First, Dani Wohl heard what he wasn’t.

He wasn’t tall enough.

Wasn’t quick enough.

Wasn’t good enough for college basketball.

Once he did play college basketball, he heard what he couldn’t do.

Couldn’t play in the Big Ten.

Couldn’t play for Michigan.

Couldn’t start for Michigan.

Good thing Dani Wohl never really listened.

 

The 5-foot-11 senior ended his Michigan basketball career at Crisler Arena on Saturday against Iowa. He never scored more than four points in a single game. But the more important total, one the stat sheets will never measure, is the number of people he inspires to make the impossible possible.

People like Danny Komendera, a short 11-year-old who wants to be just like Dani. The autograph Dani signed for him on Saturday may sit on his desk or on the wall above his bed. Komendera will look at it for inspiration. He, too, has already been told he’s too short to play point guard for his fifth-grade St. Regis basketball team.

When they tell Komendera he isn’t quick enough, he won’t listen. Because of Dani.

 

Wohl’s journey from high school in West Bloomfield to his court of dreams in Ann Arbor was filled with more pot holes than the 37 miles of road that separate the nearby cities. And never once did Dani pull over. Never once did he tap the brake.

“I’ve always been a dreamer,” Wohl said. “Wished that I could play here — believed I could play here.”

Wohl may have been the only one.

“I’m going to play at Michigan,” he told his father, Milt.

“Nah,” his dad replied.

“I’m going to play,” Dani replied.

Milt thinks back to that conversation now and says, “I don’t even know if people in his family believed him.”

Wohl committed to play basketball at Binghamton, a small college in Vestal, N.Y. in 2001 after he was named All-State honorable mention as a senior at West Bloomfield High School. But he said Binghamton wasn’t for him. He was too far away from his family and friends. It just didn’t feel right. Binghamton coach Al Walker dialed Michigan assistant coach Chuck Swenson on Wohl’s behalf. Dani wanted to come home.

Now at Michigan, Wohl had to beat out 250 to 300 other dreamers fighting for two open roster spots on the basketball team.

Over fall break that year, Wohl was at home when the telephone rang.

It was Swenson.

“We have practice in 45 minutes,” Swenson said. And he then hung up.

Wohl said he doesn’t remember the ride over. No pot holes.

After sitting out a year due to NCAA transfer rules, Wohl achieved what everybody told him was impossible.

“Just making the Michigan team was his dream — even if it was just getting on the floor in the last two minutes of the game,” Milt said.

Dani played a total of 13 minutes last year, his first season with the team.

Milt said he would come to the games an hour early to watch Dani during shoot-around. To Milt, that was Dani’s game time.

 

Senior year — Dani’s last.

Disaster strikes the team. Tri-captain and team-leader Lester Abram learns his season is over just three games into the year because of a shoulder injury. Then, the levy of health crumbled — shoulders, knees, ankles, elbows, noses all pained different Wolverines.

But for Wohl, like an ancient Chinese proverb says, crisis is opportunity. And Dani had been prepared.

With Abram out and guard Daniel Horton sidelined with a knee injury, Wohl played a career-high 30 minutes against High Point.

The practice after Wohl played the “game of his life,” he tore a ligament in his elbow. Team doctors told Wohl his season was over.

Good thing Dani didn’t listen.

Four weeks later, he was back. The doctors were stunned.

Five games after Dani returned from injury, two days after Michigan coach Tommy Amaker suspended Horton for legal troubles, Wohl was named a starter.

The game: Michigan State. Breslin Center. ESPN.

And you think Dani is a survivor?

Sixty-years to the day of Dani’s first start, Wohl’s grandmother was liberated from Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp where as many as three million Jews were slaughtered. Dani’s grandmother, Milt’s mother, was the sole-surviving member of the family to walk out of Auschwitz alive. Dani’s mother, Renee, remembers standing near the Breslin court thinking how wonderful and blessed Dani was to be living such a normal life. She said it was a wonderful feeling, an awe.

“If she had not made it out of the concentration camp, none of us would be here,” Milt said.

Wonder where Dani got his persistence from?

 

On Saturday, the journey — save for one last road trip to Chicago — ended.

“It was emotional,” Wohl said, fighting back tears with a low, trembling voice. “It was the last time I get to put a jersey on in this arena — the last time I get to run through that tunnel. I’m just proud to have been here, to have played with these guys. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life.”

Wohl said the high point of his career at Michigan was winning an NIT Championship. It wasn’t the game a few weeks ago against Penn State, when he accumulated six steals — one shy of the Michigan record. Wohl would never say that, would never believe it.

Little Danny Komendera — no taller than 4-foot-5, no more talented than Wohl at his age — averaged seven points per game and led his fifth grade basketball team to an undefeated season this year.

“I want to be a point-guard at Michigan,” he said.

Because of Dani?

“Yup.”

As Mark Whicker wrote in the Philadelphia Daily News after 5-foot-7 Spud Webb won the 1986 NBA Slam Dunk Championship: “If you promise never to say impossible again, so will I.”

 

On behalf of little guys like myself, thanks Dani. Eric Ambinder can be reached at eambinde@umich.edu

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.