There was a déjà vu moment at halftime.
Millett Hall had a basketball crowd like it’s rarely seen in recent years. The lower bowl was filled thanks, in part, to a couple of thousand Miami University students who showed up Friday night to see the RedHawks play Toledo.
Many in the crowd wore replica No. 32 jerseys that had been handed out at the door. Some held up homemade signs and others waved a familiar face attached to a stick.
Soon their art came to life as they chanted: “Wally!… Wally!… Wally!”
Wally Szczerbiak — those choirboy looks of two decades past now the chiseled handsomeness of a 40-year-old — walked onto the court wearing a pinstriped, three-piece suit and big grin.
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Accompanied by Miami president Dr. Gregory Crawford and his wife Dr. Renate Crawford and athletics director David Sayler, he was given the presidential medal for embodying the school’s “Love and Honor” motto. And then he was handed a commemorative basketball upon which were listed some of his great accomplishments as a RedHawks player from 1995-1999.
As the crowd cheered, Wally palmed the ball like it was a cantaloupe and then held it over his head for all to see.
And right then I was reminded of another moment on this same court when he had gripped a basketball the same way and the crowd erupted.
It was the second game of the 1998-99 season — his senior year — and he was coming down the lane against a suddenly dazed Tennessee team. The favored Vols found themselves in a cauldron of noise and RedHawk heroics and now here came Wally, soaring for a dunk, the ball held over his head the way the Statue of Liberty lifts her torch.
And then “wham,” two more of what would be a 34-point night for him.
“I remember that team was ranked pretty highly at the time,” he recalled Friday night. “But we had confidence our senior year. We were not losing on our home floor to anyone. And the fans were great. The place was rockin’.”
The RedHawks toppled Tennessee, just as they had done to Notre Dame when they went to South Bend for the season opener. And they’d do the same when Dayton came to Oxford three days later.
When the Tennessee game ended, thousands of Miami students rushed the court and lifted Wally on their shoulders and carried him around the floor as he raised two clenched fists to the heavens.
A half dozen pro scouts were there for the game, as was Wayne Embry, the Miami great of the late 1950s who was the general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers:
“He’s the real deal,” Embry said. “Wally Szczerbiak is a legitimate big-time player.”
“I’ll be glad to see him graduate,” said Vols coach Jerry Green.
Dreams came true
Wally did get his diploma and he lived up to his big-time billing, too.
He would be named a first-team All-American, the Mid-American Conference player of the year and would lead the talent-laden RedHawks on a wondrous trip to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16. After scoring 43 on Washington in the opener and 24 against Utah in the second round, he became the toast of the tournament.
Guided by the beloved storyteller Charlie Coles, the RedHawks were everybody’s favorite Cinderella.
“Wally took this whole area by storm,” said Steve Wolf, the former Xavier player, who broadcast Friday night’s Miami game with Dave Ryan and Wally, who is now retired as a player. “During that NCAA Tournament, he put Miami on the map.”
The RedHawks were derailed by Kentucky in the Sweet 16 and after that Wally was the No. 6 overall pick in the NBA draft. Taken by Minnesota, he had a 10-year pro career with the Timberwolves, Boston, Charlotte, Seattle and Cleveland. He would be an NBA All-Star and score 9,195 points before his career ended in November 2009 with his third knee surgery.
“They say an athlete dies twice,” he said. “When you retire ends one chapter and that was a tough chapter for me to close.”
He’s done so by working as a studio analyst of New York Knicks games on MSG and he does college work for CBS Sports Network.
He and wife Shannon — the girl he met at freshman orientation and, in true “Miami Merger” fashion, married in 2000 — have five children, including a fourth-grade boy whose basketball team Wally was coaching in its championship game back on Long Island late Saturday morning.
But a window in his broadcast schedule and family obligations allowed him to return to Oxford on Friday night — “Miami has done so much for me, it will always be special and dear in my heart” — to call the game for CBS as the school saluted him with “Wally Night.”
Not only was it a way Miami could again say thanks for the memories — his retired jersey hangs from the Millett rafters and in 2009 he was inducted in the school’s Hall of Fame — but there was a hope he could help rekindle some of the communal embrace of days past.
Miami basketball has struggled in recent years. There have been eight straight losing seasons, and crowds have dwindled.
This year, even with a winning record and a promising young team put together by new coach Jack Owens, Miami has had six home games where the attendance was below 1,000.
“What it boils down to is that everybody loves a winner, don’t they?” Darrel Hedric, a Miami Hall of Fame player, coach and administrator, said as he stood court-side.
“But I think Jack is doing a real good job with his kids and we’ll start winning again. Maybe then we’ll get some crowds again.”
That was part of the allure of bringing Wally back. The school made it a celebration with game-long give-aways, replica Szczerbiak jerseys to the first 1,000 students at Millett and free ice cream for all — and that drew a crowd of 3,525 as well as the national TV audience.
Although Miami, plagued by cold long-range shooting, would lose 73-67, it did claw back from an 11-point halftime deficit to take the lead in the second half.
Owens hoped the crowd would appreciate the renewal project that’s underway and would come back again.
And he was especially appreciative that Wally had spent some time with his players at the afternoon shoot-around, talking to them as a group and some individually.
Although recruited by the likes of St. John’s, Iowa and North Carolina State, he said he came to Miami because it was a place he could develop as a total player and not be pigeon-holed as a 3-point shooter the way some big-time programs might have done.
“I couldn’t have picked a better spot,” he said. “I was able to develop and play here. And if you can play, anyone is going to find you.
“Miami really set me off on the right path as far as my career — it was a place where my dreams could come true.”
