Dee-Dee Wheeler and her two older brothers were raised by their late grandmother Addie Dunlap in a part of Chicago where drive-by shootings and gang violence occurred regularly and a person’s character determined whether hopes could be realized.
Never connecting with her father, and with her mom having to work out personal problems, Wheeler was guided starting at a very young age by the strong-willed Dunlap to make the right choices and to face any challenge with confidence and determination.
That was evident when Dunlap, who passed away before Wheeler’s senior season at Arizona in 2004-05, encouraged her to compete against boys in sports on the playgrounds “and not let them belittle me,” Wheeler said.
“She taught me to never give up and always to believe you can achieve whatever you put your mind to.”
When Wheeler returned to Chicago as a senior with the Wildcats to play Chicago State, she had the word “Grandma” stitched on her shoes. She made it known to the Chicago media at that time that when her basketball career was over, she would return to that area and give back by teaching at a South Side Chicago school and becoming a coach for a youth team.
“I want to go back to my area and basically show kids you can succeed out of that area and do things in life,” Wheeler told the Chicago Tribune in a Dec. 4, 2004, article. “I feel like I can relate to them because I can provide a personal example.”
Following her WNBA and professional career overseas, Wheeler followed through on her promise and made the most of her degree in Elementary Education at Arizona by becoming part of the populous Chicago school system as an educator, youth coach and then administrator for more than a decade.
After earning two masters degrees from the Keller Graduate School of Management in Chicago, Wheeler became the District-Wide Director of Elementary Sports in that area, overseeing more than 75.000 students.
She has experience working with high school and middle school students in Chicago as well. At all three levels in her district — elementary, middle school and high school — more than 400,000 students are in enrolled in athletics.
Opportunity Arises to Return to Tucson
Herman House made his intentions be known last school year that he was set to retire from his post as the Tucson Unified School District’s Director of Interscholastics after taking over that position when Sheila Baize resigned in 2009.
House, a local administrator over the last quarter century at Tucson High School and TUSD, also grew up in Chicago, but that is not how his connection with Wheeler originated.
Their mutual friend — former Arizona football player and current Tucson Youth Football president Julius Holt — alerted Wheeler last fall of the pending opening created by House’s retirement. Holt was an academic advisor of Wheeler and other members of the women’s basketball team when he was part of the C.A.T.S. Academics program at Arizona.
“I don’t want to take too much credit, but I recommended Dee-Dee for the job and sent Herman House her resume,” Holt said. “When I was the academic advisor at the UA that team with Polkey (the late Shawntinice Polk), Dee-Dee and Danielle Adefeso and other ladies was very special to me.
“Mac and cheese and twice-baked potatoes was the meal of choice when they would eat at my house.”
House remembers reading through all of Wheeler’s qualifications for the position he was leaving and came away a firm believer in her becoming an asset not only for TUSD but for the city in general.
“I came away very impressed by her, and I believe that the community will agree,” House said. “I just think her experience in the Chicago public schools, in the field of athletic administration, is going to be a big plus for her.”
Coming “Home” to Tucson
Having followed through on her pledge to make an impact on the lives of kids on the South Side of Chicago, Wheeler again is presented an opportunity to return to where she was a star basketball player at Arizona with the mindset of once again becoming a driving force for the advancement of youths in this area no matter their background.
On Tuesday night, the TUSD school board unanimously voted to hire her as the new Director of Interscholastics.
“I see it as continuing to work on what I’m currently doing in Chicago,” Wheeler said. “I work for the third-largest school district in the country currently, and I will be doing the same type of work for TUSD.
“I’ve been looking for an opportunity to return to Tucson. I went down there annually whether it was doing a basketball camp or visiting a friend. Most recently, I was there when my former coach (Joan Bonvicini) was inducted into the (Arizona) Hall of Fame. I was sitting down with some old friends and thought, ‘Okay, you know what, I need to get back down here.'”
Wheeler also continues to be very visible with the Arizona women’s basketball program, including traveling to Las Vegas to watch the Wildcats play in the Pac-12 Tournament. She and coach Adia Barnes played at different times under Bonvicini but they carry on a friendship that should strengthen with their important roles in Tucson.
