Michael Wilder and Adam Folker
Forward/guard Michael Wilder (left) is famous for his ’fro as well as his fighting spirit. Here, he and fellow senior Adam Folker (right) battle an opponent for possession of the ball. Steve Zylius / University Communications

You can’t miss UC Irvine basketball player Michael Wilder as he strolls into the crowded on-campus Starbucks. It’s not so much his height as his hair: Wilder sports an impressive Afro that looks straight out of the 1970s.

Even the global sports website Bleacher Report has taken notice. “Wilder is listed as 6’2″, but his Afro has to add a few more inches,” says a slideshow called “Sickest Hairstyles in College Basketball.” “Although the Anteaters are not the most prolific team in the country, Wilder’s hair alone is worth the price of admission.”

During his UC Irvine career, the senior forward/guard has stood out on and off the basketball court. He’s led one of the most exciting teams in a decade this year. (See latest basketball news.)

With his positive attitude and winning smile, Wilder has helped motivate his teammates to victory, offering advice and encouragement and egging them on with high fives. “Going into the season, we had a relatively young team, so that’s allowed me to develop my leadership skills,” he says.

Wilder has performed well in the classroom too. He’s on track to graduate in June with a bachelor’s degree in psychology & social behavior and hopes to attend graduate school and become a child therapist – after he’s done playing basketball.

“I’m interested in how the mind works and how people behave,” he says. “And I love working with children.”

In short, there’s more to Wilder than awesome hair.

“He’s one of the classiest student-athletes I have worked with in my career,” says Bob Olson, UC Irvine associate athletic director. “He’s a born leader from an outstanding family.”

Wilder has loved basketball since he was 10, when his father – who played in high school – took him to a park and taught him how to shoot hoops.

“When I watched my dad, I wanted to be like him so much. That’s when I decided I wanted to play basketball,” he says.

At Woodrow Wilson Classical High School in Long Beach, Wilder was a standout player in basketball and volleyball; he also was senior class vice president and received a California Interscholastic Federation Champion for Character award for integrity and leadership. He maintained an impressive academic record and was accepted to UC Irvine.

“My parents have always stressed hard work and good grades,” Wilder says. “If I had two B’s on my report card, my mom would say, ‘You’re not going to play.’ She held me to a high standard because she knew college would be harder.”

He’d planned to play basketball here as a walk-on, that is, a player without an athletic scholarship, but a few months before he enrolled, one became available. Ask Wilder what he considers his strengths on the court, and he’s his usual modest self.

“My three-point shooting ability – that’s pretty good,” he says. “And I’m always playing with guys who are bigger than me, so I’m constantly looking for any advantage. That’s why I try to outwork them.”

Wilder may have extra energy for doing just that thanks to a quirky ritual he started at Woodrow Wilson: Before every game, he catches a couple hours of shut-eye.

“I’m big on naps,” he says. “In high school, we’d have a short practice on game day, then go eat. And when I eat, I sleep. That rest really helps.”

Around campus, where he’s known simply as “The ’Fro,” Wilder has become an instantly recognizable figure, zipping from class to Crawford Gym on his moped.

He was inspired to grow an Afro by his father. “My dad used to have one when he was younger. I’d see old pictures of him and loved how it looked,” Wilder says. “In fourth or fifth grade, I expressed an interest in growing one, and my parents were like, ‘No.’”

When he was in eighth grade, they relented. He’s worn the hairstyle ever since. “They said, ‘You can grow it if you take care of it,’” he says. “I maintain it fairly well. I pick it out every morning. I just love it and don’t want to let go of it.”

Wilder often attends other UC Irvine teams’ events, cheering on the Anteaters. For two years, he served on the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee to encourage support for campus sports.

After graduating, he hopes to join a pro basketball league in Europe before pursuing a career in psychology.

“I want to play basketball as long as I can,” Wilder says. “I’m a big competitor, and basketball just gives me a way to showcase what I can do.”