Miami's Wally Szczerbiak, who has become the story of the NCAA Tournament with two incredible games and one incredible smile, is smart, handsome and one of those rare athletes who enchants even casual sports fans.
College basketball fans already knew Szczerbiak as Miami's All-American forward. In last week's wild opening of the NCAA Tournament, Szczerbiak scored 43 of his team's 59 points in the first victory over Washington, then led the underdog Redhawks to an upset victory in the second game over No.2-seed Utah.
Combine the sports fans with the millions of recent arrivals in Wally World, and you have a bona fide national phenomenon.
Szczerbiak is an intriguing story to the rest of America because he comes out of Miami, the basketball equivalent of nowhere. The perfect nickname, Wally World, helps. And, of course, there's that personality.
At one road game this year, Miami sports information director Mike Wolf saw a long line of autogragh seekers surrounding Szczerbiak. Wolf figures it was 80 percent young girls.
I thought, "Am I dealing with a rock star or a basketball player?'
Szczerbiak is greeted by students before boarding a bus for St. Louis Wednesday.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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Sorry ladies, only one woman rocks Wally's World. She is Shannon Ward, described by Sports Illustrated as an Ohio farm girl/model. They met the first day they were at Miami, have been together ever since, and will likely get married this summer, although no date's been set.
That will be dealt with after the season, and as Wally reminded Shannon during a CBS sound-bite after the Utah game the season's not over.
Look at any newsstand and you'll see that. Szczerbiak is on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week. He's on the front page of USA Today and all over the New York papers. He's on ESPN and Fox Sports News. A crew from CBS has been following him around since the Utah upset propelled Miami into this weekend's Sweet 16.
I know everyone thinks he's hot, said Ward. Actually, I'm kind of proud of it. I used to be a little intimidated. We all have our insecurities. I used to worry that he'd meet someone better. But he's not like that.
What is he like?
Szczerbiak is the leading scorer in the tournament.
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He's the same Wally he was freshman year, Ward said. He had the same friends, the same girlfriend. He's very close to his family. Things are perfect for him when his parents are here. When they're here, he's so content.
He's just Wally, said teammate Rob Mestas. He's one of us. There's no animosity toward him because of the attention he gets. He helps us be better players. We need a Wally to be the team we are.
He's a good brother, said his dad, Walt. He loves to spend time with his brother and sister.
His father's son
As with most overnight phenomena, Szczerbiak's success has been years in the making. And it was his father who got him started.
Szczerbiak was born March 5, 1977, in Madrid, Spain, where his father was playing basketball for the famed Real Madrid team of the European League.
Celebrating win over Utah with Damon Frierson.
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Walt Szczerbiak played European ball until Wally was 6. Wally lists his favorite childhood memory as seeing Walt play in the European Championships. Walt remembers Wally dropping jumpers with a Nerf ball from the time he was 3.
Walt taught Wally the game. Wally's nine years older than his brother, Will, 13 years older than his sister, Wendy. So for almost 10 years basketball was a one-on-one relationship between Wally and his father.
Wally always loved to play, Walt said. I didn't have to push him.
Said Wally: If anything, it was him saying, "Enough already.' I always wanted him to come out and shoot.
Walt won three European Championships as a player and still holds the Spanish League record with a 65-point game. Playing with his young son he would handicap himself to make the game even.
I'd play left-handed or I wouldn't be allowed to block his shot, Walt said. That made it more fun.
But Walt taught Wally how to play in those games, forcing him to dribble the ball with his left hand, for example, making sure he learned the complete game. Walt used Larry Bird as a rough blueprint.
Road to stardom
Szczerbiak became a local star at Cold Spring High School on Long Island in New York. He averaged 36.6 points and 15.9 rebounds as a senior.
But Cold Spring was a small school. Szczerbiak didn't make the high school All-American teams. The big East Coast schools showed little interest until it was too late.
In the fall of his senior year, the Szczerbiaks Wally, Walt and mother Marilyn made the trip to Oxford.
It was one of those Indian summer weekends, Walt said. Everything was so idyllic.
Wally was sold lock, stock and sneakers. His father tried to get him to wait on the decision. He didn't. He called then-Miami coach Herb Sendek that Monday and committed.
It couldn't have worked out any better, Szczerbiak said.
That's how he ended up in Oxford. How he ended up a star is a tribute to Szczerbiak.
Getting to Miami was just another start for Wally. He's a national star now through his own hard work.
The beautiful thing about Wally is he kept working at it, Miami coach Charlie Coles said. I didn't even start him until halfway through his sophomore year. He waited his turn. He worked hard and got better. He's a guy who made himself a great player. That's what we teach here.
The biggest part of the transformation from shooter to all-around player took place over two summers back in Cold Spring Harbor.
In the summer of 1997, Szczerbiak went on a strenuous training regimen that added muscle. He needed the muscle to play inside against bigger players. He weighed 215 pounds as a freshman and bench-pressed less than 200 pounds. Now, he weighs 243 and benches 370. His body fat dropped to 9 percent. His vertical leap went from 26 inches to 30.5.
World is strong, Coles said. He's athletic. People don't realize how strong and athletic.
In the summer of 1998, the rest of the world got a glimpse of what Szczerbiak had done.
He was invited to the Goodwill Games tryouts on the recommendation of Milton Barnes, the Eastern Michigan coach, who had seen Szczerbiak in Mid-American Conference play.
Most of the nation's best players were there. Szczerbiak showed that he could play with the big boys, and then some. He scored 43 points in one scrimmage.
He may be the best player here, Connecticut star Khalid El-Amin said at the trials. He can play for any team, in any conference in the country.
Szczerbiak led the U.S. team to the gold medal, scoring a team-high 17.2 points a game.
A star was born.
Plenty of hype
Going into this season, Wally World wasn't just a Mid-American Conference star anymore. Sports Illustrated called him the best all-around player in America in the preseason.
Szczerbiak lived up to the hype. He averaged 24.3 points a game and made second-team All-American.
But Szczerbiak struggled in the MAC Tournament. He played on a bad knee, and his shot abandoned him. The word in Toledo was he had cost himself millions by playing so badly in the final against Kent.
That's all Szczerbiak needed.
But don't let that smile fool you. He is a fiery competitor. He came into the NCAA Tournament fired up.
I felt I had something to prove, he said. A lot of people doubted me.
Now, no one really doubts him.
Least of all the 4,000 students at the RedHawk sendoff rally Wednesday.
Not only is this Wally World, he told the crowd. It's your world, too. Thank you.