Students at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, can be a restive
lot. Last May they overturned cars and threw bottles and rocks
at cops to protest a proposed town ordinance that would have
moved up closing time at local bars by one hour, to 1 a.m. But
on the day before the beginning of this semester, an August
afternoon stifling enough to incite a full riot, two dozen
students stand in a checkout line at the campus bookstore,
docile as sheep, while advancing at a glacial pace. Most
contented of all is a 6'8" senior with beetle brows and a
winsome, lose-few smile.
Wally (World) Szczerbiak isn't beaming quite as brightly as he
did a few hours earlier while running back downcourt after
tap-dunking the muffed layup of a Miami teammate during a pickup
game. Or grinning quite as broadly as he did at lunch, when
another RedHawks' player noted the sesame pellets sprinkled over
Szczerbiak's lettuce and asked, "What, a rabbit take a dump on
your salad?" Or glowing as brilliantly as he had a little while
earlier while recounting how, at freshman orientation three
years ago, he had met Shannon Ward, the Ohio farm girl and
part-time model whose company he has kept ever since. But
considering that he's lugging a crateful of books with titles
such as Principles of Operations Management and getting nowhere,
Szczerbiak, whom NBA scouting director Marty Blake calls "the
best shooter in America," is in what, for anyone else, would
pass as megawatt mode. The others in line stay in line. For if
World can wait, they can, too.
"You'll be studying so much you won't have a chance to play
basketball!" says the cashier when, nearly an hour later, she
finally rings him up.
"Oh, I'll find time," Szczerbiak says with a...well, you know
November 23, 1998
To better understand what unalloyed joy has to do with being not
only the nation's top shooter but also SI's choice as the best
all-around collegiate player in the land, it's worth making the
schlepp across campus to the office of the man who nicknamed
Szczerbiak after the amusement park in National Lampoon's
Vacation. Miami coach Charlie Coles knows a little bit about
savoring life's every moment. He describes himself as "a guy
who's already used up his redshirt year" and then yanks down the
neckline of his polo shirt to reveal what looks like the outline
of a pack of Camels just below the skin of his left breast. It's
a defibrillator, installed after Coles went into cardiac arrest
during the first round of last season's Mid-American Conference
"Now, I don't want Wally thinking the game's a carnival," Coles
says, "but I always tell him that he plays better when he's in a
great mood, when he's got that smile on his face. I've seen some
players, they get mad, they play better. Not Wally."
Like that cinematic fun park, Wally World promises thrills at
every turn. He posts up and throws down. He jumps center and
blocks shots, rebounds and leads the break. He can snap a
defender's ankles with a crossover or curl around a screen for a
splay-legged three. From that playful first name to his
unspellable last--"Ukrainian name, Polish spelling," says his
dad, Walt, a former player in the ABA and Europe--from that
arcade's worth of skills to an off-season jones for boogie
boarding, there's an aspect of whimsy to Szczerbiak, who figures
to follow Ron Harper and Dan Majerle as the next MAC nugget in
Coles fires up the VCR. There's Szczerbiak in the second
overtime of a game against Dayton last season, flicking in three
straight threes and blocking a shot. There's an SEC-quality slam
in transition at Tennessee that, like almost all of the
RedHawks' action, went untelevised. Coles loads another tape,
this one from a game against Ohio. From the right corner
Szczerbiak jabs left and then sails along the baseline,
Statue-of-Libertying the ball in his right hand before flushing
it down. "He may not be from New York City itself," Coles says,
"but he's from New York."
Though Szczerbiak averaged 36.6 points a game as a high school
senior, recruiting services underrated him because he came from
namby-pamby Cold Spring Harbor High on the tony north shore of
Long Island. He arrived in Oxford as an unheralded afterthought
and then grabbed everyone's attention by hitting all nine of his
shots in his first home game. Since then he has made more than
half of his shots from the field, including 47.6% of his threes.
Szczerbiak did himself no bigger favor than to spend last summer
playing for the U.S. Goodwill Games team, which included Duke's
Elton Brand, Connecticut's Khalid El-Amin and Utah's Andre
Miller. At the trials in Colorado Springs, Szczerbiak sprang for
43 points in one scrimmage, sinking nine of 11 three-pointers.
