The following story appears in Dime #39 (March 2008)…
“Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome.” – Arthur Ashe
“I’m not out there sweating for three hours every day just to find out what it feels like to sweat.” – Michael Jordan
For Gerald Wallace, the game has a home between these two philosophies.
In deconstructing the Charlotte Bobcats’ seventh-year forward, it is his journey, his doing, which is just as vital as his destination. He plays the game not solely for the outcome, but for the simple act of playing the game – the journey from tip-off to final buzzer. This brand of basketball existentialism has put the 25-year-old where he is today: as one of the most complete players in the NBA, Wallace is (at press time) averaging 20 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game in his first season under a six-year, $57 million contract signed last summer. His is a success born in finding simplicity amidst the game’s complexities.
And yet, this is the NBA, and the money is big, and Gerald Wallace isn’t sweating just for the feel of it. The wins and losses matter, and in his time with the Bobcats, Gerald has seen too many of the latter. Three times in the last three years his team has finished near the bottom of the League’s standings, and at press time again owned a sub-.500 record. For that, Wallace’s individual talents have gone unnoticed by too many, drowned in an overly simple system of evaluation where the winners attract the attention.
“Wanting to win, that’s what keeps me going every day,” Gerald says, moving his Bentley convertible through Thursday-afternoon traffic on the way to Charlotte’s Douglas International Airport to catch a flight bound for New Jersey. The previous night, Wallace registered 23 points, 11 boards, eight assists and two blocks against an underachieving Chicago Bulls squad, and yet his Bobcats still lost by double-digits in front of a less-than-sellout home crowd.
“I’m still focused on trying to make the playoffs even though we’re struggling. Once we do that, then we’ll start building from there,” Gerald says. “I think my role here is more of like the leader, the guy on the team that makes everything go. The way I play is the direction in which the team goes.”
The way I play. Trying to define Gerald Wallace, that is where breakdowns occur. His game is undefined yet undeniable – a 6-7, 220-pound twister of fast-break finishes, weak-side rejections, ball-hawking thefts and unsightly “garbage” buckets. His objective at any given moment is to simply produce what is needed at that moment.
“Everything is natural,” Gerald says of his style. “I bust my butt every night, give my all. One thing people always want to talk about is ‘What’s one thing you do good?’ I don’t focus on that. I don’t have any of those things – I just go out and play basketball. I love to play. I give as much energy as I can push out of my body. I do whatever it takes. All that worrying about things you do well and things you don’t do well takes away from you just playing basketball. If you go out and have fun, everything will take care of itself.”
Gerald Jermaine Wallace’s journey winds through America’s backwoods, through a state that rings synonymous with the Civil Rights Movement, through the dirt roads of a one-hotel Southern town where Gerald grew up wanting to be a Major League catcher. It speeds through a nearby college town where he spent one year overshadowed by Crimson Tide football, not to mention the basketball players who started ahead of him. It sputters and gasps through three years of barely getting off the bench in the first chapter of his NBA story. And today, the journey settles into a lazy-day cruise, comfortable but not complete.
Childersburg, Alabama – nestled between infamous Birmingham (four little girls) and Montgomery (bus boycott) – stakes its claim as America’s Oldest Continuously Occupied City. The Coosa Indian Nation has history here dating back to 1540, and today the town (pop. 5,000) stands as one of those classic, sleepy, everybody-knows-everybody Deep South locales.
Childersburg is where Gerald’s mother, Alice, forever worked as a cashier at the Wynn Dixie. Where his father was in and out of the picture. Where Gerald’s older brother Courtney helped with the bills as soon as he was old enough to work.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a one-stoplight town – it has a couple more stoplights than that – but it’s small,” says Jodi Hopkins, Gerald’s personal assistant and the strength and conditioning coach for the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun. “When one class graduates from high school, everyone comes out for it. You walk in the grocery store and everyone knows who you are. I’m not even from there, and they know who I am because I know Gerald.”
In a place devoted to NASCAR (“I’m 50-50 on it,” Wallace shrugs), Gerald was a baseball player first. But when his eighth-grade body grew too tall for him to become the next Josh Gibson, he committed to basketball. And in four years’ time, he was a McDonald’s All-American and small-town sensation at Childersburg High School.
“They always had to get the police out there, and there were a whole bunch of crazies, they came on the court,” Toronto Raptors’ forward Jamario Moon, who played at nearby Coosa Central High, told the Toronto Star of those days. “People had money bet on the games. It was crazy. Even after the game, it would be one fan talking to another fan, ‘Jamario’s better than Gerald,’ and, ‘No, Gerald’s better than Jamario.’ It would get heated. Instead of it being a fun thing, it would get personal.”
Having his pick of colleges, Gerald went on to the University of Alabama, an hour and a half away in Tuscaloosa. But once there, he never got along with coach Mark Gottfried, and the highly-touted freshman came off the bench for the 2001 NIT finalists. He left.