Barnes mentioned Friday in a press conference that Wheeler “can help change youth athletics in Tucson” with TUSD.
“I think it’s great for us, for women’s basketball. I think it’s a huge role,” Barnes said. “She can help change youth athletics a little here in Tucson because they really need a facelift. We need more stuff for little girls. We need to have a feeding system. We don’t have that here. Hopefully, she can help with that.”
Bonvicini said she agrees with the “very powerful statement” from Barnes concerning Wheeler’s potential impact on the development of youths and youth sports in Tucson.
“I think the reason Adia said that is because Dee-Dee obviously as a former student-athlete, understands a lot about athletics and she’s also an educator now,” Bonvicini said. “Dee-Dee was incredibly active in the community when she was here as a student-athlete. She did the same thing in Chicago. I think she’ll do a terrific job for TUSD.”
Bonvicini has maintained contact with Wheeler. They went to the Pac-12 tournaments together the last two years with Adefeso. She knows how much Wheeler wants to become invested in Tucson again by helping youths become successful here.
“Moving back to Tucson was always something Dee-Dee had talked about,” Bonvicini said. “She grew up in Chicago but loved her time here. I mean, it was a big adjustment for her initially, but she loved being a student-athlete here.
“And I think this is true for a lot of former student athletes — when they leave, they realize how good they had it here. She has stayed very connected with me and very connected to the university and the athletic department.”
The Next Step
When asked what she looks forward to the most about returning to Tucson, Wheeler said deadpanned, “Eegee’s.” She is also excited to consume the Mexican food here, and take in the nicer weather than Chicago. The warmer weather will lead to more opportunities for her 6-year-old daughter Addison (named after Wheeler’s grandmother) to swim. It will also mean more chances for Wheeler to play softball. That sport is her true love when it comes to activities.
“My daughter loves to swim, and I am a big-time softball player,” said Wheeler, who played baseball with boys as a kid in Chicago, meeting her grandmother’s challenge of showing them she could hold her own.
“Just imagine: I can play softball year-round now? I take this as a ‘win-win.'”
The ability to watch Barnes’ burgeoning program on a regular basis will also bring her joy. Wheeler is a member of Arizona’s Ring of Honor along with Barnes and her former teammate Polk. She takes pride in how popular the Wildcats have become under Barnes because all of them tried hard to put the program on the map.
“Adia is breaking all the records and she has taken the program to heights it has never gone,” Wheeler said. “Adia has the experience I don’t think any other coach has had in that seat. She brings worldwide experience, experience from the WNBA, and experience from playing in Europe.
“When you are able to bring that experience from every level of the game, and try to instill that into your players, that’s the hook. You have players that want to lay it all out on the court for you. And those girls, if you see them, they fight. You may not have the most talented team, but with their heart and dedication, they go out there and give it 130 percent. You can’t beat that. I’ll take that any day over talent. Adia is the type of coach that players want to play for, and that program will continue to expand because she’ll continue to get quality players.”
Wheeler is in the process of selling her home in Chicago. She recently had a garage sale and continues to sell items with people coming to her home frequently. She plans to arrive in Tucson in mid-June after fulfilling her obligations to the Chicago school system.
House, when asked what he would recommend to Wheeler as she begins her work with TUSD, said, “I would tell her to just be herself.”
“The best thing you could do in any position like this is be yourself, show people who you are and just be willing and open to listen and to hear what folks have to say,” he said.
Wheeler, 37, mentioned that House “has set the standard, he set the bar, which is great. What I look forward to doing is continuously providing equitable opportunities for students in the community of Tucson.”
“I also look forward to being able to provide a positive atmosphere for my daughter,” she continued, “and to be able to give back to a community that embraced me as a collegiate athlete.”
“I want to go back to my area and basically show kids you can succeed out of that area and do things in life.” — Wheeler said in that interview with the Chicago Tribune in 2004.
The Chicago girl from a humble beginning will be “doing things in life” in Tucson. The city can’t wait.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.