NBA teams are drafting children again, but they better not ignore that man over there on the Ab Roller. He has an addiction to sit-ups and only 5.1% body fat and a habit of eating egg whites. He has a college degree and teachers for friends and a fiancee he proposed to on one knee. He goes to the gym Sunday mornings and to church Sunday evenings and to bed by 11. He can finger roll, pick-and-roll, go hard to the hole. In 10 years, the rest of these drafted players will be saying, "I wish I knew then what I know now." But this man, this 22-year-old, this Wally Szczerbiak, already knows now what he's going to know then. He knows because of two men-one of them lean and one of them dumpy; one of them pure and one of them obnoxious. He knows where he's going because he has heard where these men have been. Heard it his whole life.
One of them is his father, his sweet, pristine father, and the other is his father's friend, his loud-mouthed, 62-year-old friend. One of them once scored 65 points in a European pro game, the other once won $4,500 in a poker game. They taught him basketball in a driveway and in a diner and in the company of men. They taught him through osmosis, by showing him all that is good in this world and all that is piss-poor. One of them talked his way out of the NBA, and the other couldn't talk his way in, but imagine how these two men feel now, now that their 6'8" protege will probably be picked anywhere from No. 1 to No. 6 overall in David Stern's draft.
They remember his early years, the day he was supposed to pitch in front of a Pittsburgh Pirate scout, but instead played an AAU basketball game. They remember how his high school starting five, in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., consisted of Szczerbiak and four soccer players. They remember how he scored 41 points one game, and how the other team managed just 40, total. They remember how a fan of that losing team bolted onto the court to tackle him. They remember how he asked them questions, how he wanted to know what it was like in the old days, back when they wore Chuck Taylors.
So they told him.
And this explains his game, explains why Wally Szczerbiak is old school, explains why Jerry Krause is thinking long and hard about calling his name first. He simply leaned on two men, and two men leaned back. One of these men wants Szczerbiak sharing the ball, and one of these men wants Szczerbiak gunning the ball, but that's the beauty of it. Because of them, Szczerbiak dropped 43 on Washington in one NCAA Tournament game, and then dropped a bomb on Kentucky's Jamaal Magloire in another. Because of them, he is probably the only one in this draft who plays beyond his years, probably the only one in this draft who knows who Bob Pettit is and who Guy Rodgers is. If anyone's ready to suit up against 30-year-old men next year, it's him. It's him.
Actually, Wally almost wasn't born. His father intended to become a priest, and that would have meant no wife and no son. But basketball led Walt Szczerbiak away from the seminary, and after 10 seasons in the European leagues, Walt found himself on Long Island with a 9-year-old son and an empty driveway.
Lessons were taught there, lessons about team play and left-handed dribbles and postgame handshakes. Walt was a solid, decent man who had received just one technical his entire European career-for blurting "foul" after he'd been hacked silly on the arm one day. They had nicknamed him "Caramelo Walter" over there, which means Sweet Walter, and they were referring to both his jump shot and disposition. He'd had a habit of saying "too late" to defenders or "bingo" when he'd shoot, but it was only in fun and only in practice-never in games. He loved basketball for its aesthetic value, and when he returned from Europe, he would bring Wally to watch his pickup games. And Wally would study his dad, diligently.
Then one day, Walt Szczerbiak joined a Sunday game at C.W. Post College, where he had a maddening experience. The day began innocently, with Walt being his usual serene self, and his teammates were impressed that Walt would shout "off left" or "off right" whenever he missed a shot, the better to prepare them for the rebound. He would clap when they scored, and keep quiet when they dribbled off their foot, and he was clearly the dominant player.
But then one of his mop-haired opponents began calling fouls. The man's name was Al-Al Seiden-and he was 13 years older than Walt, and he was New York to the core. All Al would do is put his head down, drive to the basket, shoot and shout, "And one!" Every time. If you breathed on him, it was a foul, and if you hacked him it was World War III, and this was why guns had previously been pulled on Al on city playgrounds. Caramelo Walter had never seen such a thing, and at game point the act got even worse. At game point, Al Seiden kept shooting, kept missing and kept calling, "And one," even though nobody was remotely touching him. It was no use, no freaking use. Al Seiden was going to keep calling fouls until he won, and that was that. Walt was livid. And sitting on the side of the court, with his eyes bugging out, was a young Wally Szczerbiak.
Walt and Wally were back in the driveway the next day, playing one-on-one, and the game went how it usually went. Walt's rule was that he could only block Wally's shot with his head, or maybe an elbow, but otherwise Wally would get free reign. Wally was a deadeye shot, just like his father, and the game would inevitably get to 14-14-game point-and Walt would then let Wally win. Walt was doing it to build Wally's self-esteem, but on this particular day, Wally said something peculiar on his winning shot: "And one!"