“I just felt like college wasn’t for me. I didn’t fit in there with the atmosphere, the relationship with the coaches … everything wasn’t right for me,” Wallace says. “You don’t wanna be in a situation where you’re not really wanted. Rather than try to transfer, I took my chances to make it in the NBA.
“To me it didn’t really matter that I hadn’t played a lot in college,” he says. “I honestly didn’t pay attention to what they said about where I would [get drafted]. I was like, ‘I don’t have to be drafted. I’ll be OK. Just give me an opportunity to get in here and I’ll show what I can do.’”
A late first-round pick by the Sacramento Kings, Gerald’s opportunity was limited. He went to an established playoff team with stars like Chris Webber and Peja Stojakovic already locked into the forward spots. Coming in as a 19-year-old rookie with words like “raw” and “potential” stuck to him like the Alabama air in August, Gerald made nine starts in three years, playing about 10 minutes per game. He made a minor splash when he finished second to Jason Richardson in the ’02 All-Star Weekend dunk contest, but by the time Charlotte grabbed him in the ’04 expansion draft, Gerald was far from stardom. Finally given a chance at playing time, though, the next chapter in his story would be on him to write.
After putting up 18.1 points, 7.2 boards and two steals per game last season, Wallace was a hot commodity on the free agent market in the summer of ’07. While he declines to name the teams he was interested in – saying only, “I came real close [to leaving]” – he eventually re-upped with the Bobcats, where he is part of the foundation of a talented young core. Along with Richardson (27 years old), Emeka Okafor (25), Ray Felton (23), Adam Morrison (23) and Sean May (23), the ‘Cats are expected to someday bring playoff basketball back to a city that was once one of the NBA’s hottest markets.
Gerald’s role in the whole operation is tantamount; organic and fluid if not easy to assess. But one of his greatest strengths is his inability to be put in a box. He is considered one of the League’s best defenders at the small forward position (leading the NBA in steals two seasons ago) and is an offensive force that doesn’t need plays run for him in order to score. Wallace has earned the nickname “Crash” for his reckless forays into the paint, his risk-taking defensive style and physical play under the glass. He is similar to Shawn Marion and Andrei Kirilenko in that way – a star whose star quality is difficult to trace, even for those who see him ply his trade on a daily basis.
“You can’t compare his game to anyone because he’s still developing his game,” says Bobcats rookie Jared Dudley. “Yeah, he’s seven years into his career, but you can see he will improve a lot more.
“He can change the game,” Dudley says. “He can ignite us with a steal and a dunk or by blocking a shot, giving us a spark. He makes the plays you see on ‘Sportscenter.’ His timing on shot-blocking is ridiculous. He got Shaq earlier this year, he got Ronnie Brewer – I think both of those were Top 10 highlights.”
While Gerald Wallace wants to assume the mantle as his team’s best player and on-court leader, he is content to leave the fame for someone else: perhaps the explosive volume-scoring Richardson, or the media/PR-friendly defensive stalwart Okafor, or even part-owner Michael Jordan. In fact, when MJ suited up for Bobcats practice for two days in mid-December, it garnered more national attention than the team itself had earned all season. (According to the Charlotte Observer, Jordan told the team during practice, “You have no All-Stars. None! That means everybody has got to rely on each other to be successful. Until we develop an All-Star who can take over a game, it’s very important … to understand you have to play as a unit.”)
“When I got drafted by Sacramento, I was fine there,” Wallace says. “It was a small country town; it was great for me, ‘cause I don’t like big cities. You don’t have to deal with all the traffic, the big-city life, all of that. I like Charlotte that same way. It’s a smaller market.”
While MJ remains the face of the franchise, Wallace gladly exists in relative anonymity. He enjoys his ability to go out and pick up his gameday-staple Chick Fil-A sandwiches without hassle before heading to the arena. He revels the chance to spend entire off-days playing video games without being tugged in all kinds of directions for all kinds of superstar-ish responsibilities. By nature, Gerald is the quiet type who opens up only after he gets to know you. He is courteous and cooperative with reporters and fans, but for the most part stays away from the spotlight.
“He comes to work, takes care of work and goes home,” Hopkins says.
“My personal life is my personal life,” Gerald adds. “What I do in my off-time is time for me and my family. I give the fans everything I have when I’m on the court and in public, but when I get home it’s time for family.”
Settled in about six hours from Childersburg in suburban Charlotte, Gerald regularly hosts family and friends from back home in the house he shares with his wife, Warneisha – who he’s known since eighth grade – and their two-year-old daughter Kennedy. Gerald also has three other children: Davyn, Malliyah and Mya.
“This is where I want to be. This is where I want to win,” Gerald says. “I want to send the fans home appreciative of what I do on the court.
“Signing the contract puts more pressure on you to win. The fans and everybody looks at it like, ‘We’re paying him all this money, he should perform at this level.’ It’s more pressure. But I can’t go out there and try to do too much. The things that got you your contract, those are the things you have to take to another level.”