Just about every member of the Minnesota Timberwolves, at one time or another, has wanted to crack Wally Szczerbiak in his white-picket-fence mouth. Start with the late Malik Sealy. Mild-mannered Terrell Brandon? Yup, just last year. Put Chauncey Billups on the list too. Off-season addition Gary Trent joined the club just recently. All of which makes Kevin Garnett, whose problems with Wally you already know about, neither the first nor the last. Just the most important.
Why would so many T-Wolves be lining up to smack a clean-cut kid with the Leave It to Beaver name who’s scoring all those points and high-fiving everyone in sight? Well, how about if he steals passes intended for teammates, cusses at a team leader now and then, gets targeted by opponents as the weak defensive link and earns All-Star honors partly because of his teammates’ sacrifices, yet still grouses about being mistreated and unappreciated? That the rest of the world is too busy making goo-goo eyes at the wholesome, soon-to-be GQ model to notice only makes it worse.
“You can’t blame Wally for being confident,” says Trent. “But he can’t get caught up thinking this is Wally’s World. It’s not.”
To a man (well, almost), the T-Wolves know their tundra belongs to KG -- or the Big Ticket, as veteran forward Sam Mitchell dubbed him. Wally’s brazen pursuit of stardom probably wouldn’t be as jarring if it weren’t in the shadow of the league’s most selfless superstar. “I’m a Wally Szczerbiak fan, but I don’t think he understands the luxury of playing with KG,” says Mitchell, 38. “If Kevin wanted to, he could shoot the ball 45 times a game, but he knows we’re not built that way.”
Instead, KG believes in the quaint notion that his first, last and only concern should be the common good. That’s why the impression that Garnett doesn’t like Wally isn’t accurate. They won’t be breaking bread anytime soon, but Garnett is part small forward, part unofficial team captain, part general on the hill gazing down at the troops. He can relate to Wally’s stubborn belief in his own greatness. He admires that Wally has torqued his already ultra-toned physique from 244 to 230 since he entered the league. And he respects that Wally D’s up hard, if not always well.
Szczerbiak was supposed to be too slow to play small forward in the NBA. And yet he was named MVP of the 2000 Rookie All-Star Challenge and made the All-Star sophomore squad. In this, his third season -- and first as a shooting guard -- he was selected to the West All-Star team. Some credit goes to Minnesota’s liberal use of zones. But even more goes to Wally’s perseverance. “Everything Wally has gotten,” says KG, “he’s worked his butt off for. He’s made some incredible strides.”
Both Garnett and coach Flip Saunders realize that Wally’s give-me-the-ball ways were an essential ingredient in a Wolves mix that had them flirting with the best record in the NBA through the first 10 weeks of the season. “We need him to be aggressive, and I want him to flourish,” says KG, holding up one long, bony index finger. “But it has to come through the offense.”
That’s easy for Wally to accept when the Wolves are rolling, but when the offense bogs down, he reverts to his tried-and-true Miami of Ohio mode: drift toward the ball and demand it. That was wildly successful in college, where he led the Red Hawks to the Sweet 16 as a senior, setting an NCAA tournament record along the way with 73% (43 points) of his team’s total in a first-round win over Washington. It doesn’t work with the T-Wolves.
“As point guards, we try to get him going early,” says Billups, “because he’s going to find some shots on his own if you don’t.” Although Wally suspects otherwise, no one on the Wolves would claim that getting him shots is not in the team’s best interests. It’s how Szczerbiak responds when they don’t get him the rock that turns up the heat, particularly on a team where only rookies Maurice Evans and Loren Woods have logged fewer NBA seasons.
“If he doesn’t get a shot four or five times down, he’ll start yelling my name when he’s not even open,” Brandon says. “Once I passed to Felipe Lopez, and Wally stepped in front and stole the ball.”
