Originally published in SLAM 141 (on newsstands now)…
Baseline to sideline, sideline to baseline, Gerald Wallace is fearless.
The primary proof exists on tape. After studying film of the Charlotte Bobcats, much of which shows Wallace absorbing and dishing contact, it’s easy to think that the 6-7, 220-pound forward relishes abuse. Charlotte Bobcats general manager Rod Higgins furthers that image, alternatively referring to his team’s star as a “ball of fire” and as a player who “plays with reckless abandon.”
Then recall Wallace’s nickname, “Crash,” bestowed upon him a few seasons back by his teammates and doctors because, as he says, “They felt like I was always crashing into somebody or something.”
The video and verbal testimony all jibe with the initial assertion: Gerald Wallace is fearless. Except in one regard: phalacrophobia—a fear of balding.
“It’s in my genes that everybody in my family that’s male is bald-headed,” begins Wallace. “So I decided, I’ll grow it out, instead of having the traditional bald head that everybody in my family has. And I’m trying and hoping to hold on to [my hair] as long as I can.”
There’s a lot more you may not know about Wallace. But now that—along with owner Michael Jordan—he’s the face of a winning franchise, it’s time to get familiar.
Raised in Childersburg, a small town of 5,000 in the heart of Alabama, Wallace introduced himself to the world as a basketball player 11 years ago, when he dominated the competition at the adidas ABCD Camp. The performance elevated Wallace’s profile and earned him scholarship offers from colleges around the country. Displaying immense loyalty—a trait Crash still possesses—he eschewed traditionally dominant programs and attended one of the earliest schools to show interest, Alabama.
After a solid single season with the Crimson Tide, Wallace tossed his name into David Stern’s Draft Hat. The Sacramento Kings selected him 25th, keeping the small town boy in a small NBA town.
For three seasons, Wallace warmed the Kings’ pine, playing few meaningful minutes. Though he participated and finished second in the ’02 Dunk Contest, fans who knew about the former high school star mostly forgot him. And those who didn’t know never had a chance to find out. But Crash’s All-Star teammate recognized promise. “Every day in practice, we saw his potential,” says Chris Webber, then a King and now a TNT/NBA TV personality.
Potential doesn’t mean much when it goes unutilized, but Wallace isn’t bitter about his time, or lack thereof, with the Kings. “That was a great learning experience for me,” reflects the 27-year-old, his Southern drawl noticeably less severe than it was a decade ago. “I can understand being frustrated when you’re not playing on a team that’s losing. But I was on a team with five or six All-Stars and we were winning and competing for a Championship. So I didn’t look at that as a frustrating experience.
“Watching those guys,” continues Crash, “and seeing what it takes to come out and perform every night, what it takes to be a winner, what it takes to be an All-Star in this League—that whole experience was a learning one for me.”
When the newly formed Charlotte Bobcats acquired Wallace in the ’04 Expansion Draft, the opportunity to put his education and athleticism to use finally arrived. In the Bobcats’ first season of play, also Wallace’s first seeing extended burn, the team lost many games (64), but he won plenty of respect. Along with per-game averages of more than 11 points, 5.5 boards, 2 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.3 blocks, Wallace amassed a nice collection of highlights.
Over the next three campaigns, the Bobcats didn’t improve much, but Wallace—and his digits—did. The well-rounded forward, who lacked nothing but a consistent J and a clean bill of health, averaged 19.4 ppg in ’07-08, 7.5 rpg in ’05-06, 2.1 bpg and a League-leading 2.5 spg that same year. During that bleak period in Bobcat country, a three-year span in which they lost 155 games, the team turned over the roster, trying to find a winning combination. Crash remained a constant, though, and his game progressed every year.
“[The] organization took a leap of faith by drafting him in the Expansion Draft,” says GM Higgins. “To his credit, he’s continuously gotten better as a basketball player here. When he came from Sacramento, Gerald couldn’t do some of the things on offense he can do today.”
Still, through the ’07-08 season, no matter how hard Wallace “crashed” and how many highlight reel-caliber plays he made, success evaded Charlotte’s grasp. The Cats were on the verge of insolvency and averaging less than 15,000 fans a game; Wallace’s prime years were in jeopardy of sneaking past the public’s nose unnoticed. Then, the summer after that dismal ’08 campaign, Charlotte exec and UNC alum, Michael Jordan, hired Larry Brown to coach the rudderless team. In the 164 games since, the Hall of Famer’s hiring has changed everything for the Bobcats—and for Gerald Wallace.
