Christian Ansgar Welp, the 7-foot senior star of the University of Washington basketball team, sat in his small apartment just off campus recently, playing with his pet boa constrictor and reflecting on life in America. "Even without basketball," said the Osnabrück, West Germany, native, "I feel my future would be here rather than in Germany."
As the four-foot reptile slid over and around Welp's arm, its tongue rapidly flicking in and out and its beady little eyes trained on the tiger oscars serenely swimming in the aquarium across the room, Welp (pronounced Velp) spoke of his immediate future. "My first goal is winning the Pac-10 championship," he said. "Then it would help if we made it to the Final Four." Well, so far, sehr gut. In Washington's conference opener on Dec. 21, Welp played eine kleine Nachtmusik on UCLA, scoring a career-high 40 points, with 9 rebounds, as the Huskies savaged the Bruins 90-80.
Welp contemplated the boa for a moment. He doesn't know if it's a he or a she, but he does know it could grow to be as tall as its master, or taller, if its current ration of one live rat per fortnight was upped to, say, a rodent a week. Welp says this will not happen, because one 7-footer in the apartment is enough.
Welp is a little sensitive on the subject of size. And it's not just the rude remarks from some Seattle-area wits that make him come across as a bit reserved and aloof. After all, it was his size that brought Welp here in the first place. "Basketball was the instrument that got me here," says Welp, who first came to the U.S. as a high school exchange student. "I only wanted to come here for one year to learn English."
That was four years ago. Welp's English is now wunderbar, and his game is getting hotter by the day. He has helped lead the Huskies to three straight NCAA tournaments and two Pac-10 titles. But that's Husky history. This season, in Washington's first 17 games, Welp averaged 21.4 points and 9.1 rebounds per game while leading the Huskies to a 10-7 record. He should become the school's No. 1 alltime scorer by the end of the season.
After the UCLA game, Bruin coach Walt Hazzard said, "He's head and shoulders above every other center in the country. He's the best center in college basketball right now. He's tough to deal with inside."
Second-year Husky coach Andy Russo, whose opinion is informed but understandably biased, says, "I think David Robinson [who appears to owe two years of service to the U.S. Navy] is a great player, but since his pro career is still questionable at this time, Chris undoubtedly would have to be considered the top center in the country. I worked with all the good American players at the trials for the world championships last summer," he says, "and there are a lot of big players that play center that would be better suited as forwards. But as far as true centers go, Chris is the best." Of course, Welp wasn't at those trials; he showed up at the worlds in Spain as a member of the West German national team.
Which is another one of the things that make Welp different from most U.S. college players. He has been playing international ball since he was 17. At the 1984 Olympics he twice wheeled past a surprised Patrick Ewing, only to miss a pair of layups (West Germany finished eighth; the U.S. first). The next year Welp went up against the Soviet Union's 7'2" Arvidas Sabonis at the European championships. This past summer he faced Navy's Robinson at the worlds, where the West German team failed to advance beyond the opening round-robin.
Every spring Welp flies home to Deutschland, although as far as he's concerned it's Seattle that ranks über alles. "I really like this country, but playing for the [West German] national team gives me practice and keeps me in shape," he says. "Last summer we played eight games in the world championships and 10 or 12 games to get ready for that. People say I'm so lucky—I've got a scholarship to play at Washington and every summer go back to Europe. But it's hard work."
Welp took up basketball at age 12, when he was already six feet tall, joining a club in Osnabrück to learn the game. He paid three marks (about $1.50) a month to play with the club team, which practiced only once a week, for 90 minutes. The surface of the court on which the team worked out was linoleum, and the coaching, by volunteers, was at best hit-and-miss. Welp had to supply his own jersey, shorts, socks and shoes. But he proved adept at the game and three years later moved up in class, joining the B.C. Giants, a club that practiced twice a week. That was a big step. The Giants actually got to play on a hardwood court occasionally. "We even had a sponsor who paid for the shorts and jerseys," says Welp. "But not the socks."