Scars and wounds
“I was sitting right over there where the students are when Wally played his first game,” Dayton attorney Nick Gounaris said as he sat court-side Friday and motioned to the seats behind the south basket.
“I want to say Wally was like 6 for 6 or something. He drove the baseline and dunked and everybody went nuts. Right away you saw he was something really special.”
In his first game against New Hampshire, a 90-64 Miami romp, Wally actually made all nine shots he took, including a 30-footer just before the first-half buzzer that got the crowd roaring.
While Wally remembers all those times, he also knows he was part of a team that was filled with talented players, none more so than guard Damon Frierson, his freshman roommate who had been Mr. Basketball in Indiana and now is an assistant coach on Owens’ staff.
“He was as steady of a teammate as you could have,” Wally said. “We went to him a lot at the ends of games in crunch time because he could create a shot.”
He also mentioned fellow freshman Rob Mestas, Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball, as well as players like John Estick, Mike Ensminger and Anthony Taylor.
“And when you think of our coaching staff — Sean Miller, Thad Matta, Charlie Coles, Jimmy Christian and Herb Sendek was the head coach. Look at the career those guys have gone on to.”
While there was plenty of success right from the start, there were also some stitches.
The freshmen joined a group of veterans who already had made a splash in the NCAA Tournament the year before, beating Arizona at UD Arena.
The star of that team was the dreadlocked, gold-toothed enforcer Devin Davis, who had come from inner-city Miami. Now he’s a Dayton Flyers assistant coach, but back then he tutored with muscle, trash talk and a well-placed elbow now and then.
The latter found Wally’s left eyebrow during a rebounding scuffle in practice and 19 stitches were needed to close the wound.
Wally laughed Friday and said that scar is no longer noticeable:
“After playing 10 years in the NBA, I’ve had my share of scars and war wounds.”
That first year the veteran players and the youngsters meshed and Miami went 21-8 and made the NIT. The next year they were 21-9 and lost to Clemson in the NCAA Tournament.
The RedHawks would beat UD all four years Wally played, including his junior year when they prevailed in a thrilling, double-overtime victory at UD Arena. Wally scored 41 that game. They beat Xavier that season too, but also had to regroup after Coles — “A father figure to me,” Wally said — suffered a heart attack in the quarterfinals of the MAC tournament and was saved by a doctor sitting in the crowd.
Senior year, though, Miami was not to be denied. After several big non-conference victories, they won the MAC regular season title with a 15-3 mark. But with Wally hobbled in the league tournament final, they lost to Kent State and then had to sweat out an at-large invitation to the tournament
When they were named a 10 seed, Wally vowed to make amends.
And he did. Along with his 43 points and 12 rebounds, he blocked Washington’s last shot to secure the 59-58 upset.
“Throwing the ball up in the air after that, that’s something I’ll never forget,” he said. “It was one of the most memorable basketball moments in my career.”
After the 6-foot-7 star scored 24 to lift Miami past second-seeded Utah, 66-58, the Wally World phenomenon swept through the tournament.
A couple of days before the team boarded a bus for St. Louis and the Sweet 16 game with Kentucky, I went with Wally and his eventual wife, Shannon Ward, to lunch in uptown Oxford.
Drivers stopped their cars on the old worn bricks of High Street, jumped out of their vehicles and got an autograph or just shook his hand. When Wally had walked into a class that day he had gotten a standing ovation.
Shannon told me he had an answering machine that held 10 messages and they cleaned it out three times a day.
“At least half the calls are from girls and a lot are just screaming and telling him they love him,” she said. “Probably 90 percent of the girls on campus want to date him. I’m kind of used to it now. I know what he means to everybody on campus and in town. Everybody loves Wally.”
That night the couple went to a WCW wrestling show at Firstar Arena in Cincinnati. When the crowd spotted him, it began to chant “Wally…Wally…Wally.”
Soon he was in the ring with a microphone and later Shannon served as a ring escort for WCW champ Ric Flair.
A day later the New York Times was on campus to interview him as were crews from CBS and ESPN. He made the cover of USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
When the RedHawks boarded the bus to the Sweet 16, a crowd of 7,000 gathered to give them a sendoff.
Because of the career-ending injuries, Wally World now spins on a different axis.
“I’m not able to play pickup basketball or anything where I’m running on the court,” he said.
His passion for basketball remains though, he said, and he’s been able to direct it into his new broadcast career.
Sayler thinks he’ll also become more engaged with the Miami program, thanks not only to invitations from Frierson and Owens, but especially because of his love for the school.
“He’s arguably the best player to play at this school and to see him come back and support us and just hang out with us meant a lot,” said Logan McLane, a 6-foot-9 senior forward who had 15 points Friday night.
Like all of his teammates, McLane wore a white warmup with No. 32 and Szczerbiak on the back.
“To see the crowd he brought out for us tonight, it was awesome to play in front of them,” he said. “I just hope we can continue to get the crowds.
“He said we’re going in the right direction to get where they were in his day. I hope he keeps coming back.”
After the game, Wally signed autographs and posed for photos, including a shot with the Miami women’s basketball team.
“This was really important to him tonight,” Wolf said. “He was genuinely excited to be here. He loves this place. And the people love him.”
Frierson agreed and said he hopes one day the young Miami players will feel some of that, too.
“We hope to get back to the good times so we don’t always have to talk about ‘I remember when…’ ”
Friday night, though, those remembrances were beautiful.
And that brought another déjà vu moment.
As you watched Wally surrounded by fans, you remembered something he said just before he boarded the bus for the Sweet 16. Microphone in hand, he addressed the massive crowd:
“I just want you to know, not only is this Wally’s World, it’s your world, too.”