Starting Over

“Crash” is back, in more ways than one. On January 18, it was announced he’d be competing in the Slam Dunk Contest, returning after a second place finish his first go around in ’02 (He lost to Jason Richardson). On that same night, Gerald Wallace suffered a sprained ankle against the Kings, living up to his fearlessly high energy nickname. Theatrics aside, GW has the Bobcats rolling.  It really was only a matter of time before Crash was given significant minutes, as Lang illustrated back in ’04 when Wallace first signed with the expansion Bobcats, to showcase what he’s capable of.—Matt Lawyue

Gerald Wallace, SLAM 82 Feature.

words Lang Whitaker

So this is the life Gerald Wallace has been working toward. Modeling new uniforms at the mall, throwing out pitches at minor league baseball games, dropping in to do local radio interviews, doing photo shoots in conference rooms. This is the life of a budding star in a burgeoning market, the things that the face of a brand-new NBA franchise is expected to do. You’re supposed to show up and get the name out there, play the politician, kiss the babies. This is not work for the established stars—you won’t see Shaq at the AAA ballgame, and you probably won’t find Allen Iverson flexing at the mall. But then, at just 22 years old, Gerald Wallace isn’t that famous yet. Actually, he’s not even the second-most famous Wallace in the Eastern Conference. Yet.

But understand, Wallace has absolutely no complaints about finding himself in this situation.

“Man, Charlotte’s been great so far,” he says. “Coming here was not shocking for me, because I had an idea of how this League works. It’s just a new change and a new environment for me.”

Charlotte may be a new environment for GW, but it’s got a long history with the NBA. And while Charlotte is one of the smallest markets in the League, the fans there have proven that if you treat them right, they’ll back you like you’re a hometown hero. It’s small town love in a big-time League. Gerald’s used to that small-town feeling. After all, he was born and raised in tiny Childersburg, Alabama, a town of about 5,000 people lost somewhere between Birmingham and Montgomery, nestled on the banks of the Coosa River. As the slogan on the city’s official website says: “Come to Childersburg to get in on good old country living!”

Just four years ago, Wallace was the national high school Player of the Year, a 6-7 jumping genius who once scored 59 points in a game, the guy who got the full-page picture with the sidebar in USA Today. He went on to the state’s biggest school, the football-crazy University of Alabama, and lasted just one season before the NBA called. But of his first three years in the NBA, each spent with the Sacramento Kings, Gerald Wallace is relatively succinct: “Sacramento is a past life for me now.”

Gerald Wallace, SLAM 82 Feature. After three seasons in Sacto, Wallace enters his potential star turn with the new Charlotte Bobcats holding career averages of 3.4 points and 2.1 rebounds per game. These numbers may look a bit anemic on the surface, not quite hefty enough for a guy expected to lead a team—by comparison, Slava Medvedenko’s career scoring average is 5.8 ppg, and just imagine handing him the keys to your franchise—but in this case, the numbers are lying. Kind of.

Gerald did average 3.4 points per over the past three seasons, but his playing time was severely limited (9.7 minutes per) as he mostly sat and watched Peja Stojakovic’s ascension to All-Star status. But GW used that time to absorb what he could. “In Sacramento, I learned how to win, how to show leadership, how to play together,” he recalls. “One thing about that team was that we were really close-knit and always sharing the ball and getting open guys the ball. That was a key part of the offense and was something that was always stressed.

“Webb showed me my ropes my first two years there,” Wallace adds, “and I had to guard Peja every day in practice. It was crazy, wild, tiring. He’s just constantly moving, coming off of screens, shooting half of his team’s shots. He just catches and lets it go.”

Before last season, playing time looked destined for Gerald. With Hedo Turkoglu gone to San Antonio and Jimmy Jackson newly settled in yet another NBA city, the Kings were hoping for Wallace to be that jolt of energy off the bench, the sandpaper to Peja’s smooth operator. But a minor knee injury kept him on the bench for the season’s first two weeks, and when he recovered he was never able to unravel Rick Adelman’s playing time equation. In his only start, he had a 16-point, 11-rebound night against the Mavericks while Peja served a one-game suspension, but by the end of the year, Wallace was mired at the end of the bench. During the Kings’ seven-game series loss to the T-Wolves in the Western Conference semis, GW played a total of one minute.

Wallace dropped hints of his ridiculous athleticism (including a Slamadamonth all over Bostjan Nachbar during a preseason game last fall), but the most exposure he’s received in his career was probably participating in the Dunk Contest at the 2002 All-Star Weekend—well, that and on Kings’ preseason media day, when Gerald would break out bizarre costumes to lighten everyone’s load. “Will I dress like that this year? I don’t know, man,” he says with a laugh. “One year I dressed as Batman and one year I dressed in a full pimp outfit. I used to get 50 calls the next day, and that was just from the NBA office. I just did it to have fun, because nobody wants to go to media day.”

Too often, that was about all the shine Wallace could get.

“Gerald was in a situation where he had a lot of people playing in front of him, and I had a lot of choices I could make,” Adelman told the Sacramento Bee this summer. “Each year was different, but there was Hedo and Peja and Jimmy, and then it seemed like when he did get the opportunity to play, there would be some type of injury—nothing really major, but just something that would happen to keep him from establishing a flow.”

