This certainly was the case with John Wallace, whose decision to remain at Syracuse University for his senior season resulted in him reaching a national championship game and the rafters of the Carrier Dome. By postponing entry into the National Basketball Association draft by a year, he added to his legacy as one of the most significant players in SU basketball history, earning a spot next to legends such as Carmelo Anthony, Pearl Washington, Dave Bing and Wallace’s boyhood idol, Derrick Coleman.
Had the Rochester native and Greece Athena High School graduate left early he would have missed out leading the Orange on that magical run to the 1996 NCAA title game. Had he left early there would be no ceremony at the Dome this Saturday to retire his No. 44 jersey. Wallace would have been remembered as just another very good basketball player at SU, rather than the 15th member of the program to have his number showcased permanently above the fabled arena’s upper deck.
“None of this happens without me coming back my senior year,’’ Wallace was saying by phone the other day from New York City. “That season definitely cemented my legacy at Syracuse. Staying put one more year wound up being the best decision I ever made.”
In retrospect, it may seem a no-brainer, but it wasn’t such an obvious option at the time. In fact, Big John came oh so close to jumping early into the NBA draft pool. With SU’s all-time leading scorer Lawrence Moten and two other starters graduating in 1995, Wallace felt the timing might be right for him to leave, too, because it appeared as if the Orange would be in rebuilding mode. The 6-foot-8 forward was coming off a sensational junior season in which he impressed a number of NBA scouts by averaging 16.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, so he decided to gauge his standing in the upcoming draft.
“I was projected initially as a second-rounder, but after about a month of workouts, my stock had risen dramatically, to the point where I was a solid first-round projection,’’ he recalled. “I was really, really tempted to go, but after talking to (SU Coach Jim) Boeheim, we thought maybe I could blossom into a top-five pick if I came back and worked on some things and had an outstanding senior year. Thank God I did, because look at all the insanely good stuff I would have missed out on.”
SU began Wallace’s senior season unranked, but forced the pollsters to take notice by opening with 11 consecutive victories, including a 79-70 upset of third-ranked Arizona on the road. Wallace turned in a monster performance that game, with 26 points and nine rebounds.
The Orangemen, though, would save their best for last, making an improbable run through the NCAA tournament—a run fueled by their senior All-American forward. After two easy wins in the opening round of the West Region, SU defeated Georgia, 83-81, in overtime in a game that featured two signature Wallace moments Orange fans still talk about. Trailing by two with 2.1 seconds remaining, Boeheim, in a strategic move that went against conventional wisdom, instructed his best player to inbound the ball. “I was a little disappointed at first because I wanted to be the guy taking that crucial shot,’’ Wallace said. “But, in hindsight, it’s obvious coach knew what he was doing.”
The young man who grew up playing football and dreaming of becoming the next Randall Cunningham had the best arm on the team (other than SU’s starting quarterback Donovan McNabb, who was a basketball reserve.) After quickly diagnosing that Lazarus Sims and Todd Burgan were covered, Wallace lofted a pass to his third option, Jason Cipola, who drilled a 12-foot jumper to send the game into overtime. Then, with 10 seconds remaining in the extra session and Georgia up by one, Wallace took the inbounds and furiously dribbled up the court, hitting a jumper from the top of the key to win the game.
“I called for the ball on that inbounds, but I would have had an easier time getting a piece of meat from a hungry wolf,’’ Sims recalled of Wallace’s overtime heroics. “John absolutely hated to lose, and he was determined that no one was going to stop him from making sure our season and our college careers didn’t end there.”
In a nationally televised postgame, on-court interview, commentator Al McGuire encouraged Wallace and his teammates to perform a catchy rap song Big John had composed. “When the Cuse is in the house, oh my god, oh my god,” they sang as McGuire danced along with them.
Two days later, they weren’t only in the house, they were in the Final Four as they defeated fourth-ranked Kansas. They then knocked off Mississippi State in the semis to earn the school’s second trip to an NCAA title game. The gritty Orange wound up losing to a Kentucky team featuring five future NBA players in its starting lineup. Wallace was brilliant in defeat, scoring 29 points and hauling in 10 rebounds before fouling out while scrapping for a loose ball with about two minutes remaining. To this day, he’s still bothered by that call. “One ref had it a jump ball and another guy had it a foul, and the guy who had it a jump ball was overruled,’’ he said. “We were down three at the time, and I still contend that if I hadn’t fouled out, we would have won. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
A few months after that loss and a senior season that saw him average 22 points and 8.7 rebounds per game, he was drafted 18th overall by the New York Knicks. Wallace wound up playing seven seasons in the NBA with four different teams, averaging 7.6 points and 2.8 rebounds per game during his pro career. But his favorite basketball moments occurred at SU, where he remains the school’s third all-time leading scorer and rebounder.
He is part of a pipeline of Rochester-area players who went on to play for the Orange, joining the likes of Roosevelt Bouie, Ryan Blackwell, Greg Monroe, Marty Brynes, Jon Cinebox and Tony Scott. Wallace’s place in program history is further enhanced by his heroics at a time when SU was reeling from NCAA infractions that occurred a few years before he arrived.
Kansas and Providence were among the schools that attempted to get him to flip his scholarship commitment. But from the moment Wallace attended his first game at the Dome as a high school sophomore and witnessed the basketball magic of Coleman and Billy Owens, he was adamant about where he wanted to go to school.
“Coach Boeheim had told me during my senior year at Athena that the sanctions probably would only be for one year, and that was something I definitely could live with,’’ said Wallace, who earned high school All-American recognition from McDonald’s, Converse, USA Today and Parade magazine. “Looking back, I’m proud that I was able to be a bridge guy through that probation period. Coach has told me I’m one of the most important players in program history because I kept them afloat. That makes me feel really good.”
Since retiring as a player, Wallace has been working in community relations for his old NBA team, the Knicks. He also is on the board of the Heavenly Production Foundation, which helps children in need.
“We’ve been giving kids book bags filled with notebooks and pencils and things that can help them with their education—things many of us take for granted,’’ he said. “Sometimes, we put teddy bears in the bags, too. We just want impoverished kids in New York and beyond to know someone cares about them. I want them to be able to realize their dreams, just like I have.’’
Wallace’s dreams will see him reach the Dome’s rafters Saturday evening. He got there by staying put.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.