Walt pulled him aside, and told Wally not to emulate Al Seiden. He said it was not the proper way to play, and Wally listened, the way he always listened to his father. And they returned to their fundamentals. In fact, it was around that time that Walt began asking Wally's CYO coaches to play his son at point guard.
Walt's reasons were personal. He had been cut by the ABA Kentucky Colonels in 1972 because he couldn't handle the ball adroitly enough, and on every level he'd always had to rely on his point guards to set him up. So he wanted Wally to learn to create for himself and others. And Wally went along with this plan, passing up open shots so he could distribute to teammates. All Wally wanted in return was a favor. He wanted to keep coming to the pickup games at C.W. Post. He wanted to take another peek at that Seiden guy.
It turned out that Walt Szczerbiak and Al Seiden became friends-off the court, anyway. Walt found out Al had been an All America at St. John's (the only guard in school history to twice average 20-plus points in a season) and was impressed by Al's basketball wisdom. Wally was intrigued by Al, too, and one night, he was ecstatic to hear Al was coming to dinner.
That night, Wally-who was 13 by then and about 5'10"-invited Al up to his room for a game of one-on-one Nerf basketball. Walt warned Wally to reconsider, but off they went anyway. The game was to 30, and Al's strategy was to whack Wally into the door and shoot layups. He weighed about 225 pounds to Wally's 140, and right off the bat, Al sent Wally flying into the drywall. Seiden felt bad about that, so he backed off and kept the game close. Soon, it was 29-29, but Al had no intention of letting Wally win. He bullied Wally inside and tried a baby hook that missed. Normally, Al would've called a foul, would've said, "And one," but he forgot. Wally, meanwhile, backed up and launched a shot that skimmed off the ceiling and fell in. "Ballgame," Wally said, and Al's response was, "No, it ain't. It hit the ceiling." But Wally, who had seen Al operate at C.W. Post, did not cave in. "It's my room," he blurted, "and it's my rules, and the ceiling counts."And Al Seiden was mortified and dove exhausted onto Wally's bed.
"Get your sweaty butt off my bed," said Wally, suddenly no Walt. "Off!"
So Wally was developing an ornery side. He started playing in the Sunday games, and would join the men at a local diner afterward. It was at this diner that Wally learned more about Walt and Al. Walt, for instance, had always had this terrible tendency to make excuses for his poor play. When Walt shot poorly in December, he said signing Christmas cards had bothered his wrist. When he shot poorly after a haircut, he said the shorter hair threw him off aerodynamically. When he shot horribly after doing laundry, he said the detergent dried out his shooting hand. Everyone would kid Walt about this at the diner, and Wally decided he would never psyche himself into having a poor game, that he would be a money player.
In the meantime, Al had his own idiosyncrasies. The men laughed at how he didn't have a checking account and kept all his money in a box. And at how he never stretched and at how the drawstring had broken on his basketball shorts one day and how he'd ended up playing in his tighty whities. Wally also heard at the diner that Al had never married and still lived with his mother. That he played poker five days a week, only wore sweatpants and made a living as a ticket broker. He also saw him eating Cocoa Krispies and peanut butter out of a vat sized jar, and Wally decided it wouldn't happen to him. Before long, he was 17-1 as a high school pitcher, and batting .591, too, but he didn't care about pro baseball. After seeing Walt and Al-and all of their warts-he wanted basketball, wanted to be better than both of them at basketball.
And, naturally, Walt and Al would appear at Wally's high school games. Walt would sit in the fourth row and call out screens and tell everyone to box out. Walt would also give advice to the 12th man on Wally's team-it was just his way. But Al, Al would sit in the opposing team's section and roost. One night an enemy fan kept yelling, "Wally who?" But after Wally finished with 42 points, Al leaned in and said, "Wally who got 42, and f- you." Both Al and Walt had taken an extreme interest in Wally, and Wally suddenly realized they were living through him. And he wanted to know why, exactly why.
So they told him.
It was because they had failed as players, or at least Al had. Al had been the 14th overall pick by the St. Louis Hawks in 1959, but his mouth got him tossed out of the league. He told the starting guards, Slater Martin and Jack McMahon, that he would destroy them, and this bothered their no-nonsense coach, Ed Macauley. And then Al tried dominating the team's poker games. The Hawks had won the NBA title just two seasons before, and here was Al, a rookie, ridiculing Bob Pettit for always folding early in five-card stud. And when the team headed west late in the exhibition season, Al even began chiding the Hawks' owner, Ben Kerner, who had come on the trip. Kerner was a poker player himself, and Al-according to fellow rookie Bob Ferry- would mimic Kerner's laugh and hand gestures. Kerner didn't approve, and the old-school Macauley did not play Al in the first exhibition in Los Angeles.