“I don’t think anything went wrong,” Kings President Geoff Petrie added. “I think Gerald just came to a very, very good team in his first few years, and it was hard for him to get out on the floor because of talent we had in front of him.”

When asked now why he wasn’t able to get more consistent playing time in Sacto, Wallace says, “I don’t know…I couldn’t even answer that. I’m just going to let that go.”

Which is exactly what Bobcats coach and GM Bernie Bickerstaff wants to hear. “I don’t want him to be vindictive,” Bernie says, his Kentucky drawl twanging away now that he’s back down South. “I want him to forget about what happened in Sacramento, to be positive and not to take it personally. I know some players use not playing as motivation, but what happens when that runs out? That motivation should be there. I think it’s innate, that all players should have that motivation, that self-discipline. Because really, him not playing in Sacramento was not his fault. He was fortunate and unfortunate. He was fortunate because they won and he learned how to play the game in a winning system and with talented teammates. He was unfortunate because things just didn’t work his way there. But now he’s getting a fresh start.”

As is the city of Charlotte, which has long had a love/hate relationship with the NBA. The Charlotte Hornets opened for business in the ’88-89 season, and within a few years they’d built a nucleus of Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson, back when both players were dangerously healthy, with local favorite Muggsy Bogues running the point. They posted three 50-win seasons in the ’90s, and after swapping out their key players and building around Baron Davis and Jamal Mashburn, the Hornets appeared primed to make another run for a conference title.

Although Charlotte was one of the smallest markets in the NBA, and despite the franchise having some terrible teams in the early years, the fans loved their Hornets. In eight of their first 11 seasons, the Hornets led the entire NBA in attendance. But somewhere in there, relations between the franchise and the fans went sour. Most trace it to 1997, when Hornets owner George Shinn went through a highly public sexual assault trial that was broadcast on CourtTV. Though Shinn was eventually acquitted, fans in the Bible Belt seemed to hold it against him, and they took it out on the Hornets. It didn’t help that when former Carolina college star Michael Jordan tried to buy a piece of the team, Shinn shot him down. Plus, the tragic death of Hornets guard Bobby Phills left the franchise in a funk it couldn’t shake. For whatever reason, the ownership and the fans just couldn’t get along. As Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory told David Aldridge, “The [Shinn] ownership team basically said, ‘Eat my grits,’ to Charlotte, and that probably don’t sell a lot of tickets here in Charlotte.”

Gerald Wallace, SLAM 82 Feature. Things got so bad that in 2001, when Shinn got a deal for a new arena before Charlotte voters, the deal was overwhelmingly voted down. The fans loved their Hornets but were unwilling to line ownership’s pockets, and by the ‘01-02 season, the Hornets were near the bottom of the NBA in attendance. Soon after, Shinn announced plans to pick up stakes and move the franchise to New Orleans. Suddenly, the NBA found itself without a stake in the Carolinas, where basketball has historically been religion, with the likes of Jordan, the Dean, Coach K and Jimmy V. The League moved quickly, and by the end of 2002 they’d announced that the NBA would expand back into Charlotte.

What was significant was that Robert L. Johnson, a self-made billionaire perhaps best known for founding BET, would own the team. Charlotte has embraced Johnson, the first black majority owner in the NBA, with the city basically shoving financing for a new arena into his pockets. Johnson has given back, recently announcing that the team will give away all of the tickets to the first Bobcats/Heat preseason game to area schoolchildren. Longtime NBA coach and exec Bickerstaff was given control of the basketball operations, and then in the expansion draft Bickerstaff made Gerald Wallace their first pick, though he’s quick to point out that Wallace should not suffer any undue pressure from being the first Bobcat in franchise history.

“Well, I don’t think you can really have a ‘first guy’ selected in an expansion draft,” Bickerstaff explains. “If there were two teams it would be a draft. What we did was make a selection. But that’s not to negate how we feel about him. We wanted guys from winning environments who had not had the opportunity to really show what they could do. And that’s through no fault of their own, but maybe they were behind other guys. We felt that Gerald just needed an opportunity. He was in a terrific environment, he played the right way, and ultimately, Gerald was the kind of player we wanted to be associated with.”

The association started this summer, as Gerald led the Bobcats’ summer league team to a 5-0 record, averaging 16.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.8 steals per game while shooting 57 percent from the floor. “I think the guy is really talented,” B-Double says. “His ability to get to the basket, his hands and lateral quickness—here’s a guy who can get on the wings and can make things happen. And I think defensively he can be amazing.”

The Bobcats are already discovering that expansion life will be harsh, as they’re in the same division with Shaq and the Heat and the newly revamped Orlando Magic. But after spending the last three years in the rugged Western Conference, Wallace says he’s not intimidated. Even if the most talented player on the Bobcats—which, with apologies to Emeka Okafor, happens to be him—has a career scoring average below 4 points per game.

“I’m looking forward to it, because this is really a new beginning for me,“ Gerald says. “I’m just going to play hard and give it all I’ve got, and at the end of the day if you can walk off the court and say, I gave it all I had, you can expect good things to happen.”