"There was a junior USA Basketball team of recent high school
grads and high school seniors-to-be, all highly touted, training
out there," says St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli, who assisted
Clem Haskins of Minnesota with the Goodwill Games team. "It was
invaluable for them to watch this guy who they'd never heard of
kick everybody's ass."
When the team got to Madison Square Garden for the Games,
Szczerbiak scarcely cooled off. He led the U.S. with a
17.2-point scoring average and got six in overtime of the gold
medal game, in which the Americans defeated Australia 93-85.
(Few people know that 27 years earlier Walt, then a forward for
George Washington, played Julius Erving of Massachusetts to a
virtual standoff in the same building. Dr. J had 35 points and
17 rebounds to Walt's 32 points and 23 boards in a 70-65 UMass
win.) "In our country we've got plenty of tremendous athletes
with no clue how to play basketball," says Haskins, "but Wally
plays the game the way it should be played: hard and under
control. He makes shots, and he makes plays."
Coles puts a finer point on it: "He's got an East Coast kind of
game. Crafty, and a little bit old school. Sizing people up and
then beating them. I think it comes from his dad."
After Walt played the 1971-72 season with the ABA's Pittsburgh
Condors, the team folded, and he was picked up by the Kentucky
Colonels in a dispersal draft. He was cut in the preseason,
however, and then signed on with the Wilkes-Barre (Pa.) Barons
of the old Eastern League. For shooting better than 60% and
leading the Barons to the title, he collected $100 a game--"$83
after taxes," Walt says--and got a contract offer from the NBA's
Buffalo Braves. But because the Braves guaranteed only one
season, Szczerbiak passed. Instead he signed a five-year deal
with Real Madrid, then the Boston Celtics of Europe, with an
out-clause if he ever wanted to head back to the States to try
He never did. Szczerbiak helped Madrid win three European club
championships in the late 1970s. Teammates called him Too Late,
for that's what he'd say to defenders who rushed at him an
instant after he had squeezed off his unusually faithful shot.
In one game opponents were so tardy that Szczerbiak knocked down
25 of 27 from the field and scored 65 points, still the Spanish
single-game record. He and his wife, Marilyn, loved the
expatriate life--the food, the friends and the parks where they
could take little Wally, who was born in Madrid in '77. The
flight attendant who lived next door would drop by the
Szczerbiaks' apartment to marvel at the 18-month-old who could
hoist a Nerf ball over his head and, once in every three or four
tries, fling it through the hoop rigged over a doorway. Later,
after gigs with a team in Udine in the Italian League and
another in Tenerife in Spain's Canary Islands, Walt would regret
nothing, except that it's hard to call yourself a professional
basketball player if you've never spent a minute in the NBA.
His European career over at age 35, Walt couldn't give up the
game. For the past 12 years he has served as the North American
rep for Spain's Asociacion de Clubs de Baloncesto (ACB), working
out of his Long Island home as a sort of Martinez Blake,
bird-dogging those tweeners and sleepers who might be a late NBA
cut or go undrafted but could make it in the Spanish league. In
short, he gets paid to search for someone who can break his
record. Even as he pushed into his 40s, he would find a gym
where former college standouts such as George Bruns, Billy
Schaeffer and Al Seiden mustered on weekends. Wally first tagged
along to watch his dad and share a postgame burger and soda.
Eventually he began to play.
"Twice a week, with my dad and his friends, I learned the tricks
you don't learn in the park--all the intricacies of the game,"
Wally says. "Today I hear the scouts saying, 'Not only can he
shoot, pass and dribble, he knows how to play the game. He knows
how to run a ball screen and a pick-and-roll.' Well, that's where
I learned it.
"But then I'd play with my friends and in AAU ball. The players
were young and athletic. That's where I got the jiggles and the
feints. Nowadays you need both the old stuff and the new stuff to
Wally has two advantages that Walt didn't. Having been confined
to the post most of his career, the 6'6" Walt made sure, while
coaching Wally through fifth, sixth and seventh grade, that his
son learned how to face the basket and put the ball on the
floor. Today, with a dribble drive to go with an outside shot,
he's a sort of souped-up Majerle--a Majerle Davidson, if you will.
