WHO WANTS TO GUARD A COP?

A MIFFED DENVER POLICE OFFICER TURNS A BASKETBALL-COURT SPAT INTO WORLD WAR III.

Pickup basketball is a physical sport, as evidenced by the playground rule "No blood, no foul." But when the guy who gets smacked is a Denver cop, the rules change. What began as a friendly game of hoops last fall has evolved into a nine-month court battle in which a jury will settle what amounts to a schoolyard spat between teammates.

On one side is 29-year-old Don Wullschleger, a six-foot-one aeronautical engineer from Castle Rock. Wullschleger, who admits to some pretrial jitters, is facing charges of assault and disturbing the peace. "It's a contact sport," Wullschleger says. "I've gotten elbowed in the head from my own guys. Fighting over this seems like something you'd do in fifth or sixth grade." And that his adversary is a cop--a fact Wullschleger didn't learn until it was too late--only makes things more ridiculous in his eyes.

On the other side is 35-year-old Denver gang-squad police officer Ken Chavez, who claims he was sucker-punched and then treated like a villain for calling in the troops and demanding Wullschleger's arrest. "I've been playing competition basketball for years and years," the five-foot-ten Chavez says. "I've been tripped, hit in the head and elbowed in the eye. You know a foul when it happens. You know an accident when it happens. But my own teammate punched me."

The ill-fated matchup occurred on October 26 at Denver's Southwest Rec Center. Wullschleger and his buddies Roy Penny, Craig Hoyer and Mike O'Connell have been playing basketball every Wednesday night for years, usually at a Denver-area elementary school. But they moved their base of operations to the rec center when it opened last September. The gym, in addition to being new, offered a changing lineup of players, most of whom, like them, are thirtysomething professionals in search of a little fun, exercise and competition.

Early on that night, Penny teamed up with Chavez, Chavez's fifteen-year-old stepson, another teen and 36-year-old Mark Ryan for a game of five-on-five. They quickly dispatched their opponents, which allowed them to remain on the court and take on a group of challengers. It was when the new group came on and chose who each wished to guard that the trouble began.

Chavez didn't like the matchups, primarily because his stepson was paired against an older, taller player. The officer says he asked Penny "nicely" to switch off with someone else. Penny refused.

"I wasn't demanding," Chavez says. "I just wanted to win. But [Penny] got pissed. He said, `I can guard whoever the fuck I want to guard.' He got an attitude. And after he said that, I got an attitude. I said, `What's your problem? You afraid to guard someone your own size?' He got mad, stomped off and said, `I don't have to take this shit.'"

According to other players and onlookers, however, Penny's eventual exit was the only thing Chavez recalls correctly. "He [Chavez] must have spent between five and ten minutes trying to match everybody up with who he thought they ought to be with," Ryan says. "He was taking over this game like it was an NBA championship. It was something else. He was accusing people of being wimps and using other language, too."

"He kept saying, `You're a pussy! You're a pussy!'" Penny says. "He must have said that twenty times in a row." When the game finally started, Chavez inbounded the ball, passed it to someone else and then confronted Penny.

"I was angry about being provoked and insulted," Penny says. "My first reaction was, `Let's have a fight.' But you know, my next thought was, `No. This is stupid. I'm 37.' When you're a kid, you get in fights. But times have changed. You can get killed over a Broncos jacket, shot over a traffic confrontation. I thought he was from the `thug element.'"

Hoyer and Wullschleger had been sitting on the bench with two other men, waiting to play. Wullschleger stepped in to take Penny's place.

Chavez says now that he was a little leery of the new player on his team. "I could tell he was mad," Chavez says. "He gave me a mean look and he says, `Penny can guard whoever he wants.' I said, `What's the problem here? I just want to win, and your friend is being a wimp.'"

It probably didn't help matters that Chavez continued to press the issue of Penny's and Wullschleger's manliness even when the game got under way. "Chavez passed the ball," Wullschleger says. "He came down the court toward me. When he passed, he said, `You're all a bunch of pussies.' I hit him on the shoulder."

Wullschleger insists that it was "accidental" contact. Chavez says Wullschleger blindsided him, "punching me with an overhead right in the right temple."

Chavez's stepson and the boy's friend have backed up Chavez's version of events. But other onlookers have told the city attorney that they didn't see anything untoward on the court. Chavez did not fall, they say, nor did they see any physical sign of an assault.

"The first thing I knew of it," says Hoyer, "was two minutes into the game, and Ken Chavez comes walking off the court saying, `Somebody call the police!' And he's telling Don, `You're under arrest.' Nobody could believe what was going on." Disgusted, Hoyer and Wullschleger decided to call it a night.

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