Durham, N.C. — In North Carolina, some are holding out hope that play will eventually resume after this coronavirus lockdown, and that several teams will reach their goal of winning a North Carolina High School Athletic Association basketball championship.
If that happens, the C.E. Jordan boys won’t be one of those teams. The Falcons weren’t even in the field, bowing out in the opening round of their conference tournament, ending their season at 11-13 overall, an even 7-7 in Triangle 8 Conference play.
It was the second straight season the Falcons have been on the outside looking in when the postseason rolled around, but there was an improvement.
After the 2018-19 season, Jordan was 7-17 overall and 1-9 in league play. Despite the disappointment of not making the playoffs, on paper there was a vast improvement. So what happened?
About one year ago, the returning Falcons’ players gathered in the media center on campus to meet their new leader. After a speech from members of the Durham Board of Education, in walked their 6-foot-10 first-year head coach, a local legend who over time would realize he needed this group of teenagers as much as they needed him.
'Knowledge should be free'
At the time of his hiring last March, former North Carolina forward and 16-year NBA veteran Rasheed Wallace could have been on a bench in the league as an assistant coach. Those close to the game — coaches, former players/teammates — said the former Piston had one of the best basketball minds they’d been around.
He tutored big men in the G-League and made stops at several college campuses across the country passing along his wisdom to the next generation of stars. The four-time NBA All-Star briefly had a spot as an assistant with the Pistons, a team he helped win a championship in 2004. A return to the sidelines in the NBA would not have come as a surprise, but here Wallace was, as far away from an NBA bench as you can get, in the media center at Jordan, smiling from ear-to-ear, wearing a Jordan baseball cap.
At the time he was asked why here, and why now?
“I did have some offers from a few NBA teams to be on their staff,” Wallace said. “The money was good, but it’s not about the money to me, it’s about that knowledge. Knowledge should be free and it doesn’t cost anything to pass that knowledge to these young men.”
A few feet away several of Wallace’s future players hung on his every word. The team had endured a seven-win season and felt like a fresh start was needed by all.
Tyler Cox would be heading into his senior year and didn’t know what to expect with the transition to a new coach, and not just any coach. This was a coach who had been an All-American at nearby North Carolina and one of the most respected forwards in the NBA the last decade. But Cox wanted, maybe even needed a change his final year at Jordan. But as quickly as his excitement rose, he also had a moment of uncertainty that comes along with a change.
“As a player I was like dang, I might not even be a part of the team next year,” Cox said. “People thought he was going to bring in other guys with him.”
If the self doubt wasn’t enough, the whispers around the halls at Jordan also didn’t go unheard. Luring in Wallace went from a moment of excitement from the players, to people around the school wondering why a former NBA player would want to coach there, especially a team that went 1-9 in league play the year before. Those weren’t just whispers, it was full blown conversations students were having with the players.
“In school that’s where the main talk was,” junior forward Joshua Sampson said. “Everyone was talking about how the coach is going to be disappointed, coming into a new situation and watching our team from last year and seeing where we were. Nobody was understanding how even an NBA player would be able to turn the program around the way that he did.”
So that’s the canvas Wallace had to work with from the start. A team that had an unsuccessful season the previous year, getting knocked by their peers before they even had a chance to start fresh with a new coach. Building confidence was a priority before they even touched a basketball.
“Everyone else was doubting them and putting them down,” Wallace said one day in February before an afternoon practice. “Well, let’s change that. Once you start caring about yourself, then you’re going to start caring about your brothers, then you’ll care about the unit. Then it becomes ignore everything you hear from outside.”
The outside wasn’t limited to just fellow students. Before Wallace started the season he already was hearing from staff members about guys on his team.
“We let them know when we first got here it was some school staff members saying ‘you got your hands full’ or ‘this kid is a problem child,’” Wallace recalled. “So we shared that with them, we didn’t give the individual teacher, but we let them know your teacher here in the school doubting you, so what’s the best way to kill all the noise? Go out there and do better than what you did last year, do better than what you did last week and keep improving each game, over and over.”
It didn’t start out exactly as planned. After an offseason filled with sprints, individual drills and reshaping the mindset of the team, the Falcons went 1-5 in the first six games. You could almost smell the "here we go ahead" oozing from lockers at the school.
There were still some guys who hadn’t fully brought in, players who were putting themselves before the team, trying to get their stats up. It took a few games, but one day Wallace remembers it all clicking. His guys had finally gotten out of the finger-pointing stage.
“One thing they have to remember, as great as he was, even Superman needs friends,” Wallace said. “It’s not (about) you, it’s bigger than you. That means you are caring about what your brothers do. It’s just a whole positive nature.”
Jordan went on a four-game win streak spanning December and January, allowing them to match their win total from the previous season.
Keeping it simple
Late in the season Wallace strolls in for an afternoon practice. The guys are already on the floor warming up, stretching before jumping in a fast paced layup line under the watchful eye of assistant coach Pat Cole, the 2016-17 MEAC Player of the Year at NC Central.
Wallace walks in a few minutes into the drill. He chats with the players about their day, checking with one to make sure he got a pre-practice sandwich. A few moments later Wallace takes off his Kansas City Chiefs hat (he’s a diehard fan), jacket and heads to the top of the key to watch a drill.
After a few sequences he stops everyone to make a suggestion. Known for his outbursts in the NBA, mainly toward officials, this is a calmer Wallace, far from the guy who still holds the record for technical fouls in an NBA season at 41.
He speaks so low that if you’re not inside the three-point range you can barely make out what he’s saying. Whatever it is, the guys are all listening, locked in. One thing Sampson liked when Wallace took over was how simple he made the game. He didn’t overcomplicate things with detailed sets and plays, with a counter to every defense and a counter to that counter.
Wallace says there’s an acronym in basketball K.I.S.S. which means keep it simple stupid, that he learned from a coach a long time ago, and he didn’t what to overwhelm the kids.
Keeping it simple is one way to describe Wallace’s life these days. He retired in 2013, with plenty of life ahead of him to do whatever he wanted. At 45 years old, Wallace doesn’t strike you as the type of retiree who would rather spend his time on a golf course.
But he did need something to fill a void, and he knew that was coaching at some level. What he was also missing, in his own words, was some sort of structure. Coaching at Jordan has provided just that.
When Jordan needed a new coach, the NBA veteran filled that void, but what nobody realized at the time of the hiring, maybe not even Wallace himself, was he needed them just as much. It’s safe to say that Wallace and his new team crossed paths at the right time.
“Yes, for sure. That’s the way I like to think about it as well,” Wallace said. “It helped me with stability. Working with them, plus with my daughter going here as well, being on that set schedule, to be responsible for more children than my own. It sets you on a different path, different direction.”