The other difference between the two Szczerbiaks may be what
will allow the son to someday surpass the father. In Walt's day
a shooter rarely went near a barbell for fear of harming his
touch. That thinking has changed. Before last season Wally
increased his bench press from 185 to 300 pounds. He also gained
seven pounds, pared his body fat from 14% to 9% and raised his
vertical leap by 4 1/2 inches to 30 1/2, an increase so dramatic
that RedHawks strength coach Dan Dalrymple took three separate
measurements for fear he had made a mistake. Szczerbiak suddenly
carried 241 pounds, and his stroke hadn't lost one feather of
goose down. "The Philadelphia 76ers have trained in our gym for
11 of the 13 years that I've been at St. Joe's," says Martelli,
"and his body matches up with any of theirs."
All that summer weight work helped Szczerbiak lead the nation in
scoring through the first few weeks of last season with a 29.4
average. Thus Coles reacted the way any coach might have when, on
Jan. 3, Wally broke his right wrist and was lost for eight games.
"The worst thing that could happen happened," Coles said at the
Coles, 56, had no way of knowing how wrong he was. Less than two
months later, the RedHawks were in Kalamazoo, Mich., a seventh
seed in the MAC tournament, facing second-seeded Western
Michigan in the first round. Moments after the RedHawks had
broken a timeout huddle, with the score tied and just over 11
minutes to play in the first half, Coles keeled over and hit the
floor with a thud. Miami, the school known as the Cradle of
Coaches, had nearly sent one to his grave.
Officials suspended the game for two hours while Coles was
treated courtside and at a local hospital. After being assured
that Coles would survive, Szczerbiak and his co-captain, guard
Damon Frierson, gathered their teammates to decide whether to
complete the game the following day or play on. Coles likes to
talk about "the long way around"--how, in coming to Miami and
choosing a league like the MAC, a young man has usually forsworn
shortcuts and cop-outs. Following a regular season in which the
RedHawks lost not only Szczerbiak for three weeks but also four
other players to injuries or academic failures, there wasn't
much deliberation. "We knew our coach wanted us to be warriors
and go on and play," Szczerbiak says. Miami won the game and
beat Kent several nights later before losing to Eastern Michigan
in the final as Szczerbiak scored 26 points but was trumped by
the Eagles' Earl Boykins, who had 29.
This season Szczerbiak is joining such recent senior stars as
Tim Duncan and Keith Van Horn as examples of the proposition
that, by staying in school for four years, a college player can
help his game and himself. In a sense, Wally is living his life
much as Walt did. Wally has his Real Madrid in mid-major Miami,
an idyllic, out-of-the-way place with more to offer than just
basketball. He has his Marilyn in Shannon, who takes many of the
same courses he does so she can fill him in if a road trip
causes him to miss class. He has his Madison Square Garden
moment, one that even ended in victory. And he has the stroke
and the smarts that served his father so well. "In the Goodwill
Games one move he made was a flashback," Marilyn Szczerbiak
says. "I could see Walt exactly."
The night before he's to drive from Long Island back to campus
for his senior year, Wally sits at the dining room table,
listening to Walt recount the vicissitudes of his pro career.
The contours of these stories are familiar to Wally, but many of
the details are new, including the stats Walt recites from his
final scrimmage with the Colonels to support his claim that he
was unjustly released. He even offers to produce the box score.
"So you're bitter about that?" Wally asks. "About not playing in
Walt doesn't really answer. "I don't regret going to Spain," he
says. "If I hadn't, I don't know if I'd still be working in
basketball. But as a competitor I'd have loved to have gone up
against a guy like Wilt Chamberlain. I think I could have
competed at that level, and I never had a chance to prove it."
Wally will most likely have that chance, but it would be
misleading to say that Walt is spoiling for vicarious
vindication. Vindication is a juvenile emotion. Paternal pride,
on the other hand, is something it takes a man of a certain age
to know, and Walt fairly swells with it. "Played over at C.W.
Post last Sunday," he says. "My team went 0-5. Another guy in
this room, his team went 5-0."
At that, Wally Szczerbiak springs his best move, and that bright
smile warms the room.
Few people know it, but Wally's father once played Julius Erving
to a virtual standoff in Madison Square Garden.
"Some guys today have no clue how to play basketball," says
Haskins. "Wally plays it the way it should be played."