Billups has a similar tale from a game when Wally was still looking for his first shot. “We’re on a fast break and I’m waving him on, but he’s coming up behind me,” Billups said. “I swear to God, I thought he was going to steal the ball. We’ve got all kinds of stories like that. We joke about it.”
Wally also is not above yelling, “Pass the ball!” and stomping off, as he did at Lopez for taking a first-half-ending drive to the hoop in a loss to the Kings, or shaking his head after Anthony Peeler missed him on a fast break against the Cavs. His slump-shouldered strolls away from the bench during timeouts when he’s frustrated are so common -- and so vexing -- that members of the coaching staff have been seen mimicking him. “As long as it’s not disruptive, you don’t pay attention to it,” Garnett says. “If it gets out of hand, we as team leaders will address it.”
The move to the backcourt this season, made to exploit KG’s versatility at 3, has only whetted Wally’s appetite for the ball. Now he gets a first-hand taste of the freedom enjoyed by Kobe, Vince, Tracy McGrady, AI, Paul Pierce and Peja Stojakovic, to name a few. While none except Peja can compare to Wally as a shooter, each has the size or speed advantage to get his own shot, which Szczerbiak doesn’t. He’s maximized his repertoire by developing both hands around the basket and building a solid post-up game, by improving his handle and by becoming laser-accurate from anywhere. The move to 2-guard gives him a two-inch, 20-pound edge on a lot of nights. But he still often needs the entire 24-second clock to create his own shot. “His game can look ugly and slow, but once he gets it to here,” says Mitchell, cocking to shoot an imaginary ball, “he’s gold.”
That pinpoints what the T-Wolves, after five first-round exits, must do to evolve from a regular-season force to a postseason presence: get the ball on Wally’s upturned fingertips often, and in a manner that keeps both sides happy.
“It’s just a matter of tiptoeing around to find that balance,” says Szczerbiak, who hasn’t always tread softly. His differences with KG began on the U.S. Olympic qualifying team three years ago, shortly after Minnesota drafted Szczerbiak. Team USA was clobbering Canada in an exhibition when Wally buried a jumper and, in acknowledging the crowd’s cheers, didn’t get back to stop a Canadian fast break. Gary Payton told KG: “Straighten him out.” And KG did, in no uncertain terms. So began the cold war between them.
A year later, in an early-season team scrimmage, Mitchell lost Szczerbiak on a brush screen and nailed a short jumper. Wally told KG he could’ve helped on the play; Garnett told him to play some f—ing D. “He cursed at me,” Wally says, “so I felt I could curse at him.”
Szczerbiak’s case would’ve been stronger if three weeks earlier he hadn’t had a similar practice tiff with Brandon for taking too many shots in a scrimmage, a shouting match in which Brandon yelled at him: “Don’t disrespect me!” Says KG: “There’s just certain things you don’t say to veterans.”
In the Wally-KG dustup, the two had to be separated on the practice court and again later in the locker room. Détente wasn’t reached until the next day, when Kevin McHale, the basketball operations VP, sat them down together. The conversation that followed began melting the two-year-old wall of ice. “I’m glad it happened now because we understand each other better as a result,” Garnett says. “We’re not trying to be best friends. But where before he’d do something and I’d say, ‘What the hell are you doing?,’ now it’s, ‘Be aggressive, but do it through the offense.’ ”
Wally, in turn, accepts KG’s counsel now as tough love rather than abuse. Although he’s never wanted for attention from his dad, Walt Szczerbiak -- an ex-ABA player -- Wally regards KG, at 25 only a year his senior, as a father figure. “Sure, some of it hurt,” Wally says. “It’s like when your dad tells you you’ve done something wrong. You don’t like it at the time, but you appreciate it later. KG’s given me the best advice a young player could get.”
Making peace with Brandon was a longer process. It began late last season, when TB, injured at the time, did some TV analysis and praised Wally as an up-and-coming star. They took another big step in the family room at the end of the season after being eliminated by the Spurs. Terrell’s father glanced at the box score and made note of Wally’s highly efficient 20 points (6 of 12 from the field), suggesting he deserved to see the ball more. “Yeah, Wally’s arrived,” said Terrell. “I’ll take care of that.”