The second night, in Las Vegas against the Warriors, Macauley sent Al in with only a minute left and asked him to guard the flashy Guy Rodgers. Rodgers twice coasted in for layups, and Al's reaction, as he jogged by Macauley, was, "So what? You didn't put me in until now." Sitting behind the bench, Kerner went ballistic. According to Ferry, "All hell broke loose at the hotel after the game," and Kerner kicked Al off the team. Al borrowed $300 from his friend Wilt Chamberlain so he could go home, but he was just as arrogant. He saw West Virginia's Jerry West play at the Garden, and he said, "He won't make it; he can't go left." He tried out for the Pistons for the '60-61 season, but agitated their backcourt of Gene Shue and Chuck Noble, and was gone again. "If he'd gone to the Celtics, he would've said he was kicking Bob Cousy out," Ferry says. But all these years later, Al regrets it. "My ego got in the way," he says. "At 62, I'm still trying to prove I can play."
As for Walt, his NBA journey took him to Phoenix as the 65th overall pick out of George Washington in '71. He had scored 49 points in a spring rookie scrimmage, and expected he would make the team that fall, so he married his college sweetheart, Marilyn, and had her enroll at Arizona State. But the Suns' roster was full of guaranteed contracts, and they cut him. He spent a year in the ABA with his hometown Pittsburgh Condors, but the Condors folded. And then the Colonels cut him-after he tried and failed to be a point guard-and he was off to the Eastern League and then Europe. He starred for Real Madrid in Spain, scoring those 65 points one night, and Tropic in Italy, but he always regretted his anonymity in the States. "I think I could've reached an NBA All-Star level," he says. "A Kelly Tripucka-type of level."
He was convinced his family was jinxed somewhat. His Ukranian parents met in a German refugee camp after World War II and emigrated to Pittsburgh without a nest egg. His mother ended up washing dishes for a living while his father was a storage clerk who spent his money carousing. They eventually split up and in the ensuing years, Walt's five brothers and sisters also struggled with debt and divorce-one of them dying young. Walt, himself, has made the nicest living of all, as a U.S. rep to the Spanish pro league, but he desperately wanted his son Wally to go further. He just wasn't sure, though. He was afraid the family jinx would nail Wally, too.
What he didn't realize was that Wally had taken the best of Walt and the best of Al and become a thoroughbred. On his first day at Miami University in Ohio, he met his future wife, Shannon Ward, and in his first game there, he drained his first nine shots. As a sophomore, he began a low-fat, high-protein diet, and started getting obsessed with his Ab Roller. He began staring into mirrors and flexing, and wearing hair gel. And he began hearing his nickname more and more: Wally World. In the summers, he was still coming to the C.W. Post workouts and still hanging at the diner afterward. Walt would tell him to stay humble, and Al-between bites of peanut butter-would urge him to get to the foul line 10 times a game and to incorporate a midrange jumper. ("Wally, I don't get sex, so that baby jumper of yours is the next best thing for me," Al would tell him.) By his junior year Wally was averaging 24.4 Points, and by the 1998 Goodwill Games, he was the U.S. team's leading scorer-better even than Elton Brand and a potential lottery pick. And then, by the 1999 NCAA Tournament, he was Cinderella.
In fact, on NCAA Tournament eve, he received two phone calls. One was from Walt, who reminded him to share the ball. And the other was from Al, who told him, "Hey Wally, shoot the damn ball." And the strange thing was, he made both of them happy. Al was ecstatic that Wally went out and scored 43 points against Washington, and Walt was glad that all 33 shots came within the context of the offense.
The NBA fell in love with Wally that day. They saw him in a skin-tight T-shirt and decided he was a stronger Tom Gugliotta. They decided he had the range of Reggie Miller, the post-up moves of Detlef Schrempf and the high release of Larry Bird. They noticed he only needed an inch to get his shot off. They noticed only five teams had played him straight up all year, and that Washington had been one of them, and that he'd averaged 29.5 in those five games. They had worried about his speed, but noticed he could run all day. They had worried about his explosion, but saw him do a drill where he picks a ball up off the floor and dunks-20 times in a row.
They also saw him think. In his second NCAA Tournament game, Wally saw a gimmick defense from Utah, and scored an economical 24 points in a close win. And next came Kentucky in the Sweet 16, big bad Kentucky. The Wildcat players were miffed that Wally was getting all the hype, and Magloire, their center, immediately fouled Wally hard before the shot, and on purpose. But Wally-with his reinvented 243- pound body-stayed on his feet, while Magloire went down in a heap, shocking NBA people again, people like Jerry Krause.
And Wally, the soon to-be-a-lottery pick Wally Szczerbiak, had only one thing to say: "And one!"