It took the better part of a season for the roster to settle and the players and coach to acclimate themselves to one another, but sandwiched between a 7-18 start and 1-7 end to the season, the Cats compiled a 27-22 record—one of the best stretches in the young franchise’s history. For Wallace, winning was swell; the lessons and skills Brown taught along the way, invaluable.
“Coach Brown’s had a major impact on my game,” stresses Crash. “He’s shown me all the small dimensions of my game that I can improve on: ballhandling, shooting, finding different ways to score, moving without the ball. So many small things that can help you become a more complete player. He’s been able to help me bring out the small dimensions of my game.”
In his first season under Coach Brown, Wallace turned the ball over almost one less time per game than before—otherwise his numbers were unimproved. But something was different. Wallace, the second-youngest player on the inaugural Cats team, was now one of the team’s oldest vets. The slashing forward who CWebb jokes “was a rookie for three years straight” was now a leader.
“Yeah, I think I started leading vocally and by example,” affirms the long-locked forward. “I’ve become more vocal as far as communicating with teammates. I’m starting to get to the stage where I have to speak more and have to be more vocal, [instead] of just leading by actions.”
After a season under Brown that nearly ended in the franchise’s first Playoff berth, the Cats, specifically Crash, came back with a vengance and made Bobcats’ history. With their first winning record (44-38), the six-year-old team finally made the postseason. It likely wouldn’t have happened without the in-season additions of Stephen Jackson and Tyrus Thomas. But it definitely wouldn’t have happened without Gerald Wallace.
Words speak loudly to fans. So when five-time All-Star Webber compares Gerald Wallace’s attacking nature and explosiveness to Latrell Sprewell’s, it roars at a higher decibel than a 747’s engine. Stats speak even louder, and Crash’s ’09-10 line cries out like a baby with colic. Over the course of a career-high 76 contests, Wallace finished ninth in rebounds per game (a career-high 10 rpg), led all small forwards in double doubles (33) and blocks (1.1 per), and dropped 18.2 points a night. Somehow, he also found time to dish 2 dimes and snatch 1.5 steals and be named First Team All-Defense. The shrill cry of Wallace’s stats was heard, as the only player to have played on every Bobcat team became the only Cat ever to earn a spot in the All-Star Game.
Billboards, websites and newspapers speak the loudest. Take a stroll around Charlotte. Browse around different NBA sites. Read a Bobcats game story. They all communicate Gerald Wallace’s role as the face of the Charlotte Bobcats finally burgeoning franchise.
“It’s like a dream come true,” Crash says quietly. “It’s something you imagine as a kid growing up. You want to be in the NBA. You want to be That Guy in the NBA. So to have that dream come true, to be That Guy that everybody sees and recognizes as a face of a franchise…”
It seems like it’s taken forever and a day to get this far—to get playing time, to get Charlotte into the Playoffs, to get his due—so it’s easy to forget that Gerald Wallace is still only 27 years old. “I definitely think he can get better,” says Higgins, who had a 13-year NBA playing career of his own. “I told Gerald at the end of the season, You have to continue tricking your body into improving in different ways…the great ones, they do that. The Jordans. And the Pippens. And the Bryants. Those guys try to trick their bodies into getting even better.”
Wallace doesn’t disagree with his GM. “I still got a lot of room for improvement,” he says. “I got a ways to go to be the player that I want to be. The kind of player where I can look back at the end of my career and say, I did all that I could do as far as making the best of my career.”
This isn’t the same Crash that entered the League. Not in speech, physical makeup or game. “Then, it was all athleticism—you go out there and play and do whatever,” says Wallace of his younger years. “Now it’s more about the smaller details. More the way you guard people, the way people guard you. The way the defense approaches you and the way you have to approach the defense.”
Gerald Wallace is proud to be—along with Michael Jordan—the face of the Bobcats. The large player from a small Southern town is happy to be mentioned in the same breath as Jordan.
He just hopes not to share a hairstyle anytime soon.