LAS VEGAS — As a child, Tyrone Wallace had oodles of affection for other children. The cuter and cuddlier, the better. At 4, he would walk up to strangers at the mall and ask if he could plant a smooch on their baby. "He has a lot of love to give," says his mother, Michelle Johnson. Echoes 18-year-old Diamond Wallace, Tyrone's younger sister: "Tyrone wants to be everyone's big brother."
It's a role he relishes—and one that proved crucial for the Cal basketball team this season. Bears coach Cuonzo Martin has fielded questions since last summer about the expectations for superstar freshmen and likely NBA lottery picks Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, but it's Wallace, the sometimes-reluctant senior point guard, who will need to be on in order for Cal to advance deep into the Big Dance.
The fourth-seeded Bears (23–10) open NCAA tournament play Friday in Spokane, Wash., against No. 13 seed Hawaii (27–5), and they're playing their best basketball of the season, having lost only twice since Feb. 6. One came last week, when Cal melted down in overtime of the Pac-12 semifinals before falling to Utah, 82–78. Touted as a game featuring a trio of NBA-bound youngsters—Rabb, Brown and Utah sophomore center Jakob Poeltl—Wallace stood out, scoring 26 points and grabbing six rebounds. Teammates hope it was a hint at what's to come in March.
For Wallace, this month will be about more than the culmination of his collegiate career, though. It will be about his growth, his family and his keeping of a promise.
Courtesy of Michelle Johnson
Now in his second season at Cal, Martin spent much of the summer telling Wallace to be more vocal. It isn't accurate, Martin says, to think Wallace is fragile simply because he is quiet. Wallace, a Bakersfield (Calif.) High graduate, knows being vocal is his weakness. He somewhat sheepishly admits he is uncomfortable bossing others around, even if that responsibility falls under most point guard's job descriptions.
He would rather be the fun one, as his family can attest. At his home in Bakersfield, Tyrone is everyone's favorite relative, regardless of which role—grandson, cousin, uncle or brother—he occupies. The family is especially close because everyone has taken turns living at grandma Sharon Johnson's house. Tyrone lived there while attending Bakersfield High (he is the program's all-time leading scorer with 1,767 career points), since it was a shorter drive to school than his mom's house. Michelle moved there shortly after Tyrone left for college, when her diabetes and fibromyalgia became too much to handle. (She is better now and living on her own again.)
A group of about 14—parents, aunts, siblings and immediate cousins—travels to the majority of Tyrone's home games, making the four-hour drive north to Berkeley roughly every other weekend. He makes his share of trips to see them, too, often tricking his mom during the off-season. He will call to tell her about his day and then, while still on the phone, burst into the kitchen and wrap her in a hug. "Ty is the one who keeps things alive in our house," Michelle says. "He was always a happy kid. When he left for college, a part of that joy left, too. But when he's home, he just brings a light to me, to us."
Though Wallace doesn't always say much in the locker room, that natural, upbeat charisma rubs off on teammates. Rabb, an 18-year-old freshman forward, puts it this way: "I'm no child, but Tyrone, that's my guy, that's who I want to be around." Everyone flocks to Wallace, Rabb says. And that's how it should be.
After the 2014–15 season, Wallace briefly entertained the idea of declaring for the NBA draft. He had burst into the spotlight over the previous several months, averaging 17.1 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists as a junior, and would have likely been selected in the second round. He was concerned, too, about the health of his mother. At one point last season Michelle became so sick she dropped to 110 pounds, and Tyrone was hesitant to return to campus. But he remembered the promise he made to his grandfather—to become the first member of the family to earn a degree—and decided to stay in school.
Wallace's grandpa, Charles Johnson, died of issues related to diabetes on Aug. 10, 2014. His memory continues to drive Wallace, as do his living relatives. In true big brother fashion, Wallace believes that since Charles is gone, it is his job to set the example for the family, not just in the kindness he shows to everyone, but in keeping his word and demonstrating the importance of education. Whenever Tyrone comes back to Bakersfield, everyone congregates at the Johnson house. Jakyia Carolina, his 7-year-old niece, says Tyrone is "the best uncle ever, because whenever I see him, he picks me up and throws me high in the air. And then we watch Scooby Doo together." All of the cousins, nieces and nephews like to play a pickup game of "Tyrone vs. Team Everyone" in the driveway, with the 6' 5", 205-pounder trying to dribble his way through approximately 18 defenders. He usually lets Team Everyone win.
"Tyrone has such a big heart, it doesn't matter if you're young or old, he wants to make you smile," says his aunt, Monique Johnson. "All the kids in our family, it's like they're his babies. He has a key to everyone's house and it doesn't matter what time he comes home. When he walks through that door, everyone runs and jumps on him."
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When Wallace broke a bone in his right hand that forced him to sit out for a month this season, his family was eager to help. The Johnson-Wallace clan maintains an ongoing group text message thread, in which they detail basketball practice and dance recital highlights and dissect Tyrone's games.
On Jan. 19, the day Cal announced Tyrone would miss four to six weeks, his phone buzzed with numerous updates. Taylor Caldwell, his 15-year-old cousin and the family's next standout point guard (she has already drawn recruiting interest from schools like North Carolina and UCLA) told Tyrone this was an opportunity to lead from the sideline. Tyrone told his older brother, Ryan, he wanted to play through the pain "like Kobe would," but Ryan told him he had something more to play for, and that he needed to be patient. "[He was] bored out of his mind on the bench," Ryan says.
Tyrone constantly encouraged his backup, junior Sam Singer, and after sitting out five games he recognized the importance of increasing chatter among teammates. This month he will embrace the role in which Cal needs him most: floor general. "My job is to teach guys where they're supposed to be, instead of just getting on them," Wallace says.
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Wallace laughs when he thinks back to his freshman year, and how lost he was. At Bakersfield, he had two acceptable destinations on the court: three or key. Developing a midrange game—or merely understanding when a midrange shot is necessary—took time. Only 175 pounds when he first got to Cal, driving into the paint was "a painful process." So he packed on 25 pounds of muscle and studied how guards like Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul come off pick-and-rolls. Now, he is the team's leading scorer (15.3 points per game) and has dished out a team-high 124 assists.
"Remember, we recruited him, he wasn't a true point guard," says Gregg Gottlieb, a former Bears assistant who helped land Wallace and now coaches at Oregon State. "When we played them at Cal, what impressed me was the number of non-determining plays he made. It's like a hockey assist—he's willing to make the play, make one more pass before the pass that gets [recorded] as the assist. He understands, within their structure, how to make his teammates better. That's where I see growth."
Wallace isn't putting much, if any, pressure on his freshmen teammates. After all, this is their first NCAA tournament, and it's his second. His game has evolved to the point where not only does he crave the big moment, but he understands how to succeed in it. He stuck around for a reason, and while Brown and Rabb will need to play well for the Bears to make a March Madness run, this month is not about the new kids.
It's about the older brother they're following.