A smile constantly spanned the face of Wally Szczerbiak last Friday as the Miami men’s basketball legend made a triumphant return to Oxford. Over 3,500 fans — the second largest crowd of the season — filed into Millett Hall to celebrate “Wally Night,” a tribute to Szczerbiak and the most successful era in the history of MU basketball.
Past his playing days, Szczerbiak returned as a CBS analyst to the place once deemed “Wally’s World.”
“I got real emotional getting off the plane in Cincinnati and taking that drive on 27 into campus,” Szczerbiak said. “This place has truly done a lot for me, my family and my life. I get chills being back here.”
Once upon a time, Szczerbiak played his way into the hearts of Miami and college basketball fans alike. It’s been almost 19 years since his March heroics spurred the 10th-seeded RedHawks to the Sweet Sixteen of the 1999 NCAA Tournament — the only Sweet Sixteen appearance in school history. Szczerbiak graced the covers of “Sports Illustrated” and “USA Today” after scoring 43 and 24 points in the first two rounds of the tournament.
“During that tournament run, his popularity was Steph Curry at Davidson-like,” said James Whitford, an assistant on the Szczerbiak-led Miami teams and now the head coach at Ball State.
But, his professional career has been over for almost a decade. His boyish good looks and muscular build have given way to the slender handsomeness of a soon-to-be 41-year-old.
Due to past knee and hip injuries, he can’t even play pickup basketball in his driveway. Yet, his legacy is still strong at Miami. For fans old and new, he represents a more successful time for Miami basketball. Successful times the current RedHawks are trying to restore.
“You know who Wally is as soon as you step on campus,” said Isaiah Coleman-Lands, a freshman guard on the current Miami men’s basketball team. “It’s still his spot.”
Coleman-Lands, like many of the other freshman, was only a few months old when Szczerbiak graduated from Miami. Leading-scorer freshman guard Nike Sibande wasn’t even born yet. But, Szczerbiak serves as a template for a return to success.
He arrived to a talented team, but one that had been to the NCAA Tournament only once since Ron Harper graduated in 1986. Similarly, Miami has only made it to one NCAA tournament since Szczerbiak’s college days.
The development into a superstar wasn’t without its hiccups for Wally.
He was late to the first team meeting of his freshman season. Several minutes after the meeting began, his teammates saw him riding his skateboard through the concourse of Millett Hall. As he got to the meeting room door, he came to a stop and kicked the front end of the board up to his hand with the whole team looking on. Damon Frierson remembers the incident.
Frierson was Wally’s teammate from 1995 to 1999 and the two were freshman roommates in 327 Dennison Hall. Frierson is an assistant coach with the current RedHawk team.
“It’s funny now, but it wasn’t funny at the time,” Frierson said. “It set coach over the edge. The next two days, the whole team had to get up at like 6 a.m. and run 20 suicide drills in 20 minutes.”
Coleman-Lands said that time management is still the biggest adjustment for freshman.
“You always have to be on time to practice, and always be ready,” Coleman-Lands said. “You don’t want to be that last guy who’s always rushing. Time management of homework is also challenging. You just always have to be on, and know your priorities.”
But those struggles didn’t deter Szczerbiak’s development.
“He was always competing, and practicing,” Frierson said. “Unless he was injured, I can’t remember him taking a day off. Some guys [on the current Miami team] have that toughness and compete everyday, but some guys aren’t consistently great like Wally was.”
As he developed his game, Szczerbiak’s body also filled out. By his junior year, he had grown two inches and put on 50 pounds of muscles in the weight room. He also increased his vertical jump by four and a half inches.
“He just became more explosive,” Whitford said. “His junior year was the time where I thought he had a real chance at playing in the NBA.”
Instead of his physical maturation, Szczerbiak credits his coaching staff for his development. At Miami, he played under six future NCAA head coaches: Sean Miller, Thad Matta, Charlie Coles, Jim Christian and Whitford. That doesn’t even include Herb Sendek, the head coach when Wally arrived in Oxford.
“I was recruited by great coaches,” Szczerbiak said. “When you think about my staff: Sean Miller, Thad Matta, Jimmy Christian and Herb Sendek was the head coach. Look at the careers those guys have gone on to have. I was really coached at a high-level and wanted to work hard.”
Time will tell if the current RedHawks’ staff will be as good as that one, but Szczerbiak lauded the job they were doing.
“I’m really excited about what Jack Owens is resurrecting with Miami basketball,” Szczerbiak said. “They have a lot of talent and I think the program is in a really good place thanks to what Jack has brought to the table.”
Frierson said that he and the rest of the staff use Wally’s name in meetings with recruits as an example that it’s possible to achieve their dreams and play professionally after Miami.
Szczerbiak also praised the abilities of Nike Sibande and Darrian Ringo.
“Nike seems like a great kid,” Szczerbiak said. “He loves to play ball. He’s obviously the leading scorer of the team and has played some great basketball for Miami. Ringo has been tremendous with the way he defends and the way he passes the ball. He would’ve been a guy I would’ve loved to play with due to the way he dishes the rock.”
Szczerbiak isn’t the only one who’s excited. Isaiah Coleman-Lands and the current group of players want to achieve success similar to Wally’s. His visit reminded the RedHawks of that.
“We definitely want to get Miami back to the heights Wally took it,” Coleman-Lands said. “We’ve got a lot of talent and more young talent coming in. We’re just going to keep on improving and our camaraderie is only going to get better. We’re going to be playing together for a long time. I feel like we can really do some damage and put Miami back on the map.”