt intoned over and over during the Flyers’ historic run during the program’s first state tournament trip since 1922.
“He did the pronunciation to a T,’’ recalled Wachlarowicz, who scored 1,330 points, still the Flyers’ school record.
Victories over Hibbing (with future NBA star Kevin McHale), Cooper and since-closed Robbinsdale earned Little Falls — the smallest school in the Class AA tournament — the state title.
Two nights later, before a snowstorm-reduced crowd of just 1,200 people, Little Falls defeated Class A tournament winner Chisholm 54-50 in the last playoff game held to determine a single-state champion.
Wachlarowicz went on to start for four years at St. John’s University in nearby Collegeville, Minn., where his 2,357 points made him the top scorer at any Minnesota collegiate level until last season. A two-time conference MVP, Wachlarowicz also set Johnnies’ career marks in rebounding and free throw shooting.
His bid to play professionally ended when a Boston Celtics tryout camp was cut short by the death of coach Bill Fitch’s father.
“I wasn’t flashy. I was more or less being consistent day in and day out,’’ he recalled this week. “If I would have gotten the opportunity to show my wares throughout those seven days, it could have been a different circumstance.’’
At the camp, fellow attendee Larry Bird tried to throw a bounce pass between Wachlarowicz’s legs. The former Johnnie blocked it, picked up the ball and started a fast break, drawing a don’t-ever-do-that-again-to-me elbow in the chest from Bird as they ran down the court.
“He was poetry in motion,’’ Wachlarowicz recalled of Bird. “Just watching him run, the things he could do.’’
Not long after the tryout ended, Wachlarowicz, who earned a degree in elementary education, took a job teaching fourth-graders and helping coach football and girls’ basketball in tiny Browerville, Minn.
Hoping to be a head basketball coach, he interviewed at Sauk Centre and got the job. After two years of improved records, however, he was laid off in budget cuts. Unable to find another teaching job in a budget-constrained environment, he went to work at the juvenile corrections center in Sauk Centre. He spent the next 25 years working as a corrections officer there and in Faribault.
He retired 13 years ago and now works part-time tending bar at a municipal liquor store in Le Center, where he lives.
“I love talking to people at the bar,’’ said Wachlarowicz, whose dark curly hair of his playing days has turned white. His knees don’t let him play anymore — a joint replacement or two is in the offing this spring — but he still helps out at camps at St. John’s.
He’s a fan of high school and college basketball, less so the money-driven pro game that allows “five or six steps for a layup,’’ he said, and emphasizes long three-point shooting.
“College ball is the pure sport of basketball right now,’’ said Wachlarowicz, who mostly watches basketball on TV but also takes in local high school games or St. John’s games nearby.
The experience is nothing like his junior and senior seasons at Little Falls, whether it was a home game or one played in towns of conference foes such as Wadena, Park Rapids and Staples.
“If you weren’t there by halftime of the B-squad game, you had a tough time finding a spot because we had capacity crowds,’’ he recalled. “We had a fan base that would not quit.’’