Thursday, March 18, 1999

Szczerbiak outgrowing Miami cocoon

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        OXFORD — Miami University is the kind of place you expect to see undergrads wearing T-shirts that say COLLEGE on them. Miami is leafy, red-bricked and removed, where men are men and kegs are scared and every fraternity has a couch on its front lawn. What a World.

        “Who goes to Miami?” I ask a junior standing on the front porch of the Phi Gamma Delta house on High Street.

        “White, upper-class preps,” he says.

        “Have you seen the movie The Truman Show?” asks another, a fifth-year senior named Chris Montante.

        Sure. Jim Carrey is the unwitting star of a hit TV show. He lives in a fake town. “This is like that,” says Montante, from Annapolis, Md. “A whole little world, separated from everywhere else.”

        Only now, it's not. The unique universe has been dis rupted by basketball. Miami is big enough you can blend in, yet small enough you feel like you're special. It has been that way for everyone, forever, until now, when it's that way for everyone except Wally (World) Szczerbiak.

        “Not only is this Wally World, it's your world, too,” he says. Wally is addressing students at a pep rally, the

        first pep rally anyone can remember. Thanks to Wally, Miami is playing Kentucky on Friday night in the Sweet 16.

        Before last weekend, he was a star, a first-team all-American, the best player in his league, Miami's best player since Ron Harper, maybe its best ever. His team figured to win once in the tournament, if at all.

        Yet World was solidly in Oxford, at Miami, among the trees and the bricks and the couches, going to class like everyone else, thriving in what students call “the Oxford bubble.”

        “It's not like he's above everybody else,” Montante says. (Actually, at 6-foot-8, World is above everybody except Rich Allendorf and Jay Locklier, the the RedHawks' 6-10 backup centers. But point well taken.)

        “That was nice about Miami,” says Jim Paul, Class of '91, a former starting center. “When we had success, you were still just one of the students on campus.”

        Paul calls it “the Oxford feel.”

        “You're away from it all. Whether it was time to go to school or it was game day, it felt like college.”

        Miami is a comforting place for students from the East, such as World. “I drive home, I feel like I'm leaving my security net,” says Bart Sciarraba, a junior from New York City. Szczerbiak is from Cold Spring Harbor, an affluent suburb on the North Shore of Long Island.

        He can get an education at Miami. In fact, he has no choice. “If he misses class because of the (tournament), he better get the notes,” Paul says. “It's like, welcome back, great game, now answer number 10 on the board.”

        And for the longest time, World could use Miami the way everyone else does, as a cocoon. He could get a table at Ozzie's on High Street, way in the back where he wouldn't be bothered. He could shop for groceries at Kroger. He could walk the campus with his girlfriend. He could be a normal college kid, as normal as a star jock can be.

        “It's not like anyone saw him, then stopped and stared,” Montante says.

        Only now, they do.

        TV crews talk to him, then follow him across campus. World goes to class! In those classes now, he arrives to a standing ovation.

        World scored 43 last Friday against Washington. Forty-three! Forty-three out of 59! Nobody else on his team wanted to shoot. Nobody else even wanted the ball. Bob Bender, a hot, young coach on the rise, whose Huskies went to the Sweet 16 last year, couldn't stop World. Utah coach Rick Majerus, highly esteemed, slowed World, but he still scored 24 on Sunday.

        Now, World plays Kentucky, and if the RedHawks somehow beat the Wildcats, they will do it only with Wally pumping in 25 or more. Wally from here, Wally from there. Wally swishing threes, Wally leaning into the lane for a jumper, Wally, stronger than he looks, following a miss or making a steal or drawing a foul. Wally well schooled in the subtleties of the game, thanks to his father, Walt, a former pro.

        If World beats UK, look out, world.

        He is a celebrity in bloom. He has movie-star looks. He has a Pepsodent smile he flashed at the free-throw line the other day when Miami was about done beating Utah. (World wasn't trying to show anyone up, he just couldn't help it.)

        He would have been a first-round NBA pick before last weekend. Now he's a lottery pick. And World is white. We won't dwell on that, but the world being what it is, World will sell tickets.

        He sits in a folding chair at the pep rally, in front of a few thousand students and fans, looking like an extra from the movie Pleasantville. Wally ... Cleaver?

        You could see him fitting in nicely in Oxford, tall and clean-cut and handsome, walking to class beneath the big trees. It has been a good fit. It still is, only a little tighter.

        “Even with as much publicity as he's gotten, Oxford is still an obscure place,” Jim Paul says. It has worked for World, who at Miami was just another (tall) marketing major. He could be a star without having to bear a star's burdens. Until now.


Miami Stories
- Szczerbiak outgrowing Miami cocoon
Behind Szczerbiak's smile is a fiery competitor
'Wally's Words': Nintendo a key part of long day
Miami fans root for another upset
Ticket snafu irks Miami fans