The two then sat down before training camp, and Brandon struck a deal: Wally would get more shots, but he had to let Terrell create them. If he did, Terrell promised Wally he’d be an All-Star. “When they announced the team,” says Brandon, “I was like a proud daddy.” (With the proud daddy recently sidelined for the season with a fractured left femur, the T-Wolves climb to elite status in the NBA just got steeper.)
The All-Star selection, though, created another point of contention. Wally considered it proof he deserved the freedom to boost his 19-point average. His teammates, meanwhile, saw it as validation of the T-Wolves system, figuring Shawn Marion, Cuttino Mobley, Rasheed Wallace or Bonzi Wells would’ve been chosen if any of their teams had Minnesota’s record.
The youth-driven dumb-down of NBA ball in recent years has reduced most teams to getting the ball quickly to their best player and letting him create. Not the T-Wolves. Saunders requires every player to be in a specific place at a specific time, and doesn’t leave much room for improvisation. When Billups wastes an open look and then jab-step dribbles to create a shot for himself, he hears about it. Joe Smith has drawn Flip’s ire for shooting instead of swinging the ball to Peeler for an even better look. Says Saunders, “Our percentage making spot-up and one-hard-dribble jumpers versus everything else is dramatic.”
Glance at the roster and you’ll understand why; there’s not a dominant player on it. Even KG’s best attribute is his versatility, shifting shapes and filling gaps rather than simply dominating the ball and holding down the low post, which he’s too willowy to do anyway. Ideally, the ball changes hands every three seconds. A winning box score for the Wolves has single-digit turnovers, five players scoring between 10 and 20 points and an assist on nearly every basket. “We’re not built to give a guy the ball and let him go,” Flip says. “Maybe Wally could do more if we let him, but the definition of chemistry is sacrifice. Are you willing to give up something to make the team better? Some of our guys are ineffective if one guy holds the ball.”
A 114-81 pounding by the undermanned Cavs hours after Wally’s All-Star selection illustrated just how awful the T-Wolves can be when they don’t execute. Minnesota didn’t get Szczerbiak the ball early -- two first-half touches, one shot -- or defend well enough to get any easy transition baskets. Wally, in turn, stopped cutting hard to set up catch-and-shoot chances and lost his focus on defense. End result: a season-low six shots and three points, while Wesley Person tattooed him for 27. Garnett, recalling how his veteran teammates purposely iced him after his first All-Star selection in 1997, felt he had let Wally down, saying, “I couldn’t sleep.”
Wally felt worse when he was ignored later in the locker room by McHale, who circled the room, talking first with Mitchell, then with Billups and Smith, then with Rasho Nesterovic, then Peeler, and concluding with a long skull session with KG. Wally watched it all, hypersensitive to how McHale treats him ever since the latter told him, “You’re a great player, but I don’t really know what you do.”
Wally’s answer? Everything, if you’d only let me. That should sound familiar, since Kobe aired a similar gripe trying to maximize his potential within Phil Jackson’s triangle offense. Their situations aren’t identical, but they’re close -- a young star too eager to lead the pack to worry about trampling his way to the front. What smoothed everything over for Kobe was that he finally began turning his moments of freedom into game-winning plays. Wally hopes to do the same: “That’s one thing I’m really longing for. If I get those opportunities, I’m going to seize them.” And if that means stealing a pass intended for a teammate, which he did in scoring 37 in a Jan. 4 win over Utah? So be it. He did the same during the summer Goodwill Games, swiping a pass by Baron Davis meant for Mike Miller, who expressed his frustration by firing an imaginary shot as Wally took a real one. “That’s not exactly conventional team play,” Szczerbiak says, “but … oh, well.”
Convention, however, is Minnesota’s hallmark. Check the efficiency stats -- tied for first with Seattle in FG percentage, second in FT percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio, sixth in three-point percentage. Wally is the NBA’s second-most accurate backcourt player (51.2% from the floor) but has the team’s worst backcourt assist-to-turnover ratio (3.1:2.1). The objective: Let him off his leash, but keep him in the yard. “He’s the only player I can love and hate on the same play,” Saunders says. “But it’s actually good for us to have someone who plays a little recklessly -- within reason.”
The line between rambunctious and buck-wild, though, occasionally needs to be redrawn, as it did after the T-Wolves dropped six of nine before the All-Star break. Wally went from three points in the Cleveland loss to 31 points in losing to the 76ers. His ire over not getting the ball enough in the Kings defeat dissipated after he freelanced his way to a 4-for-16 shooting night -- his second-worst of the season -- while being blown out by the Spurs. Losing four of five and a four-hour practice-and-film session made everyone pliable again, resulting in 37 assists on 44 field goals to blister the previously surging Blazers right before the All-Star break.
This recent up-and-down ride proved the beauty and danger of the T-Wolves balanced offense, which can poke holes in any defense but can also self-destruct. The fluidity hinges on mind-set more than mechanics, and that’s reflected on Minnesota’s locker room chalkboard. Technical shorthand instructs the defense: Early Front on Player X … Wings Horns Up … Pick and Roll Wings Black … Don’t Overextend. Plain-English philosophy guides the offense: Play Together … Trust Each Other … Play With Passion and a Purpose.
Wally no longer doubts that KG has his best interests at heart, but he still questions whether the entire team is behind him. “I’m smart as far as that goes,” he says. “I see who’s cheering and who’s not when I do something.”
That may be more perception than reality at this point. Smith, who returned from his exile in Detroit to a rung below Wally in the pecking order, has done the dirty work as an undersized PF without complaint. Peeler, who started 41 games at 2 last year but now is strictly a backup, has two Szczerbiak bobbleheads prominently displayed in his locker. In a 98-95 OT win over the Celtics, Wally took Antoine Walker off the dribble, putting the ball behind his back and shimmying for an underhand layup off glass. On the bench, the only ones not clapping were rookies Evans and Woods, who huddled to mimic the move admiringly. “Wally’s worrying about the wrong things,” says Mitchell. “Everybody on our team realizes how important he is.”
But Szczerbiak suspects his wholesomeness doesn’t win him many admirers. He believes the flare-ups with Brandon and KG were heightened because he dropped a few way-out-of-character f-bombs. The locker room floor is an array of exotic black-leather shoes and tan Timberlands until you reach Wally’s locker and find a lone pair of sensible, brown, ankle-high shoes with padded leather heel counters. When KG, upon entering a game, puts talcum on his hands, he pours a mound and claps, creating a mushroom cloud that enshrouds the scorers table; Wally metes out a pinch and carefully rubs his palms together, wasting not a speck. And while most of the T-Wolves could be seen leaving their Boston hotel in twos and threes to enjoy a night off, Wally waited in the lobby to spend the evening with his mom, who had driven up from New York.
Szczerbiak, who lives with his wife, Shannon, in a downtown Minneapolis loft but spends his summers back home in a wealthy, mostly white Long Island suburb, is somewhat of an NBA anomaly. “Here’s a good-looking kid who doesn’t hang out,” he says, “isn’t into the NBA lifestyle. Guys look at me and wonder, ‘What’s up with him?’ ”
Nothing that time can’t resolve. In a perfect world, some teammates privately wish that last summer’s rumors of Wally going to Chicago for Ron Mercer would have come true -- but only for a month. They believe a taste of life on a bad team, where shots are a poor substitute for victories, would have taught Wally the lesson he needed.
“I hear now they wouldn’t trade me straight up for Gary Payton or Stephon Marbury,” says Wally.
The important part is that he understand why.
This article appears in the March 4 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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